Achieving lift in a Dragon Boat: A Business Parable


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A few years ago I was researching an article about Seattle’s annual Dragon Boat race, and surprised myself by joining a team sponsored by a local Chinese bank. It was an odd assortment of non-athletic people with little-to-no experience in rowing. And since everyone was always busy, we rarely had the same crew for more than one practice.

By the day of the race our team had become something of a joke to the dozen or so competing crews. Winning a Dragon Boat race requires teamwork, enthusiasm and strategy–all of which were in short supply among members of our very motley crew.

The race used Hong Kong style Dragon Boats. Molded from dense fiberglass, each is 40 feet long and just 4 feet wide. There are narrow plywood seats for 20 paddlers. A drummer sits in front, a steer person in back, and an ornate Dragon head on the narrow prow. Boats look very graceful and elegant gliding through the water. But they weigh an average of 500 pounds empty. Successful crews tend to be smaller and rangier.

At least we had the smaller part down.

The Dragon Boat paddle stroke is counter-intuitive; very fast and short. Almost none of the paddle actually goes into the water, and all 20 must hit at the same instant. The world’s best paddlers do one stroke per second. During practice we managed one every few seconds, I reckon, but in a very uncoordinated and inconsistent fashion.

The only good news was that we weren’t racing in the competitive division. Those teams traveled from one race to the next and were very good.

Yet even in our “recreational” division, we were clearly the underdogs, behind the breast cancer survivor team. Those ladies wore pink T-shirts, hugged a lot and weren’t interested in results. They were happy to be alive and able to promote their cause.

Surprisingly, thanks to luck and driven by imminent humiliation our crew managed to make it through two elimination rounds. Then in the finals we faced a burly group of race veterans, sporting horned Viking helmets and luxurious beards. Typical Seattle party animals but very serious about taking the trophy home again.

We immediately fell behind them, and from my seat in the middle I could see why. Our crew members were using the worst possible stroke: slashing deep into the water, while looking at their own feet rather than the drummer’s strokes. We were a real mess.

Finally I couldn’t take it any more. “Eyes front!” I screamed. “Follow the beat!” And they remembered how it was supposed to be done.

Then close to the halfway flag our boat’s choppy movements subsided. It started to skim a bit, then lifted off the water just a micrometer. We actually flew! We’d heard it might be possible, but had never experienced it during practice. It felt so great, we barely noticed passing the Vikings’ boat; beating them by our shiny Dragon snout.

The Chinese city official who gave us our award on stage couldn’t help smiling in amazement. And the race organizer told the audience that we were the last group he’d expected to see up there.

That was my first and last Dragon Boat race. What a hoot to fly for an instant in that boat, with that group of oddballs!

Carey Giudici
Betterwords for Business
Carey has a unique, high-energy approach to help small business owners, entrepreneurs and in-transition professionals make their Brand and content achieve superior results in the social media. He calls it "Ka-Ching Coaching" because the bottom line is always . . . your bottom line. He has developed marketing and training material for a Fortune 5 international corporation, a large public utility, the Embassy of Japan, the University of Washington, and many small businesses and entrepreneurs.


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