Sailboats can turn very quickly, but can’t stop. A dragon boat can stop very quickly, but can’t turn. That sums it up in two sentences. This is because sailboats have large rudders for helm balance, and also have a lot of their weight concentrated in the middle as ballast. Dragon boats, on the other hand, have only the blade area of the steering oar, which is very small for a vessel of this size and weight. They also have most of their weight in the form of crew, evenly distributed along the length of the boat. The high moment of inertia, small rudder blade area and long slender hull form all combine to make turns very slow. So the route through the marina and around obstructions has to be planned well ahead of the boat.
Steering is accomplished by a combination of three techniques:
1) Displacing the steering oar to one side thereby using the oar handle like a long tiller;
2) rotating the shaft of the oar about its own long axis, like a rudder stock, to produce an angle of attack and force on the blade; and
3) “tilling” or rowing the stern around in one direction or the other. This last technique is the only steering oar action that is effective when the boat is not moving.
At speed, you can ask the back two or three paddlers on the inside of the turn to temporarily use their paddles as additional steering oars to help with a sharp turn.
If you get in trouble, the “hold water” command is your best friend. This will stop the boat in half a boat-length, but you have to shout to be heard all the way up at the forward thwart.
The steersperson usually stands while steering, but most sailors find it more natural to sit down. Sailors are accustomed to sensing yaw rate with the “seat of their pants,” and sitting often allows more force to be applied to the oar with less chance of losing balance. Sitting also allows the steersperson to trim out a small list due to uneven loading between port and starboard sides. And sitting allows more precise sighting of the horizon behind the bow, which can be important for accurate course-keeping.
Despite the long slender hull, dragon boats sometimes exhibit directional instability. This is more likely when the bottom is not clean, because the fouling increases the thickness of the frictional boundary layer and effectively rounds off the chines, reducing the boat’s natural yaw-resisting response. Small yaw motion can quickly amplify into an out-of-control spin to one side or the other unless caught and corrected very early. Keep a sharp eye on the horizon and the bow, and stay one step ahead of the rate of turn.
In strong wind, the dragon boat will be blown sideways at considerable speed. Watch out for boats, docks and other obstructions on the downwind side, especially when backing or moving slowly.
Strong wind will tend to turn the boat into a crosswind orientation and hold it that way while the boat drifts sideways downwind. It will be difficult to turn either downwind or upwind unless there is room to accelerate to a reasonable forward speed before turning. Plan ahead before entering a narrow downwind channel or fairway.
Command summary (YOU HAVE TO SHOUT, THE BOAT IS 48 FEET LONG):
“PADDLES UP” = prepare to paddle.
“TAKE IT AWAY” = begin paddling. Only use following “PADDLES UP.”
“LET IT RIDE” = stop paddling and let the boat coast.
“HOLD WATER” or “HOLD THE BOAT” = blades in the water to stop the boat.
“BRACE THE BOAT” = blades in water, turned horizontal to suppress roll.
“BACK PADDLE” = paddle in reverse.
“DRAW LEFT” or “DRAW RIGHT” = paddle to produce side thrust.
“ATTENTION PLEASE” = prepares for a race start, blades in the water. Only used following a “PADDLES UP” command.
“GO” = start paddling for a race start. Only used after the “ATTENTION PLEASE” command.
Most commands can be modified by specifying the row or side that the command applies to, e.g. “FRONT THREE DRAW LEFT, BACK THREE DRAW RIGHT” to rotate the boat counter-clockwise. A similar result can be obtained with “LEFT SIDE BACK-PADDLE, RIGHT SIDE FORWARD PADDLE.” This method of maneuvering will be especially familiar to those with experience handling large twin-engine powerboats.
Note that these commands work much better if the position modifier comes first. That is, don’t say “TAKE IT AWAY, FRONT THREE ROWS” and expect only the front three to start paddling.
Paddle commands can also be modified for power level and for the number of strokes desired, e.g. “TAKE IT AWAY LIGHT, THREE STROKES” for a short burst at low power. “TAKE IT AWAY 50 PER CENT, THREE STROKES” has the same meaning. Or you can say “FIRST FIVE ROWS< TAKE IT AWAY THREE STROKES” to have only half the paddlers working, another way of achieving the same effect on the boat. It’s good to exercise all the different methods of controlling the boat, so that the crew is ready to respond quickly when needed.
Note that the “draw” command is intended to produce pure side thrust, but in practice there is usually some forward thrust from the drawing stroke, so it is sometimes necessary to have some of the paddlers on the opposite side backpaddle for a few strokes to keep the boat from drifting forward during the draw.
The draw also causes the boat to heel over in the direction of the draw as the paddlers on that side lean over the water. Paddlers on the opposite side should lean out to compensate.
These standard commands seem to have evolved to allow about the right amount of reaction time for the command to work as intended. Don’t change them unless the crew has had time to adapt to your style. Resist the temptation to prove that you are an old salt with nautical jargon. Even basic words like port and starboard may not be in the paddlers’ vocabulary, so keep it simple and communicate clearly.