Heriot-Watt University Dubai is among a handful of universities that are taking up the ancient sport of dragon boat racing, the world's second most popular team sport.

The team came second and third in two races in the Dragon Boat Festival held at the new Dubai Marina Yacht Club recently - an impressive feat for a group of youngsters who learned to row a mere week before the competition.

The festival was divided into the competitive, corporate social division and schools and universities division.

Forty teams comprising 800 racers participated in the race held along a 3.5km stretch of the Dubai Marina canal.

Notes caught up with the Heriot-Watt University Dubai team - the only university team to take part - two days ahead of the big day.

Since Heriot-Watt University Dubai was established about four years ago, much emphasis has been placed on sports and social programmes "and they're really beginning to take off," said Ben McFadyean, undergraduate recruitment manager.

The Dragon Boat Festival was the first event the 28-member team participated in. "I was surfing the net and thought it (the competition) would be a fun experience for students," said McFadyean, a team member who has rowing experience from his days as a Cambridge University student.

"The response from students has been terrific. They were really keen, but we had to weed out a couple who couldn't swim."

McFadyean said the students were completely new to the sport, only a handful having had boating experience.

The team decided to participate at a late stage when sponsorship by Nexus insurance brokers was confirmed. With only a week to prepare, students underwent two one-and-a-half-hour training sessions with professional coach Jan Kruk who was brought from Canada.

"Because a boat takes 20 people at a time, it's a combined effort. Everything has to be done rhythmically so guys make quite a bit of noise when they're out there. Having a small team meant many team members [will have] to race twice on the day of the competition," said McFadyean.

"They will be eating quite a lot of pasta and carbohydrates over the next few days as competition approaches," he added.

Besides training on the water, the team is expected to keep fit by running or going to the gym. They were taught to paddle, and about water and boat safety and how to work in tandem as a team. "What Jan has tried to do in a short space of time is get their rhythm right and try to make sure that they're safe in the water," said McFadyean.

He said the university team was confident ahead of the race because they were young, quick and strong.

Although exhausted after their training session, the university team was excited about the pace at which they were getting to grips with the sport.

Business administration major Yousuf Abdul Razag, 20, is the only Emirati rower on the team. He said he signed up because of his love for the sea.

"I'm not a sportsman - I usually go driving around to wherever I need to be - but dragon boating racing looked interesting."

Mohammad Suhaib, an Indian engineering major, wanted to contribute to his university when he decided to join the team.

"I've never rowed before. It was really exciting and we had a lot of fun. It was a great learning experience - I learned to paddle for the first time in my life. I think we should win because there's been a great team effort," he said.

Egyptian national Samer Al Sisy is a keen sportsman and enjoys the "sense of power" he feels when he rows a dragon boat.

"It's all about timing and coordination with your team. Learning good breathing techniques also helps you perform better," he said.

Mohammad Omer from Pakistan said the sport is "amazing" but that it was tough the first time they got on the boat. "It was kinda scary and we were shaking but coach Jan was very good at giving easy instructions and helping us get our rhythm right."

McFadyean said five female athletes were also on the team. "They've been great. We tried to get female students to get on board and take part in the event."

Batoul Kreishan, a 20-year-old Jordanian national, is among the five women. She says sport has been a part of her life since she was a child.

"My sister, who has been taking rowing lessons, said I should participate because it was so enjoyable," Kreishan added.

She added that many female students at the university are into sports and want to join teams.

Kreishan said despite her gender she was able to keep up with the males just fine. "It's all about general fitness and keeping in shape. It builds my strength which maybe the other females don't have. It's about endurance, fitness, dieting and also relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation."

A growing sport in Dubai Dragon Boat Festival organiser and Dragon Boats Alive representative Jason MacKenzie said the sport took off in Dubai about three years ago. It has developed fast with the Dubai team ranking in the top 10 among 400 teams at last year's Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) in Penang, Malaysia. "There's the competitive element but it's also very social. The reason the sport is so popular is because it's so inclusive and there are so many different levels." MacKenzie said the sport was popular in Dubai because "people come here with no family, they don't have friends, they don't know anybody. They can instantly join an activity that requires no experience." "You instantly have a network and it doesn't matter if you're old or young - there's a place for you." MacKenzie said anybody who was interested in the sport could come down to the Dubai Marina Yacht Club to watch or join a team. There are two more races coming up in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Festival City in which interested rowers may participate.

Photos: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Gulf News

In a mere week, coach Jan Kruk trained students of Heriot-Watt University Dubai for the Dragon Boat Festival, which took place last week at the Dubai Marina Yacht Club.