Dubai Paddle Club Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai The newly opened Dubai Water Canal will be the venue for the 10th Dragon Boat Festival this weekend. The annual race will see 70 teams locking horns on January 27 and 28 at Marasi Business Bay on the canal.

The sport which made its debut in the UAE a little over a decade ago now attracts thousands of spectators and the upcoming race is expected to see a turnout of over 10,000 people.

The popularity of the sport can be gauged from the fact that last year alone over 20,000 paddlers from the UAE participated in boating festivals around the world with a good number coming back with top honours, according to the UAE Dragon Boat Association (UDBA) which has been organising the races under the aegis of the UAE Sailing and Rowing Federation. “Dragon boating is a thrilling water sport, full of adrenaline, sportsmanship, strategy and technique. It’s also about team spirit, health and fitness, making friends and having fun,” said Jason Mckenzie, technical director for UDBA. “When we first started dragon boating in the UAE 11 years ago, we neither had the infrastructure nor the boats. However, the last few years have seen rapid growth in its popularity with Dubai becoming a hub for teams in the GCC,” he said, adding the real estate developers have indirectly encouraged the sport.

“If you did not have the marinas, the business bays, Dubai Creek or the Canal, we would be limited in terms of the infrastructure to train for the sport.”

McKenzie said the all-inclusive nature of the sport has made it an overwhelming success in the region. “It is not elitist and is accessible to everyone. From corporates to university students, the sport is being embraced by many.”

New venue

On the choice of the Dubai Water Canal for this year’s race, he said: “It is an iconic venue. There is beautiful scenery all around and it is a hot spot everybody these days wants to visit. Dubai Properties has been very generous and co-operative in terms of providing us with the venue and everything has worked out really well.

“The festival is completely free for all to see, so we are expecting a good crowd.”

American expat Jill Steinke, 40, was introduced to the sport nine years ago here in the UAE just after she moved to Dubai. “I started out as a complete beginner, but thanks to some great coaches and a dedicated team, I have been able to go far at this sport.”

In 2012 Steinke and her team (Dubai Paddle Club) won the 200 and 500 metre races in Hong Kong. Four years later they won the world championship in Australia, bringing home seven medals. She is looking forward to replicating her success this weekend. Alok Dayanand, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Heriot-Watt Dubai, is another passionate paddler. His team is the leading club at university level championships in the UAE and is one of the key contenders.

“When I joined college, I saw people carrying paddles promoting the university’s dragon boating club in the campus. I was fascinated and got myself registered at the club. Within days I developed a passion for the sport and have been hooked on it ever since. “Our university has been coming first for the last five years. Three years ago we even qualified for an international championship. There are 75 students enrolled in the club. We practise twice a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the race,” he said.

Emirates Steel, an Abu Dhabi-based integrated steel plant company, has had a dedicated dragon boating club for its staff since 2012.

“There are 50 staff members who have taken up the sport and we train at least thrice a week,” said Ayman El Hajjar, ES dragon boat team captain.

“We introduced dragon boating because, being a team sport, it encourages camaraderie among the staff. We have won various corporate level championships. In almost every race that we have taken part, we have won medals.”

Dragon Boat Festival

Where: Marasi Business Bay on the Dubai Water Canal

When: January 27-28, 8am-5pm
Tickets: Free
More info: www.dubaidragonboat.com