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Pulling together: A look at paddle sports in South Lantau

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Paying a visit to South Lantau Paddle Club, James Allen finds out what makes paddle sports so popular in Hong Kong, and what paddling can do for your health and fitness goals.

Sitting on a beach in Pui O, watching the South Lantau Paddle Club (SLPC) fighting furiously with the waves, it’s easy to see how a battle between man (or woman) and water can yield impressive fitness results. Chris Hewison and Douglas Kidd talk about their paddling experiences at the SLPC, and what they have learnt from spending hours out at sea.

“At the SLPC, we do dragon boating, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking,” opens Douglas. “Dragon boating and outrigger canoeing are the main two paddle sports.”

Cutting through the water

From a fitness perspective, it’s clear that dragon boating and outrigger canoeing both require twisting movements of the core and back, strong leg muscles for bracing, and impeccable timing to move the boat through the water as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Douglas explains: “You want core and back strength, and you need strength in your arms, because it’s about locking out and pulling at the last part of the stroke. You want to strengthen your legs because you’re always supposed to be bracing in order to allow for that twist.”

But that’s basically where the similarities between dragon boating and outrigger canoeing end.

Dragon boating is an explosive, fast-paced paddle sport. Although a race will only last around 1 minute and 30 seconds, paddlers move a fully laden dragon boat from a dead stop to speeds of up to 14 kilometres per hour. Consider too that a full dragon boat, with 20 paddlers onboard, can weigh up to two tonnes – you’re looking at athletes with some serious muscle power.

With outrigger canoeing, it’s a different story. “The usual is a sixman boat, so it’s a much narrower, lighter boat,” explains Douglas. “In races it can be faster and smoother in the water than a dragon boat. For the canoes, there’s anything from 4- to 40- kilometre races.

“With dragon boating on the one extreme, you’re intensely one sided and intensely explosive,” Douglas adds. “Then with kayaking at the other extreme, you’re much more long distance, likely to be out for six or seven hours a day.”

Chris points out another interesting difference between the sports. “You can sort of hide in a dragon boat, particularly on the back seat. But in a kayak or outrigger canoe it’s all about you, it… separates the men from the boys pretty quickly.”

It’s impossible to say which sport is the more demanding physically but it could certainly be argued that dragon boating is less mentally taxing. “If you’re in an outrigger canoe, you need to read the water but if you’re a dragon boater, you can switch off entirely, put your head down and let the steersman take care of it,” Douglas says.

paddle sports

Land-based training

Training for paddle sports presents its own set of challenges. Time of day, surf conditions and inclement weather can all get in the way of having a real paddle-based training session. While the SLPC paddlers aim to get out on the water every Saturday and Sunday morning, the club also organises land-based training sessions, plus Wednesday-night training at the Pui O basketball court.

“I would say three quarters of the club are new, so we’ve started a lot more land-based training not only to up the general fitness of the entire club, but also to refocus on technique,” three-season club veteran Chris says. “I think this is the first season where we’re really getting that technique.”

“I’ve been here for two seasons,” says Douglas, “and in my first season, I was getting tingling down my shoulders because I was trapping nerves as I built muscle. This season, I feel I have a stroke that is far, far better. It’s genuinely a full-body stroke. It’s coming from my feet, it’s moving through my hips, through the twist… it makes a heck of a difference and it pulls everything forwards.”

Talking about the number of new members at the club, Chris adds, “If you join a mature club where everyone has a lot of experience and you’re the only newbie, it becomes a difficult learning experience, because you’re not learning as a team. Whereas this time round, most of the training sessions that go out, I think at least half the boat are in their first season. That’s a real plus when you’re starting out.”

Aiming for all-round fitness

SLPC training sessions include core-based exercises, drills to improve cardiovascular fitness, and exercises to strengthen and tone the leg muscles that are constantly in play during races.

“Boxercise is a very good complement to on-water training,” says Douglas. “And you should do a lot of resistance training, band training, TRX training… core stuff as well. Engaging around an active core, rather than just moving your back, makes a huge difference to your stroke.”

Paddlers need to build up their cardio strength, particularly for dragon boating. “There is that burst at the beginning, so you need deep power for that but also to keep going all the way through the race,” Chris says. “If you’re using your arms a lot and improving your technique but you don’t have that cardiovascular fitness, your arms soon die and your whole body is dead halfway through the race.”

Of course, fitness levels can always be improved, and the SLPC never turns a wannabe paddler away. “But you can’t expect to come out and do a lot of paddling without any complementary exercise. You can’t expect to improve,” says Chris. “Part of the advantage of having done several seasons is that you’ve built up your muscles and worked out how to engage them. In the first season, you do it all with your arms. The big change the club made was the land-based training, and many of us go to the gym outside of that.”

“We are looking for all-round fitness,” Douglas concludes. “Paddling is a complement to it but it will never do you any good if it’s the only thing you’re doing.”

You can contact South Lantau Paddle Club at [email protected]

Photos by Andrew Spires

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