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The Fascinating Water Sport in Durham You've Probably Never Heard Of (and it Includes a Dragon Boat)

men on boats
August 2022
Reading time 10 Minutes

Living North speaks to Gary Burgess from Durham’s Three River Serpents dragon boating club. It’s the oldest in the country, practicing the most ceremonial water sport you’ve probably never heard of – dragon boat racing

Dragon boating is a historic Chinese sport drenched in ceremonial tradition. A spectacle in every sense, boaters sit in long Viking-esque boats which hold 24 people. The crew is comprised of 22 main-body paddlers using massive oars to propel the boats through the water, one steerer at the back, and one ceremonial drummer at the front to set a marching beat for the crew to paddle to. The boat is dressed in ceremonial Chinese garb, adorned with a tail and dragon head at the rear and front of the vessel; the boats are then blessed for the dragons to be ‘awakened’ in the water before competing alongside other dragons that race to the finish line surrounded by drums, cheers, and camaraderie. Race over, the boats are then properly laid back to rest.

Sounds a bit crazy for a boating club in Durham, doesn’t it? That’s what first excited ex-PE teacher, sportsman, and River Serpents fundraiser Gary, who spoke to us about Durham’s Three River Serpents club, and its legacy as one of the first and most-revered dragon boat clubs in the UK. 

‘Dragon boating is 22 people paddling like mad, looking like Vikings. If you put a sail on the boat, you’d think we were being invaded,’ Gary laughs. ‘The boats are really long, ours weighs around 250kg and it seats 11 rows of two – it’s rather dramatic,’ he continues. ‘There’s a huge element of ceremony when it comes to the competitions, the boats are blessed and there’s a lot of great Chinese tradition that surrounds it. In the 1980s the Hong Kong tourist board wanted to get dragon boating into this country, and that’s where it all stemmed from.

‘We’ve been active since the late 80s, and we’re one of the founding dragon boat clubs in the UK.  We’re very established, and while it’s a shame there aren’t more clubs up North apart from one in Teesside, the Three River Serpents are known up and down the country. A lot of our crew have raced internationally, so they’ve learnt a thing or two.’

‘There’s a huge element of ceremony when it comes to the competitions, the boats are blessed and there’s a lot of great Chinese tradition that surrounds it’
rowers sat in their long boat

What initially attracts most to dragon boating is the spectacle. Not only is it a great display of power and showmanship, people it’s also a very communal sport thanks to the size of the boats. One half of dragon boat culture is Chinese tradition, but even watching from the sidelines it soon becomes clear that the other half is good-will and friendship.

‘We are instantly recognisable as a club, we’re real head turners,’ Gary says. ‘People love to watch us. People post videos of us online when we’re practicing on the River Wear on a Sunday morning. There was an instance the other night at the men’s training session where there was a party boat on the river. All the partygoers were leaning over the railing filming us instead of enjoying the party, we must’ve been a right distraction!’ he laughs.

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‘Dragon boating is a bit of everything, really. It’s an incredibly hard sport to do, you can feel it when you finish a session. But it’s also a great sport for camaraderie, teamwork, friendship, and all the rest because you’re all in harmony with each other and the paddles,’ he says. ‘We take training seriously, but we’re lighthearted with each other at the same time – we’re always laughing and joking on.’

The Three River Serpents train next to the Durham Amateur Rowing Club. It’s a beautifully scenic circuit of water, and a great spot to train new Serpents or those who just want to give it a go.

‘We circle round a loop of the river until you get to the Wear, just in sight of Durham Cathedral. It’s the most wonderful training location’

We circle round a loop of the river until you get to the Wear, just in sight of Durham Cathedral. It’s the most wonderful training location,’ Gary continues. ‘We make it very beginner friendly for new Serpies, or for corporate training days, making sure there’s a build-up process. The boat’s in sections, so those at the front are called the stroke, and no matter where you are in the boat, you follow their motion and that syncs up the paddles; the “engine room” is in the middle which generates the power and the speed; the people at the back then just keep you moving,’ he explains. ‘The new starters go to the back of the boat so if they get a little bit tired they can have a short break, slowly building up into it.’

The Serpents’ routine training days are clearly paying off. Consistently remaining the ones to watch in national dragon boat competitions, competing dragon boaters from Teesside to London are keeping their beady eye on the club’s impressive performances – including a team of world champions. 

‘We had a competition in Teesside about five or six weeks ago, and we did very well there. There’s also a few competitions coming up later this year, but our focus has become the upcoming championships which are being hosted near Eton College on Dorney Lake – the same place they hosted the rowing in the Olympics!’ Gary continues. ‘There’s one team down in London who are world champions, they have so many crew members and they were in the recent competition on Teesside too. We came in second to them – it was so very close. Our whole crew was buzzing, and afterwards their team manager said to us, “we’ve had our eye on you for years, we know you’re getting closer and closer”. It was a such nice gesture… and now we’ve got them in our sights.’

If you want to try dragon boating for yourself, contact Three River Serpents at

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