It is 5am on Wednesday morning and after a few consecutive days of rain, the clouds have nothing more to offer. Down at Palm Jumeirah, there are no taxis or people around. It is calm and the only sounds are from a building site half a mile down the road.
Then, after 10 minutes, a body can be seen walking onto Riva Beach, and another two moving briskly shortly after. Chirpy voices all embracing the bright start to the day. But who are these people and why are they up training so early?
This is the Dubai Diggers, a dragon boating powerhouse in the UAE, who are putting the hard yards in, preparing for that sunny day when the big trophies are up for grabs later in the year.
Founded 12 years ago by Australian Nick Hando, the team has been crowned UAE champions almost every year from 2008, as well as tasting multiple success on the international stage.
Dragon Boating is not a sport for the faint hearted, for the unfit or the mentally weak. Although upper body strength plays a crucial part, harmonious teamwork is key for victory on any given day.
The sport involves teams of 20 people per boat, each holding a paddle, and is based around synchronised paddling carried out on flat water. The aim of the sport being to reach the finish line faster than other boats.
But what is it that sets dragon boating apart from the likes of football, cricket or rugby, sports that generally take centre stage in an expat country like the UAE?
For Diggers captain Daniel Wood, a resident of Dubai since 2006, it’s the team spirit and the shared goal of achieving success among a group, that makes the difference for him.
The rigours of individual sport can be motivating and bring enjoyment to some, but everyone has different ambitions, especially given the minimum free-time available as one gets older. Hence, the importance to do activities, sports and surround yourself with people that make you happy.
“I’ve always been a team sport guy, preferring to win as a team than individual,” said Wood, who hails from Perth in Australia.
“I would have played every sport nearly growing up. I’ve competed in individual sports like boxing, but I much more enjoy it when it’s a team environment. I’ll train harder if it’s for a team because I don’t want to let people down.
“I love the dragon boating because you’re fully reliant on everyone on the team. You might have 19 great paddlers, but if you have one person out of sync, then it slows the boat down.
“Everyone needs to be in sync, pulling their own weight. If you do that, the boat moves well. If it doesn’t, it’s going to slow the boat down massively. That’s the part of the sport that appealed to me. You’re reliant on everyone to do well.”
As well as stunning victories in the 2012 and 2016 World Championships, the crowning moment came at the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships in Hong Kong last June.
One of the biggest dragon boating competitions in the world by participation and spectators, there are 400 plus teams and over 100,000 people present on race day.
To underline the significance of this competition, it is recognised as a public holiday in Hong Kong and everyone comes down to watch the racing.
“It was fantastic to win. We dropped over 100kg in total between everyone on the boat ahead of Hong Kong. That’s essentially a person out of the boat and it has a huge effect on the speed of the boat. It’s like carrying one less body. We only won by just a couple of inches and that made the difference,” said Adrian Costigan, who joined the club in 2014.
Not only was it just a couple of inches, but their victory was only half a second ahead of Liechtenstein Princely Navy. Fine margins make a difference.
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