Blue Sky launch Hainan China Bannenberg+Rowel, Feadship motor yacht

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Credit: Feadship

Year of the dragon: superyachts and sailing yachts to celebrate Chinese New Year

9 February 2024 • Written by Nick Jeffery

To celebrate the Chinese New Year (10 February) and the Year of the Wood Dragon, enjoy our roundup of yachts with nautical dragon connections and learn about the history of traditional Chinese dragon rowing boats. Finally, discover how the Dragon sailing yacht came to be named.

Fiery dragons have long been an inspiration for designers – as witnessed with the 79.9-metre superyacht Dragon, designed by Hydro Tec, the majestic 51.7-metre Dubois-designed sailing yacht Red Dragon and last (but no means least), the Bannenberg & Rowell-designed superyacht Blue Sky in Hainan in 2013. This was the first superyacht to be built by Feadship for a client in mainland China and the 44.7-metre yacht was launched in a colourful ceremony that combined Chinese and Dutch maritime cultures, with lion dancers included.

The 79.9-metre superyacht Dragon
The 52-metre sailing yacht Red Dragon

Dragon boats: their history and meaning

Dragon boats are long, narrow wooden boats with a carved dragon’s head at the bow and a tail in the stern, with a hull that is often painted with dragon scales. Paddlers compete in traditional sport racing, along with a Paradragon (para athlete) class.
In sport racing there are 18 to 20 paddlers in a standard boat and eight to 10 paddlers in a smaller boat, plus a drummer and a helm – sometimes more – for festivals. Strength, endurance, skill, teamwork and harmony of purpose are all factors that come into play over courses of 200 to 2000 metres.
The British Dragon Boat Association explains why the Dragon is symbolic for the Chinese people: "A classic dragon has the head of an ox; a deer's antlers; the mane of a horse; the body and scales of a snake; the claws of an eagle and the tail of a fish. With its strength and power the Dragon rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain."

Dragon Boat racing originated over 2000 years ago
Credit: Adobe Stock

The history of dragon boats can be traced back over 2000 years ago, to Qu Yuan, the poet and philosopher, who committed suicide by drowning himself in the river Mi Lo to protest against political corruption. Fishermen raced to recover his body before it could be devoured by fish, beating drums to distract them. To commemorate Qu Yuan's sacrifice, Dragon boat races were organised and became part of Chinese culture, representing patriotism and group integrity. 

The "Modern Era" of International Dragon Boat racing started in 1976 in Hong Kong and the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) was founded in 1991. There are over 300,000 participants in Europe, from the UK to Ukraine, and 90,000 in the USA and Canada, not forgetting the nearly 50 million in China.

International Dragon Class racing
Credit: Ricardo Pinto/Petticrows

The International Dragon Class

Having nearly a century of history behind it – and 1,300 boats in 31 countries registered as active – this class was first conceived in 1929 in Scandinavia by Norwegian sailor Johan Anker. At the time there was a need for an inexpensive yacht, especially for younger sailors, as the economic outlook was poor in Europe. The original boat featured a cabin and bunks, but by the 1940s most Dragons were used for racing and the bunks were removed. 

Enquiries to Petticrows, an established builder of Dragons (now based in Portugal), uncovered the reason this class is named the Dragon. Nicky Wilton, Dragon sailor and editor of the IDA Dragon Year Book, explained the name came about because of a clever play with words. The designer, Johan Anker, was Norwegian. Anker in English sounds like anchor. An anchor in Norwegian is drage, which is quite close to draga, which is Norwegian for a dragon beast, which leads to the English word "dragon".

In 1946 Peter Lunde, one of Norway's best Dragon sailors at the time, travelled to London with the aim of promoting international regatta Dragon classes, having sought the Anker family's permission to use Johan Anker's drawings. The Dragon was awarded Olympic status that year and the first races featured in the 1948 Olympics in Torbay. The French, in fact, chartered a Dragon from Torbay local William E. Jeffery as their boat did not pass the measurement scrutineers' attention. To no avail – Norway, Sweden and Denmark picked up Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. 

Dragon class Trophy 1948: Royal Torbay Yacht Club

By then, Dragon fever had swept the country. The same year as the Olympics, the Camper & Nicholsons-constructed Dragon Bluebottle was presented to the late Duke of Edinburgh and then Princess Elizabeth as a wedding present, paid for by the Island Sailing Club members in Cowes.
One reason for the Dragon's success is said by the International Dragon Association to be its "paradoxical emphasis on tradition and renewal". Alloy spars were introduced in 1970 and GRP boats arrived in 1973, a year after the Dragon ceased to be an Olympic class.

Blue Sky launch celebration in Hainan, China

Wood Dragons are still constructed and there is a separate Classic Dragon class for carvel-planked wooden Dragons, mostly built before 1972, and a Vintage class for GRP Dragons of over 25 years old. Sailors from all backgrounds compete, between the ages of 8 and 85 – from ex-Olympic medallists to kings, princesses and local club sailors.

Read More/Dragon: On Board the 80m Columbus Classic Superyacht

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