"Show me another sport where you can make 20 new friends the day you sign up."
Cheryl’s enthusiasm is infectious and her statement is testified by teammate Kit, who informs me that dragon boat racing is the second most participated team sport in the world, behind American football. "There's 20 of you in a boat, a drummer at the front and a helm at the back making 22 on a team," he says, "and we usually have a couple of teams training at once so it's a great way to improve your social life."
It's a Saturday morning at the Royal Docks Adventure Centre, home of the Windy Pandas dragon boat racing community. Cheryl's a former team captain while Kit, who gives me my 'newbie safety briefing', is the chairman and coach of this group of sporting enthusiasts who've been paddling in the waters of the East End for the last 16 years.
Every weekend, hundreds of dragon boaters from teams across the capital and beyond, gather to get their fix of fitness and friendship. They train for fun and for races which can see them travelling across the UK — and around the world — to compete in championships. No prior experience or fitness requirement is necessary. Anyone can be a dragon boat racer, I'm told. So here I am, ready to explore unchartered waters.
As I'm handed a life jacket and paddle, I watch in amazement as all around me chirpy, chatty folk gather around. Am I still in London? It feels so warm and welcoming — and yet these positive vibes radiate throughout my free trial session, which is available to anyone that fancies dipping their toe into this watersport.
It's the same atmosphere that keeps paddlers coming back for more, as member Carmen tells me: "I came across the sport online. I knew about dragon boat racing because I'm from Hong Kong but I didn't know you could do it in London.
"I didn’t know anyone when I joined but everyone made me feel really welcome and now I love coming every week to see them."
Dragon boat racing originated in China 2,500 years ago but didn't make it to the UK until relatively recently. The first official race in the capital was held on the Thames at the Hong Kong in London Chinese Festival in 1980, and the sport wasn't officially recognised until 1992. Today, there are three places in London where you can test the waters: Kingston, the Isle of Dogs and here at the Royal Docks.
Kit takes me through the basic manoeuvres; paddling is not the same as rowing. I learn how to 'set up' the boat, stop it, and how to board in a way that doesn't capsize the whole thing. If you know what's you're doing, the chances of that happening are slim, making dragon boating a sport that non-swimmers can do too.
"Don’t be put off that dragon boating is on water if you don't know how to swim," says Kit, "You've got a whole team there to support you. And in the eight years I've been doing this the boat has never capsized. The boat will never sink as it has two large air pockets so if it did capsize, you just hold onto it like a giant float."
Having access to such an inclusive watersport in London is what makes dragon boating so appealing to many of the Windy Pandas, as member Will tells me: "Being on the boat there's a sense of freedom which is great for physical and mental health. When I first joined I was living in Newbury. My friends kept encouraging me to come down and I started feeling left out so I commuted from West Berkshire to join them.
"I caught the bug and have been coming ever since — that was seven years. I live in north London now, an hour's cycle ride but that doesn't stop me, there's nothing else like it!"
Team captain Robert is keen that more Londoners give dragon boating a go: "Most Londoners don't have a clue that this sport exists but it could change their lives. We're an inclusive community that love sport and socialising. We do other activities too. This morning a group of us met before the session and did the local 5k park run in Beckton, some of us also play football and badminton, but when it comes to dragon boating we're all in it together and that tight-knit friendship is our foremost strength."
The Windy Pandas meet every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening and there's no requirement for how frequently members have to attend — it's pay- per-session and they take place whatever the weather all year round. Unless, ironically, it's too windy.
Sizing it up
"No two people are the same size, whether you're tall or short, light or heavy, you all have your part to play on the team", says Kit. All paddlers have to disclose their weight before joining to help the captain decide where to seat them on the boat. At the very front are two pacers, responsible for setting the pace. Weightier team members sit in the middle and are tasked with being the strong 'engine' of the boat while at the back, lighter members are the 'propellers' giving the speed.
And if you don't give your correct weight? The captain can usually tell, as Kit reveals: "I get that 'sinking feeling' if someone's lied! It doesn't matter if you're five kilos off but if everyone was there'd be a problem."
I’m sat at the back for my first ever dragon boating experience, which means the helm who leads the orders can give me one-to-one advice as I learn the ropes. Being out on the docks feels immediately special. The waterways here are shared with numerous rowing clubs; further down the docks are windsailing, paddleboarding, wakeboarding and swimming, while directly opposite the boating course is the runway of London City Airport.
When Will said there's nothing like it, he meant it. He tells me: "The views here are amazing. In summer when the sun's out it's really refreshing feeling the water on your arms and the breeze on your face but then when we go out on a cold, wet day we might even see a rainbow, so either way it's picturesque."
There's a friendly connection between all team members whether they've have been coming for years or are recent recruits. I chat with a group of friends who joined a month ago but sound like pros. Cecile tells me: "I've noticed that if you concentrate on paddling you lose pace and if you focus on technique you're less tired so there's a lot to think about. But we love it. We used to walk around here and see the team out on the water and thought why not give it a try and now we're hooked."
Dragon boating is physical work but that's part of the benefit — you're doing exercise while having fun with friends. Seasoned member Nick explains: "I've definitely improved my fitness. Multiple parts of your body get a workout and it's great toning for the arms. You don't need to be fit to join us, we'll soon train you up!"
Training sessions are spent perfecting techniques and prepping for races which the team competes in several times a year. Kit enthuses: "Races are intense, it's an experience you’ll never forget. You could be racing 300 other people at the same time, fighting to win. Your adrenaline goes through the roof but it's really fun!"
Camaraderie comes with the territory and on race days even their outfits play a role in boosting team spirit as Robert reveals: "Dragon boating is family friendly and we love making the kids smile. Plus, when they spot us wearing panda hats we get more cheers from them which always helps.
"But the panda-themed accessories only come out for fun events. We don't wear them for serious races because we paddle so fast the hats have been known to slide down and no one wants to get strangled by a panda hat."
Kit adds: "We’re one of the most diverse dragon boat teams in the country — the founder Jeremy Cheung was of Chinese heritage so that's always been a part of our identity though anyone is welcome to join. Especially if you like food! Pandas are known for eating and we love going for dim sum together afterwards."
There’s no age limit either, the team is inter-generation with members from their 20s through to their 60s.
Two and a half hours later, wet, weary and hungry (despite sitting down for the duration, I burnt off brunch a long time ago) there's still the task of lifting the boat out of the water. It's the heaviest object I've ever encountered but in true team spirit, everyone moves it together.
I'm charmed to see that after a post-boating team huddle where Robert and Kit share words of encouragement there's a team chant and hand gesture that ends the session. I've taken to dragon boating like a duck to water and am ready to sign up.
Now, about that dim sum…