by Duncan Murray
SYDNEY, Feb. 10 (Xinhua) -- The largest dragon boat event in the southern hemisphere made a splash on Sydney Harbor over the weekend, highlighting the city's Lunar New Year festivities.
Australians love water sports and the ancient Chinese tradition of dragon boating has been gaining popularity in Australia for several decades.
For those looking to take part, dragon boating clubs can be found on many of the country's most beautiful and iconic waterways.
On Saturday and Sunday the action was on Darling Harbor, close to the city's CBD and Chinatown, drawing thousands of spectators to the waterside to watch the teams battle it out.
But before an oar could touch the water, as is customary at dragon boat regattas, Taoists performed a blessing of the waters to make them safe, as well as dabbing an "eye" of red paint on each boat, said to awaken the dragons.
Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Linda Scott told Xinhua that she was always thrilled to see different cultures represented in Sydney.
"We do this as the City of Sydney because we are proud of our diverse communities - we are proud to celebrate Lunar New Year with the many families from Sydney and from across the world who are visiting Sydney at this time because this is an important cultural event," Scott said.
Over 3,000 rowers took part in the races, more than in previous years, indicative of the growth that the sport has seen in Australia.
"In Australia there's over 7,000 participants in Dragon Boating and it's continuing to get bigger," chief executive of Dragon Boat New South Wales (NSW) Shane Knight said.
"Particularly in NSW, we have over 3,500 members now and over 60 clubs in five regions so we're seeing a lot of growth in the sport which is really encouraging to see."
Knight attributes some of the popularity of dragon boating to its accessibility, with clubs encouraging people of all ages and fitness levels to take part.
Dragon boating is also popular amongst corporate groups, which were a main part of the weekend's races.
This year international accounting firm KPMG fielded three well practiced teams, placing an impressive first, second and third in a special race for financial services companies.
Team coordinator and KPMG National Managing Partner James Hunter said in the seven years they have been taking part in the sport it has been hugely successful at introducing passion and group spirit into the workplace.
"Beyond doubt this is the best team sport you could ever hope to get all your corporate people involved in," Hunter said.
"If you look out there, the boats are absolutely synced and every second you've got to be hitting the water - if you have people that aren't in sync your boat doesn't go forward, so it has to be absolute teamwork and the spirit it creates in a corporate is unmatched I think in any other sport."
The winners of the corporate event, in a very tight race, were the team from Australia's Commonwealth Bank with a time of 54.50 seconds. While the coveted premier open division trophy went to the Chinese Youth League paddlers with a time of 46.31 seconds.
Geneviene Benn is an Australian high school student who took part in the racing over the weekend and has also previously captained the Australian youth dragon boat team at an international level.
"I think it's a really great sport, it's something very different so not many people really know about it," Benn said.
"And I just like the atmosphere here, everyone's really friendly, everyone's really engaged in the sport, there's not too much drama."
However Benn and her crew might be taking dragon boating more seriously than they let on, already training three times a week and looking to add a fourth fitness based session to their regime.
So far their hard work has paid off, having won a total of 10 gold medals in the sport, three of which were at past year's Lunar New Year regattas.
With such dedicated young people getting involved, the future of dragon boating in Australia looks bright, and surely even more will return to Sydney next year to celebrate the Lunar New Year and once again awaken the dragon.