When Estella Ferri saw an ad for dragon boating in her local paper six years ago, she thought it might be interesting to check out once. This month, she led an Australian dragon boating squad to multiple golds at the world championships. 

The moment she picked up a paddle in Orange in central west NSW, Ms Ferri knew dragon boating was something she was passionate about.

“The first time out on Lake Canobolas, I was hooked. It just really set some sort of fire going in my soul and I’ve been addicted ever since.

“I was not an athlete at all, I was very unfit and very uncoordinated, but everyone was just so supportive that I continued to come back.

“I just stuck with it and over the years my fitness has improved to the point where I’m good enough for the Australian team, which is just, to my mind, incredible.”

A large group of women in gold jerseys.

Ms Ferri captained the Australian women’s A division at the world championships.(Supplied: Estella Ferri)

Ms Ferri was selected as captain of the Auroras Senior A women’s division, for women over 40, at the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Thailand.

Her team brought home three gold medals and Ms Ferri won an additional three bronzes in the mixed divisions.

Representing Australia was something Ms Ferri said she never imagined when she first picked up a paddle.

“When we get our uniforms and put on that green and gold, the unity you feel and pride representing your country is unbelievable.

“I have done a little bit of solo paddling … but being out there by myself isn’t nearly as fun as being out there with your team.”

Sport booming in the regions

Ms Ferri is one of many athletes in regional NSW to pick up dragon boating in recent years.

Dragon Boats NSW chief executive David Krantz said participation in the sport had boomed after a dip during COVID lockdowns.

“Post-COVID, from last year we had record membership numbers, so there’s more people than ever participating in dragon boating, particularly from our regional areas.”

Women in yellow jerseys sit paddling in a long boat with a dragon's head at the front.

The Auroras brought home several medals for Australia across a number of divisions.(Supplied: Estella Ferri)

Mr Krantz credited the sport’s popularity to the sense of community and camaraderie it built.

“You’ve got 22 people in a boat at any one time, from all different areas, all different demographics, but once you’re in that boat, you’re all pulling together.

“It’s the ultimate team sport — there’s no one person that can make or break a team like you might find in footy or soccer.”

The sport has found particular success in regional areas, where many towns now have their own clubs.

Mr Krantz said having a sport that could occur on almost any body of water with a certain depth to it made it ideal for inland waterways.

“It allows people who don’t have regular access to the surf or to a harbour to get onto the water to see some of our beautiful spots and to look at the land from a different point of view.

“Having a dragon boat club in the local area might be a person’s only opportunity to get on the water in their town.”

A number of women in gold jerseys standing hugging and celebrating by a river.

Ms Ferri says the sense of community keeps her coming back to dragon boating.(Supplied: Estella Ferri)

Shift towards younger paddlers

While the sport has become popular among older demographics, the governing body is pushing for younger people to get involved.

“Traditionally dragon boating has been a young person’s sport, and if you look over in a lot of Asian countries there’s a significantly larger amount of young people,” Mr Krantz said.

“It’s a great sport for a young person to participate in, there’s lots of opportunities to go on and represent your state or your country.

“That first time that you’re in there and you start paddling and you hear the beat of the drums, you’ll be hooked.”

Ms Ferri said newcomers to the sport should not be put off if they lacked experience.

“We’ve all been beginners at one point or another … it’s so worth getting out on that boat.”