UAE Dragon Boating Dubai - Fiona Swaffield

The UAE Dragon Boat Community: An Interview with Fiona Swaffield

Published On: July 8, 2024By

Dragon boating might not be the first sport that comes to mind when you think of the UAE, but it has been growing steadily, thanks to passionate advocates like Fiona Swaffield of Siren Dragon Boat.

In a recent interview with Yalla Sports, Swaffield shared her journey into the sport, the evolution of dragon boat events in the UAE, and the vibrant community that has formed around this exciting activity.

From Event Planning to Dragon Boat Racing

Swaffield’s introduction to dragon boating was serendipitous. While organising a corporate event for Etihad Airways over 15 years ago, she suggested hosting a Dragon Boat Festival as a unique, culturally rich activity. This led her to meet Jason Mackenzie, an expert in dragon boating, who later became her business partner. Together, they launched Siren Dragon Boat, transforming it from a novel idea into a thriving business that organises both local and international dragon boat events.

“The funniest thing was I sort of found out about dragon boating while putting together an event for Etihad. We wanted to do something traditional yet engaging, so I suggested a Dragon Boat Festival. That’s how I met Jason, and we soon became business partners,” Swaffield recalled.

Siren Dragon Boating

The Growth and Reach of Dragon Boating in the UAE

Siren Dragon Boating has become synonymous with large-scale dragon boat festivals in the UAE, attracting up to 1,200 participants and numerous spectators. These events are held in prime locations such as the Waterfront Market in Deira and Hudayriat Island in Abu Dhabi and have even paddled across the Fountains at the Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai. The appeal of dragon boating lies not only in its competitive spirit but also in its accessibility and community-oriented nature.

“Our local festivals draw huge crowds. Anyone can join in, whether they’re competitive athletes or complete novices. That’s the beauty of dragon boating – it’s inclusive and entertaining for everyone,” Swaffield explained.

Navigating Challenges and Embracing Innovation

Organising dragon boat events comes with its set of challenges. Coordinating with local authorities like the multiple stakeholders and the Dubai Sports Council is crucial for ensuring safety and smooth operations. Swaffield reminisced about the logistical hurdles they faced in the early days, from setting up race lanes to managing event registrations.

“In the beginning, we faced many challenges, from dealing with marine police to setting up race lanes. Now, our operations are much more streamlined. We’re about 95% paperless, which has made a huge difference,” Swaffield noted.

Dragon Boats Dubai

Competitive Spirit and Community Bonding

The UAE is home to several competitive dragon boat teams, some of which have achieved international acclaim. Teams such as the Dubai Diggers have represented the UAE at world championships, bringing home gold medals. The sport is structured into various divisions, including open, mixed, and women’s categories, catering to different skill levels and community groups.

“Our teams have achieved incredible success internationally. For a country known for its deserts, we’ve certainly made our mark in the world of dragon boating,” said Swaffield.

Beyond competition, dragon boating fosters a strong sense of community. Swaffield shared heartwarming stories of how the dragon boat community supported each other during difficult times, such as raising funds for a member’s medical treatment. This spirit of camaraderie extends to their corporate team-building activities, where employees from all levels paddle together, breaking down hierarchical barriers and building teamwork.

“The dragon boat community is incredibly supportive. I’ve seen it firsthand during times of crisis and during our corporate events where everyone paddles together, from office assistants to CEOs,” Swaffield shared.

Expanding Horizons: Youth Programs and Olympic Dreams

Looking to the future, Swaffield and her team are focused on expanding dragon boating at the grassroots level. They are actively developing youth and university programs to introduce more young people to the sport. Schools and universities like NYU Abu Dhabi and Heriot-Watt University have already formed strong teams, participating in various competitions.

“We’re working hard to get more young people involved. The government is very supportive, pushing for more youth engagement in sports, and we’re seeing strong participation from universities,” Swaffield mentioned.

Dragon boating is also vying for a spot in the Olympics. The International Dragon Boat Federation is working towards getting the sport recognized, with significant support from regions like the UAE. Swaffield highlighted the political dynamics and the crucial role of sponsorship and funding in achieving this goal.

“The push to make dragon boating an Olympic sport is ongoing. With the right support and funding, I believe we can get there. The UAE is playing a big part in this effort,” Swaffield said.

Dragon boating in the UAE is more than just a sport; it’s a vibrant community and a testament to what passion and collaboration can achieve. From its humble beginnings to hosting international events, Siren Dragon Boating has played a pivotal role in popularising this thrilling activity. As Swaffield aptly puts it, dragon boating is about community spirit, teamwork, and having fun – values that resonate deeply in the diverse and dynamic landscape of the UAE.

“Dragon boating is all about community spirit and teamwork. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you do; when you’re in that boat, everyone is equal,” Swaffield concluded.

Whether you’re a sports enthusiast looking for a new challenge or someone seeking a supportive community, dragon boating offers an exciting and inclusive experience.

As Swaffield invites, “Anyone can do it; it’s about having the interest and the ability to listen.”

So, why not grab a paddle and join the dragon boat community in the UAE? You might just find your new passion.

About the author

Alex Johnson

I'm a passionate digital marketer based in Dubai who enjoys rugby, photography and the outdoors. I've been helping businesses grow their online presence for over 20 years with clients based all across the globe.

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