The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is around 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 steerer or tiller(helm) at the rear of the boat, although for races it is common to have just 18 paddlers. Dragon boats vary in length and crew size will vary accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers, up to the massive traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and steerer.

The paddlers sit facing forwards, and use a specific type of paddle. The leading pair of paddlers, or "strokes" or "strokers", set the pace for the team. It is critical that each paddler follow the paddle in front of them exactly, matching their stroke exactly. If paddlers are not synchronized, the result is a caterpillar or centipede effect whereby each successive pair of blades hits the water a fraction of a second behind the blades in front .

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by modern scholars, sinologists and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, along the banks of such iconic rivers as the Chang Jiang a.k.a. Yangtze (i.e. during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia.

Modern dragon boat racing is organised at an international level by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). The IDBF recognises two types of Dragon Boat Racing activities, namely *sport racing, as practised by IDBF member organisations; and *festival racing, which are the more traditional and informal types of races, organised around the world, where racing rules vary from event to event.

Today, dragon boat racing (sport and festival) is among the fastest growing of team water sports, with tens of thousands of participants in various organisations and clubs in around 60 countries - most of which are IDBF members or applicants for Membership. The sport is recognised for the camaraderie, strength and endurance fostered amongst participants, and it has also become a very popular corporate and charitable sport.