The leading pair of paddlers, called "pacers," "strokes" or "timers," set the pace for the team. It is critical that all paddlers are synchronized. Each paddler should synchronize with the stroke or pacer on the opposite side of the boat, that is, if you paddle starboard side (right) you would take your timing from the port side (left) stroke. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the steersperson, rather than by the paddlers while actually racing, however for docking and other maneuvers, individual paddlers may be asked to paddle (while others either stop the boat or rest) according to the commands given by the drummer or steersperson. The two lead strokes are responsible for synchronizing their strokes together with one another.
There are several components to a dragon boat stroke cycle:
1. The "reach and catch" begins the cycle and is preceded by a set-up torso rotation; the blade angle of attack (angle of entry relative to the water plane) appears from the side to be raked aft, however this is an optical illusion since the boat is advancing forward. Inserting the blade perpendicular to the water amounts to ineffective "lily dipping" or "tea-bagging" wherein the blade moves backwards in the water past the paddler's hips simply because the boat is advancing forward.
2. The associated upper arm "drive" the instant the blade face is fully immersed and which is the key to powerful acceleration of the boat and the beginning of the pull; if the drive begins before the blade face is fully immersed, there is a significant decrease in stroke efficiency; this drive is initiated by an explosive de-rotation of the torso. A sign of the drive beginning before the blade face is completely immersed is a splash at the front of the stroke, similar to that when a hand slaps still water.
3. The associated, powerful "pull" stage sustains the forward momentum of the boat that was initiated by the "drive" impulse; the paddle is pulled backwards.
4. The "release" in which the blade is instantaneously drawn (skywards) while it is even with the hips of the paddler; because the boat is moving forward, the optical illusion from outside the boat makes the blade seem like it is being withdrawn at an angle that is raked forward. The release coincides with the set up rotation or recoil of the torso.
5. The "recovery" is the final stage of the stroke and consists of the rotation of the torso with the forward repositioning of the blade thrust forward into the optimal catch. By decreasing the time it takes between the release and the catch, the percentage of time in the cycle when the boat is decelerating (due to drag friction among other slowing forces) is minimized; therefore it is possible to perform a greater number of catches and pulls over a given race distance. The reduction in swing time (the duration that the paddle swings forward through the air) is achieved through active rather than relaxed repositioning of the blade forward and by reducing the weight of the paddle.
A key aspect is for the blade and shaft to be outboard and as vertical as possible in orientation. This means that the paddler has to lean part of his or her body outboard in order to maintain optimal paddle attitude. It this is properly executed at the catch, then the gravitational weight of the paddler "falling" on and driving the blade will generate an enormous impulse power that is not otherwise achievable, similar to a "high brace" type of paddle technique used in white water rafting and sea kayaking.
If paddlers are not synchronized to the two lead strokes, for example if a pair of paddlers takes their cue from the pair of paddlers sitting immediately in front of them, then each successive pair of blades hits the water a fraction of a second behind the blade just in front of them. Consequently, the stroke and back paddlers are out of synch or phase, similar to a domino effect or cascade/card deck riffle. So to an onshore observer, this effect resembles the movement of a many-legged caterpillar or centipede. A coach may therefore have to work with a team to minimize this "caterpillar" effect. During a race it can be difficult for novice crews to stay in sync within their own boat as the sounds of other drums can be distracting.
Very experienced paddlers sense the response of the boat to the application of their blades and the associated surging forward acceleration or deceleration during a prolonged recovery phase through the water via their senses as they sit braced into the boat sitting on the benches of the boat, and will continually adjust or tune their reach and catch of their blade tips in accordance with the power required to maintain continual acceleration of the hull through the water at any given moment (since boats seek to decelerate whenever propulsive power drops off. Human's sense and gauge acceleration and deceleration, that is CHANGE in speed, more so than constant speed, as if their inner ears act like a kind of accelerometer.