What the heck is a Sabani?

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What the heck is a Sabani?

by: Michael Lynch | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: April 23, 2015

Editor’s Note: Michael Lynch is a photographer and writer who has lived on Okinawa for more than 30 years. Check him out at mikesryukyugallery.com.

They are the boats most foreigners call dragon boats. Hand crafted from cedar logs, sabini’s resemble a dugout canoe. Almost every village with a fishing port in Okinawa holds annual races, locally called harii. English speakers simply call them dragon boat races.

The boats are not powered by engines. They are paddled with oars. Teams can be seen practicing weeks before a race. Teams can consist of classmates, companies and even the military.

The races are held in the belief that they please the gods of the sea, and assures a good catch of fish and safety for the crews of the fishing industry.  Newly crafted sabani boats are blessed by a priestess before they are launched into the sea. Before a sabani boat race, many teams visit a shrine to pray for safety and success.

Sabani boats capsize easily because they are basically flat-bottomed boats, with no keel or rudder. In some races, they are deliberately tipped over. When you think about it, this may be a survival technique, used to ride out a sudden storm. Hanging onto the seats of a capsized boat, a person would be safe from crashing waves yet, still have an air supply.

Life jackets are worn by the teams as a safety precaution, though most of the members are excellent swimmers.

At the southern tip of Okinawa, in Itoman, team members celebrate at a priestess's home upon after a race. Here they pray, dance and drink.

Sometimes a sabani may be seen with an outrigger attached. This gives the boat more stability at sea.

Sabani boats have two sources of power: the wing and muscles.

When heading on directly into the wind, sails are lowered and paddle power is the only option.

Those who sail sabani boats may be seen far from the shores, racing from island to island.

Sabani sailing enthusiasts are preserving the traditional methods of seamanship and an important part of Okinawan culture. Using no fuel, it is an environmentally friendly way to go sailing.

Sabani teams head to a shrine after sailing in a parade of boats for the Chinese New Year.