What the heck is a Sabani?
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 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.
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.