By Mr. Richard L Rzepka (USAG Okinawa)April 22, 2016
Each spring on Okinawa, dragons come to life as thousands of onlookers descend on Tomari Wharf in Naha City to watch dozens of teams thrash through the sea, gliding on 50-foot-long dragon boats in a quest to claim the champion's cup.
The ancient tradition and popular spectacle is held during Naha Haarii -- one of the island's premiere festivals, held May 3-5. A once prominent fixture in the Ryukyu Kingdom, the races were revived in 1975 and fall within Golden Week -- a series of national holidays celebrated from April 29 to May 5. Teams are made up of local organizations, international crews, businesses, schools and even service members and dependents.
This year, a group of more than 40 dedicated women will take to the azure Okinawan water with one goal in mind -- winning. They call themselves the Army Ladies Dragon Boat Team and their mantra is 'One Boat, One Beat.'
"The ultimate goal of the team is to win," said Natalie Stanley, who has participated in the race for three years and is the team's assistant coach. "But beyond winning, we want to compete well, as one cohesive group and do it with integrity. We want to embrace the sport and use this as a tool to form a relationship with the local community."
The annual race reflects Okinawa's love affair with the sea and its reverence for the ocean's ability to bring bounty or burden. The event also is said to be an appeal to the gods for a peaceful voyage and copious harvest as the island and its people have relied on fishing for centuries.
"Okinawa is a small island surrounded by the ocean and the fishing industry has been active on our island for a long time," said Tetsuo Tamaki, Dragon Boat Race Promotion Association official. Tamaki explained that in the early 14th century, an Okinawan Lord went to China as a student, became captivated with the dragon boats he saw, came back, built his own and the rest is history. "That is why dragon boat race has an essential relation with culture of Okinawa, culture of the island surrounded by the ocean," he said.
Each year, the Army and other services cobble together teams to compete in the race, but for some, the event is as much about experiencing Okinawan culture as winning.
"Dragon Boat is something I've really fallen in love with here," said Army Ladies head coach Kelly Gander. "Interacting with the locals is really amazing. Not only do you get the cultural aspect but you really do develop amazing friendships along the way. It's a great way to meet new people and experience the awesomeness that is Okinawa.
Since early February, Gander and her team have been training extensively for race day hoping that the exhausting paddle sessions at Kadena Marina pay off in the end. Twice a week nearly 40 Army Ladies have honed their paddling skills with drills focused on endurance, strength and speed.
"The difference between the first practice and now is amazing," said Gander. "The first few weeks, technique was not there … timing was awful and everyone was slapping paddles. Now everyone is really working together as a team. It's a beautiful thing to see 32 women paddling together," she said.
Rain or shine, standing in cold water for what seemed like an eternity, the Army Ladies Dragon Boat Team has put in the work to be serious contenders at this year's race.
"Every year that I have participated there is always an 'ah-hah' moment that happens for every rower, that moment when everything you have been learning clicks," said Stanley. "I'd say that moment happened for most of the rowers around mid to late March. Now this team is fierce," she said.
Stanley and Gander encourage others to immerse themselves in Okinawa's vibrant culture by participating in events like dragon boat racing and becoming a part of the tapestry rather than remain a mere bystander. They said their experiences with the race has deepened their appreciation for Okinawa and earned them friends along the way.
Dragon boat has been on this island for a very long time and means a lot to this culture," said Stanley. "Americans could sit around and view events like this from the outside or they can jump in and participate. By embracing this event it shows the local people that we want to be a part of the community, it shows that you care and want to participate in another culture. It's so easy to spend four years looking in from the outside, but there are so many opportunities to join in, it would be silly not to," she said.