Thursday, January 21, 2010


After two months of work it was finally time to leave Iejima.  The sabani is destined to be shipped to the Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo and Shimojo san felt that a launching ceremony was most appropriate just before the boat left.  Since the museum had yet to finalize shipping, I could not stay and see the ceremony (thought I interviewed Shimojo san about exactly what he would do).  Hopefully the wife of the U.S. Army sergeant in charge of the island's detachment will be able to attend and photograph the event for me, and I will be sure to post something here about it.

I was invited by a group of sabani sailors down to the capitol city for a dinner and a look at some sabani and I was given two liters of real shark liver oil to take back to Shimojo san.  He applied it to the boat over the tempura soybean oil we had used.  These final photos show that finish.  It was taking a long time to dry and it did NOT smell very good!

Shimojo san finished the bailer (called yutui in the local dialect) and put a coat of lacquer on it.

Shimojo san's son Tomio san took a large coral stone and carved an anchor.

Me with Shimojo san, his wife and two of his children at the ferry port just before I boarded.

Waving goodbye from my last landfall, a Japanese tradition to see guests off at the point of departure.  I wish Shimojo san and his family the very best of health.  The last bit of local dialect I learned was a phrase that goes: "Since we have met we are now friends."  Shimojo san an his family exemplified those words and I cannot thank them enough for their generosity and kindness.

Thanks as well to the Center For Wooden Boats in Seattle; the Asian Cultural Council of New York City; and the Nippon Foundation and Museum of Maritime Science of Tokyo for their support of this work.  I will have more postings soon about sabani, including some photos of a very intriguing boat I saw in the Okinawan Prefectural Museum of History in Naha City.  So for those interested in sabani there is more to come here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

History Revisited

I don't think I've ever put two posts up in one day, so if you haven't looked at the blog in awhile be sure to keep reading below for my previous posting from this afternoon.

Today our volunteer showed me a book about the wartime history of the island and some of the photographs illustrated things I had mentioned in earlier posts about the War and the tankobune, or "tank boats" that local fishermen in Okinawa made from US Air Force scrap.

The US military evacuated the island's inhabitants following the battle and did not let them return to Iejima until about three years after the end of the War.

This photo shows the Japanese military runways, which were the prize that the Americans were after.

However, the US quickly enlarged the operation into a major airbase used for the bombing of mainland Japan.  Having lived here looking at this its almost inconceivable how great a part of the island was transformed.

Under the wing of these aircraft are aluminum drop tanks: extra fuel to extend the fighter's range which could be dropped when they were empty or got into a dogfight.  It was these tanks that local fishermen converted to fishing boats.  You can see Mt. Gusuku in the background.

A photo of a US aircraft on the runway, with drop tanks, the local mountain in the background.
The link to my earlier posting about these unique boats is at this address:

The other bit of history is that the Emperor's official letter of surrender was flown to Iejima by a flight of Japanese bombers.  Here is a photo showing American soldiers crowded around one of the arriving planes.  The Japanese were ordered to paint green crosses on the planes to mark them.  From Iejima the surrender was flown by American aircraft to the US General Staff.

A photo showing two of the Japanese pilots being led away by MP's.  The day after the delivery the Japanese planes were allowed to fly back to Tokyo.  Note the pornographic art painted on the side of the Jeep.

The grim-faced delegation that delivered the letter of surrender.  Generals, I suppose, and perhaps a diplomat in civilian clothes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Post Construction

Surprising how many people have emailed me asking what I am doing with my time on the island now that the boat is done.  Well, given how many days I've worked really the only sightseeing I did was on my after-work runs, and I was able to reach just about all the island's corners that way, but I've now had the time to see just about everything there is to see.

The last two days have been interesting.  I met a couple from Sweden walking down my street in foul weather gear and rubber boots.  They had just tied up their 36-foot sailboat in the harbor.  They are currently circling the Pacific Rim on their way around the world.  When I told them about the sabani they were eager to see it, so yesterday morning I took them to the shop.  Moments later Shimojo san's daughter, the island's only kindergarden teacher, showed up with a field trip of all the island's kindergardeners.  We all went inside and the school principal played the Okinawan shamisen, called the sanshin, for us.

Later that afternoon I ran into the sergeant in charge of the local US Marine detachment on the island.  When he heard what I was doing here he asked if he could bring his men by, so I went back over this morning to show them the boat.  They left one soldier behind to guard the fort, literally.  At one time a US Air Force detachment on Okinawa had a sabani and raced it, but that group was disbanded and their boat was sold to a Japanese team.

We also made the paper today, the Ryukyu Shimpo:

And the varnish had dried on our mast rest, which Shimojo mounted on the bow.  It is held in place with a cord.

After saying goodbye to the Swedes in the harbor I discovered some fiberglass "sabani" under construction!  The man making them told me that they were for kids to paddle during festivals.

The harbor has some interesting kitsch, like its public restroom...

...and the viewing platform.

The bailer is also done, Shimojo san having signed and varnished it.

I will never be able to cut a Clorox bottle in half again for a bailer and not feel completely ashamed.

Several comments and questions were left with my last posting, and to answer one, unfortunately I will not get to sail this boat.  It is destined to be shipped to the Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo to become part of their permanent collection.  And Shimojo san has said he feels that any kind of ceremony should be conducted just before the boat leaves, and shipping hasn't been scheduled yet, so I may miss out on this too.  Having helped build the boat I certainly wish someone could sail it, and perhaps the museum in Tokyo will try.  There are some people in Japan trying to convince the museum to actually ship this sabani to boat shows around the world for display, another idea I heartily endorse.  I will keep this blog active as I write my book and complete drawings, so hopefully I can have good news for readers about how this sabani is used, and maybe even let you know where you might see it outside Japan.

Tomorrow the man who is making our sail is coming to the island.  I learned that he is soaking the cotton in real shark liver oil as a preservative.  I also just recently heard someone claim that in the old days sails were soaked in pigs blood as a preservative, but I am not sure about that.  The traditional sails here were a tanbark kind of color, and I guess it was usually shark liver oil.  I will try to confirm all this tomorrow.

I also learned from Shimojo san yesterday that the small mast that was sometimes stepped in the bow of the boat was about 2/3rds the height of the mainmast, which is 2/3rds the length of the boat.  He said that the sail shape of the jib was just a reduced version of the mainsail, and he said this auxiliary sail was only flown in light winds.  So it clearly wasn't really like a jib; that is, slotting the main to increase its efficiency.

As for the tempura oil, I estimate about five gallons have been used on the boat inside and out.  The cedar just keeps soaking it up, and the pine, despite how hard a wood it is, is an amazing sponge.  At any time the boat could be toweled completely dry to the touch, and there is no smell.  Remember though, in Japan small boats even today are pulled out of the water at the end of each day.  I don't think that this would be a finish that could be left immersed for long periods.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Time seems to have taken on a strange quality the last week or so.  I had two visitors from Tokyo over the last four days and it seems as though the first one was here a month ago.  But in the midst of it all it seemed as though suddenly the boat was finished.  And it is!  The owner of a Shimojo san-built racing sabani in Itoman City is making the sail and it was decided that the material for our mast was too wet (and bent besides) so that part of the rig is still a work in progress.

It also feels as though I haven't posted to this blog in a long time.  I will post here a selection of photos since we went back to work after New Years (on January 4th) and caption them.  I will be here another week and no doubt find interesting things to blog about.  Then I will keep readers posted as to the progress of writing my monograph about building this boat, preparing drawings, etc.

The subject of a launching ceremony is still up in the air, but if it happens and I see it, be assured I will post something here about it.

One of the jobs I was given was stripping the bark from a local cedar for our mast.  I was given an old meat cleaver to do this.  The drawknife, by the way, is completely unknown to Japanese boat builders, to the point where most have no idea what the tool is.  Japanese barrel makers seem to be the only craftsmen who use this tool.  The Japanese also have no native tool like the spokeshave.

Shimojo san determining where to cut the after beam out of a chunk of chage, the wood used to make the huundu fastenings.  He would have used Okinawan pine, an amazingly dense wood, which we had used for the mast partners, but he didn't have enough of this material left.

Our rubrails are made of imported apetong.  Shimojo san's son Tomio san is shown here nailing them to the planking.

We worked slowly down the hull, bending and nailing the rails.  Their main function is to form a rubrail so that the handle of the paddles does not wear the soft cedar planking when paddling.

A cap made of cedar topped the stem transom.

Shimojo san fitted an intermediate beam, which was tenoned and fit in blocks that lay against the planking.  The beam was inserted into one side then lowered down into the oversized tenon on the other side...

... then Shimojo drove it down tight using a bar wedged under one of our temporary beams...

... finally he wedged the tenon, which was cut off flush with the blocking.

Here is a look at the mast partners and the midships beam.

And a glimpse at the bow, showing the fastenings.  Later this too got apetong rubrails.

I was put to work fitting and installing the thwarts in the boat.  In the old days an eight meter sabani might have four to six fishermen.  Shimojo san said that thwarts were once made of lashing together one inch diameter pieces of bamboo into a kind of rough mat.  He added that this kind of seat was very uncomfortable to sit on, but fishermen didn't have much time to sit.

Our final two days the shop was like Santa's workshop, with Shimojo san finishing the beams, Tomio san working on the mast and rails, and me fitting thwarts.

Tomio san then took the job of shaping the mast.

Our last day of work my friend Tominaga san came from Tokyo.  Here he is giving business cards to Shimojo san, his wife and oldest daughter.

Detail at the bow.  The small curved beam is handy for attaching a line, but in earlier days this was actually a partner for a very small mast that was sometimes stepped in the bow.  A small sail flown here slotted the wind, improving the efficiency of the main sail.

And now some shots of the finished boat, with a fresh coat of tempura oil (soybean based).

Shimojo san's bailer is a piece of sculpture in itself.  He said that the knowledge of these is even rarer than that about sabani.  Right after the War fishermen began using US Army helmets for bailers so these wooden bailers haven't been seen since then.  Helmets then gave way to plastic buckets.  Bailing was always important (the curve on the bottom of this bailer matches the curve in the bottom of our boat) because not only did sabani tip over, but sometimes fishermen intentionally tipped them over, riding out storms from underneath the hull.  Knowing how to efficiently bail the boat was essential for fishermen.  Today on Iejima an annual sabani race using three ceremonial boats (all built by Shimojo san) requires that each team paddle out of the harbor, then capsize their boat, then right and bail it before returning to the finish.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Years

Back to work now after our holiday.  I just received this link to a very pleasant video showing a small sabani out sailing.  Please give it a look:

We had six days off for New Years, one of the biggest holidays in Japan.  After over forty-one days of work out of the last forty-three I was ready.  I stayed here on the island except for one day trip to the big aquarium on the main island and the museum of Polynesian boats next to it.

Our boat got decorated with a sprig of cedar and bamboo.  Also, Shimojo san believed that it was important at New Years to give the shop a complete cleaning and while I swept every corner he organized all his tools.

While here I finished measuring two old sabani that are held in a private museum and the town of Iejima.  I was also taken to see a large, powered sabani owned by a friend of the owner of the guest house where I am staying.

This is an interesting boat, entirely plank-built with no hollowed parts.  Its very small but the fastenings are a combination of huundu and edge nails.  Luckily you only need half a boat intact to do a lines-taking and the port side was complete.  It had exactly half a transom!

In a small port at the west end of the island I was shown this one old sabani (about forty years old) that rests amidst a variety of fiberglass boats.  It's now a pleasure boat.  The man who showed it to me claimed that in the old days fishermen would paint their boats with pigs blood.  That may have been more symbolic than useful, as my teacher and others have told me that in the old days every family raised a pig for slaughter specifically at New Years.  Perhaps fishermen came up with this symbolic use for the blood.

Compared to what I've been building this boat seemed like a monster.  It has an engine room amidships and is much, much beamier than our boat, which represents a purely sailing/paddling type.  Some of the features that were added to sabani after engines became available were grown frames and the added plank to increase freeboard.

One little detail I noticed were these huundu and some kind of seam compound repairing a crack in the planking.

And one of my teacher's fiberglass boats was in the harbor.

For three days about half the fishing fleet was decorated with special flags and sprigs of cedar and/or bamboo.  The colorful flags are asking for safety and good catches in the New Year.  I've heard comments that flying the Japanese battle flag (the one with the rays) is considered controversial, though one friend believes that the association is with the Japanese Navy, and therefore significant for fishermen.  If any readers have ideas about this please leave a comment.