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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sabanis - Canoes or "Boats"?

My last entry was a guest blog from Douglas Brooks, who is working on a sabani in Okinawa. He is maintaining his own blog of the project which makes good reading. Consider this post a complement to Douglas's blog.

The day after Douglas's guest post here, I discovered in my possession a booklet on sabanis which had been loaned to me by my colleague Ben Fuller, curator at Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine. SABANI Canoes of Okinawa, by Katsuhiko Shiraishi, appears to have been self-published (in 1985, I believe, but I can't find the data now). The text is in both Japanese and English, and although the English translation is, unfortunately, awful, the illustrations are very nice indeed. (The cover is shown below; all images in this post are from the same source.)

Whether the sabani is a "canoe" or not is debatable. On the pro side of the argument, it clearly evolved from a dugout canoe. The bottom is a massive cedar dugout, to which one side strake is added on each side (plus small partial strakes to raise the freeboard at the bow and stern. As Douglas Brooks noted, the strakes, too, bear a relationship to dugout practice, as they are not milled lumber, but hewed to shape.

On the other hand, it seems wrong to call anything a canoe that features such massive construction overall, and its shape is hardly canoe-like -- more banks-dory-like in its half-breadths, while the fish-form plan view is unique.
There is a very narrow triangular bow transom that might be considered a stem instead. The stern transom is very close to an equilateral triangle. All pieces are fastened together with dovetail keys, alternating on the inside and outside of the hull. Between each dovetail key is a bamboo nail driven at a very steep angle through one of the exposed plank surfaces so that it edge-nails the bottom to the strakes. (I can't tell if bamboo nails are used similarly at all other joints, or just the bottom-to-side joint.)

In the image below, the bow is on the left. The stern is considerably higher, to help the stern lift with following waves, according to Shiraishi.
Construction begins by fastening the ends of the strakes together, then forcing the strakes apart amidships, which produces a nice curved sheerline. Then the dugout bottom is carved to shape to sit on the bottom edges of the strakes -- as Douglas Brooks noted, this is opposite to the common procedure for producing an extended dugout, in which the dugout is produced first, as a base, and then strakes are added to build up the sides.
On the "it's a canoe" side of the argument, sabanis are paddled, not rowed, as shown below in the picture of a racing version of the boat, used at an annual festival in Okinawa. Note the unusual hand position on the gripless paddle: with the thumbs facing each other. Note also how the flat face of the paddle blade is not the power face.

Shiraishi repeatedly stresses that, due to its narrow beam, the sabani is a fairly unstable boat, prone to capsize especially under sail. (But very pretty under sail, as the image below shows.) It is, however, fairly easy to recover from a capsize. Due to their voluminous wood construction, the raised ends have considerable buoyancy, making the canoe unstable in an inverted position as well. The boatmen turn the boat broadside to a wave and then can easily flip the boat upright. Then they turn it again to face the waves and wait for the bow to lift on a wave while then apply downward pressure on the stern, thus allowing the water to sluice out over the transom. Climb in again, and off they go.

As an aid to turning the capsized boat upright, the mast is easily removed. Note how a pair of easily-removed wedges secures the mast through a square hole in the thwart. Note also the multi-position mast step, which allows the mast to be angled forward or back, depending on the point of sail.


  1. I kind of like to use the term that the locals used. You get into too many non productive arguments. Muriel Parry used as a broader term for these 'dugout canoe' and I suspect that is where the Art and Architecture Thesaurus would put them in boats by construction type.


  2. Ben,
    I'd tend to agree that we should accept the locals' definition. In this case, I think it's questionable what term they use, on two counts: 1) the booklet's translation is poor and I'm not confident that "canoe" is a proper translation of the author's Japanese text, and 2) for all I know, there may be no literal translation of the word "canoe" in the Ryukyuan (Okinawan) languages.
    The sabani is clearly derived from the dugout, but according to Basil Greenhill, so is the whole Western plank-on-frame tradition, so it seems valid to question at what evolutionary point does a boat makes the transition from an evolved dugout to become a boat of another kind.
    I guess my interest is in whether we westerners should consider it as part of the canoe family when discussing the subject. I posted a note in the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association forum, and am eager to see if this boat is accepted for discussion, or if WCHA folks think I'm off-topic.

  3. Seems to me that the argument is linguistic as well. "Canoe" was a word used by the indigenous people of North America to describe their boats. Europeans took it into their own languages but later appropriated it to describe a wider range of boats. It's true that you can find boats similar to canoes around the world, and the word's meaning has broadened to include these types. But we can hope, perhaps, that somewhere on a blog here in Okinawa people are asking the question: "Is an Algonquin birch bark a sabani?"

    Ask Okinawans and they will tell you: a sabani is a sabani. I doubt that they would broaden their definition beyond "the traditional fishing boat of Okinawa." I am actually not sure that anyone here can even provide the etymology of the word, My teacher is at a complete loss to tell me where his name for the butterfly keys comes from (huundu-which are called variously "chigiri" and "zuzumi" elsewhere in Japan).

    But while we are debating language, in Japanese the sabani's construction type can be called mudamahagi, which is best translated as semi-dugout. A true dugout is a marukibune (literally, "log boat"). My teacher here also talks about the two imported boat building traditions, both plank-on-frame. If the boat is clearly Japanese in origin, he calls it "wasen" ("traditional Japanese boat"). If the boat is of foreign origin he calls it "nanyouhagi" which means "southern ocean construction." His face has a noticeable look of disgust when he mentions either type, so I would not advise telling HIM that a sabani is a canoe!


  4. Hello ! My name is Anton. I've seen your new post and at the end one thing struck me.
    It's the mention of the multi-position mast step. That detail is very interesting for me. Till now I knew some examples in Europe, Mediterranean Sea, America, and Sout East Asia. But this time is the first time I have discovered this characteristic in the native tradition of Japan. How works exactly ? Could you send some drawing explaining this interesting detail of sailing ?

    By the way, thanks for your Indigenous Boats. It had proved to be useful for the ethnografic researching

  5. Hi Anton,
    Thanks for your comment. Shiraishi's booklet does provide a little bit of detail on how the mast step is used, and I will try to address your question in my next post.
    By the way, the Brazilian jangada, a rather primitive raft-boat, has a fairly elaborate multi-position mast step. Click "jangada" under Labels in the right column for details.

  6. Thanks ! Yes you're wright with the brazilian jangada. I've have seen yet in the literarure that I could read.
    It seems to me that this detail was devised in different times and different places for practical reasons... I do not think that the explanation is a "diffusionist" focus for all the cases. But anyway in some cases this can be possible as this example in Pacific ocean. Who knows!

  7. Though the locals' terms for their boats must be reported and studied, I think some justification exists for a scientific terminology that sends the scientific message of "hull form." And hull forms feed into other things.

    Hull lengths and breadths have hydrodynamic implications, physical implications (amount of materials, construction requirements, etc.), and social implications (how many people does a boat need in its functional life, thus how "socializing" is this type of boat? etc.).

    If we could agree on some terminology for boat hulls (i.e., a canoe tends to be a hull with at least 1:6 beam/length ratio, or whatever), that is not a bad thing as long as we add, "But the natives in this region make no terminological distinctions between fat and skinny boats" or whatever. Then we can continue with intelligent questions such as "Interesting! Why do they lack this terminological distinction?" This way, nobody really loses out in a complete treatment of the subject.

  8. Wade,
    Thanks for this. You nailed it, saying it much better than I could. It really does matter what we call things. Around here, some people refer to flatty skiffs as a dories, but buyer beware: you wouldn't want to hand-line on the Grand Banks in a skiff.

  9. Many years ago I was introduced to the Sabanis of Okinawa. I began a livelyhood as a "Sqiud Fisherman" using Baten Ko, Sashiki Son and Minatagawa as ports of departure. The Sabanis were powered by Lawn Mower engines, liberated from Military Briggs and Stratton Lawn Mowers. The Gear Train was direct drive without thrust bearing. Bilge pump was a 1 gallon clorox cut to retain the handle and shaped as a scoop. My Job. :) Till we made it to the Squid Grounds about 2 hours beyond Kudaka Jima. I found them to be suprisingly sea worthy. With a nights catch of squid, we usually returned to Baten Ko an hour after Sun Up, clean our catch, selling it and then a Cup of Sake or 2, repeating the previous day about 4 pm, with a bento of Rice and a Saba or 2 caught along the way to the grounds. Okinawa is seldom without wind at night, summer winds out of the SouthEast. Paint was not used for a working Sabani, The boats were preserved using Boiled Fish Oil, liberally applied. Many fond memories came to mind reading your accounts. I have since retired as a 1 Class "Kin Kai" Mariner,(GOJ) and a 200 GT Masters License issued by USCG. So some lessons were learned from the old Masters of the Sabani. The Iromote Sabani is much larger than the Okinawa Craft Thanks for jarring the memories