NAHA, Okinawa, Japan -- The crowd grew silent as it watched competitors tensely grip their oars.
Moments later the silence was shattered by an instantaneous eruption of splashing and cheering as the 39th annual Naha Haarii Festival commenced at the Naha New Port Wharf May 5.
The tradition of dragon boat-racing began hundreds of years ago when villagers made their own boats and raced as a way to honor the god of the sea, and celebrate and pray for productive fishing and maritime safety.
Each race consisted of three boats competing in a 400-meter lap. The race attracts a variety of national and international competitors.
The single Marine program has participated in the race for more than a decade, introducing many Marines to a small part of Okinawa culture. Three months before the race, the SMP team began practicing the fundamentals and techniques of rowing alongside the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s explosive ordnance disposal team.
“We started off rowing about 100 meters and gradually worked our way up to 600 meters,” said Lance Cpl. Randall B. O’Neil, a member of the SMP team and tactical switch operator with 7th Communication Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
The SMP team enjoys the competitive nature of the race, but it finds the event to be more than a competition, according to Randolph Mitchell, the SMP program director. “It gives them an opportunity to experience more activities on Okinawa and get involved with the SMP,” said Mitchell.
Participating in events like this demonstrates how Marines strive to learn more about their overseas home.
“The Marines are guests here,” said Satsuki Fraling, a single Marine program coordinator and one of the coaches for the SMP team. “It’s good when they go outside of their bases and see the different things that are offered in town and build a good relationship within the community.”
Community members also found the event to be a good chance for Americans to show support for the traditions of their host nation, according to Masashi Kinjyo, a member of the Ryukyu Yosemiya team.
“We do this more for fun, and we keep doing it because it brings everyone together,” said Kinjyo.
“Dragon boat racing is harder than it looks,” said Fraling. “It takes a lot of coordination to get 32 people to row at the same time.”
Although the SMP team did not finish as strongly as it hoped, the team had a blast during the competition, according to Fraling.