Every year, toward the beginning of July, the waters of Zamami Island — so blue as to seem synthetic — are disturbed by a fleet of yachts. Almost 60 in number, the yachts cut elegant figures across the ocean, their hulls heeling and sails billowing as the prevailing south-westerlies drive them through Kerama Shoto National Park. They are in competition, each vying for position before reaching the finish line of the Zamami Yacht Race.
This is Japan’s oldest continuous yacht race, and it has been held annually since 1977. The original iteration of the race took the boats all the way from Tokyo to Zamami, an arduous five- or six-day voyage of round-the-clock sailing. The race was soon cut to its current length, and now takes the form of a one-day epic, starting from the port of Ginowan on Okinawa and finishing just off the coast of Zamami.
With a good wind, the fastest yachts complete the race in just under four hours, starting shortly after 8 a.m. and finishing around midday to neatly coincide with lunch. The course — just over 40 kilometers in length — runs almost directly west from Ginowan, taking the boats past the smaller, uninhabited islands that dot the passage between Okinawa and Zamami.
First, about six kilometers from Ginowan, are the twin islands of Kamiyama and Nagannu, whose low sandy hillocks are lined with the parasols of day-trippers ferried out from the mainland. Another 10 kilometers west, and Maejima rises steeply from the ocean floor, topped with trees every bit as gnarled as the island’s exposed cliffs.
After a long stretch with nothing but sea to both north and south, the yachts round Gishippu Island before turning to the south-west to enter the channel between Tokashiki Island and Zamami, where a strong current battles against the wind to pull the yachts off course and toward a set of exposed reefs.
Otoko no Iwa (Man’s Rock) stands sentinel at the eastern tip of Zamami, welcoming the yachts to the island in stony silence. In these waters the race is at its most tactical, as the yachts must first make their way into Furuzamami Bay before tacking around a buoy just 40 meters from the shore. This accomplished, they loop around the uninhabited Amuro Island before making a final turn and then passing through the finish line just off Ama Beach.
Even before they can be seen from Zamami, the noise of the yachts cuts through the placidity of island life. The crack of the boom crossing the hull each time a yacht tacks carries across the ocean and echoes around the island’s inlets and sandy beaches. As the crafts come closer, the luffing of the sails can be heard in continuous conversation with the orders that flow in a torrent from the mouths of the skippers. The silhouettes of crew members can be seen hunched over the winches, furiously grinding to trim the sails or acting as ballast to keep the yacht from heeling too far.
Each yacht is crewed by a team of 10 or more and every year close to 60 yachts enter the race. The competition is split into classes that take into consideration the size and type of yacht being raced. Class I comprises the larger monohull vessels, the longest of which is the 53-foot (16-meter), double-masted Tege Tege. By comparison, the yachts in Class II tend to be smaller, the longest topping out at 37.5 feet (11.4 meters). Finally, there is the Multihull Class: catamarans, trimarans and so on.
Competition occurs both within each class and across Class I and Class II. (Multihulls are excluded from the grand race and only compete within their class.) To allow for competition across the two classes, the event uses a handicap system that adds time to the fastest boats and deducts time from those predicted to be the slowest. This evens the field, making the race more about the skill of the crews than the efficiency of the yachts themselves.
One distinguishing feature of the race is that it is designed to include fans, and the nature of the course makes the event extremely watchable. While many such races take place miles offshore, the positioning of the buoy in Furuzamami Bay brings the competitors within spitting distance of the island’s most popular beach. While most at the beach are there to enjoy the sun and the sea, the arrival of a fleet of racing yachts shortly before lunch adds a certain spectacle to a seaside afternoon. Spectators can kick back in a deck chair and enjoy the shade of a parasol as the boats race past.
The finish line offers another chance to get close to the race — it’s located just off Ama Beach in waters that are more famously frequented by sea turtles that feed there at high tide. Ama Beach is home to Zamami’s only campground, and those in their tents boiling beneath the afternoon sun are treated to the unlikely procession of the yachts crossing the finish under full sail.
Following the race, crews volunteer to take spectators aboard for an hour-long experience. A watchful eye is never far away, but the skippers are liberal with their yachts and freely hand over the helm to anyone who wants to try steering.
In the evening, the race is complemented by an award ceremony for the teams and spectators, hosted by Zamami Port. In size, the party dwarfs Zamami’s own population; the island is home to just 700 people, yet the race brings with it over 500 sailors and a similar number of spectators, all of whom are welcome to join the festivities.
The atmosphere is congenial and the competitive nature of the race gives way to a feeling of fraternity as crews warmly greet each other. Indeed, many of those attending have competed since the race’s inception and it is an occasion that unites boats and crews from across the country on one of Japan’s most picturesque islands.
Traditional Okinawan floral shirts are represented in full force, and the teams are treated to an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink affair that extends well into the night. When everyone is seated with drinks in hand, the ceremony starts with a mighty “Kanpai!” as crews salute each other’s efforts. Awards are presented throughout the evening to the fastest boats in each class, with smaller trophies going to the yachts that were fastest over certain stages of the race.
The Sinbad Cup, a silver trophy named after Sinbad II, the winning boat of the inaugural 1977 race, is presented to the fastest boat across Class I and Class II. Inscribed around the base of the trophy are the names of all the yachts that have won — 40 in total, when the 2017 winner, Slainte Mhath (named after the Scottish phrase for “cheers”) is added to the trophy.
After the awards are presented, celebrations begin in earnest. The assembled teams are entertained with elaborately choreographed Okinawan taiko drumming and performances by local musicians and, pretty soon, the effects of the open bar manifest in revelry. As the night progresses, the line between performer and audience blurs and then disappears entirely as victorious crews take to the stage to celebrate their successes.
When the party ends, crews spread out to fill the limited number of bars that constitute the Zamami nightlife. Awamori, the local Okinawan liquor, is poured freely between compatriots and strangers alike and oblivion seems to be the foregone conclusion of the night.
But there are no late starts or lie-ins for the celebrants. The next morning, the port is a hive of activity as the crews, hangovers temporarily cast aside, prepare their yachts for the morning departure. While some choose to stay on for a break on the island, the majority leave on the tide to sail home again, to Ginowan or beyond.
As quickly as they come, the yachts leave Zamami, taking with them a lucky few spectators who have managed to talk the skippers into a ride back to the mainland. The return journey is leisurely compared to the race and, in every cove and sheltered bay, yachts can be seen anchored in the shallows, their crews enjoying the spoils of the islands while synthetic-blue waters lap at sandy shores.
For Naha to Zamami ferry information, visit bit.ly/2eGzyMN. It’s recommended to book passage and accommodation in advance.