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Flag Day is the biggest holiday celebrated in American Samoa. It occurs on April 17 each year. The highlight of the annual celebration is the fautasi races. A fautasi (pronounced fa-ta-see) is a long canoe type boat. It is powered by approximately 50 rowers. The excitement and pride created by these races in the Samoan people living on this island is amazing.
The Basics of the Fautasi Races
Most of the villages in American Samoa have at least one fautasi participate in the annual race. The rowers of the boat are, typcially, all men from their respective village. The rowers start training a month or two in advance of the race. In addition to practicing their rowing skills, these men go through strength and conditioning training, runs, and other bonding activities to prepare for the races. In many cases, these rowers work out and practice both before and after work or school each day.
The fautasi committee, which is made up of members of each village, as well as the captains of all the boats, determines the rules, dates and times of the races, and other details concerning the races. While the dates and times are set a few days before the race, these are always subject to change depending on the weather and ocean conditions. Depending on the number of boats participating in a given year, there may be preliminary heats prior to the championship race. These prelim heats usually take place on a different day from the finals.
The fautasi races are a great source of pride for the villages who participate. On race day, you will commonly see people wearing tee shirts and other clothing with their village name and colors, as well as their boat’s name, on them. They also carry flags and banners proclaiming their team loyalty. You will also see houses, shops, and vehicles decorated for the races. The cheering of fans starts long before the race begins. The winning village celebrates long after the race is over.
The atmosphere during race days is electric. It reminds me of the atmosphere you would see during a big-time football game in the United States. Coverage of the race is broadcast on local radio and television stations. People who can’t attend the race in person sit gathered around the television or radio following the coverage. Productivity on the island stops during the race. During the day of the race, it is the major topic of conversation wherever you go.
2017 Fautasi Races
The 2017 edition of the fautasi races featured 13 boats, challenging ocean conditions, and a little controversy. Due to the large number of boats entered, there were two preliminary heats held on Wednesday, April 12. After these heats, the fautasi committee met and officially determined the seven boats with the fastest times.
These seven boats were scheduled to compete in the championship race on Thursday, April 13. However, the final race had to be postponed until Saturday, April 15 due to high waves. During an exhibition race, which was to be held prior to the finals, at least one fautasi took on water and was damaged due to the ocean conditions. The final race on Saturday was scheduled to start at 8 am. It actually started almost an hour earlier, though, in order to get it in before the waves got too high.
Controversy and Champions
When all was said and done, the Manulele Tausala I fautasi from the village of Nu’uuli was declared the 2017 champion. However, there was a little controversy before the official results were released. The fautasi committee considered disqualifying the fautasi from the village of Fagatogo, which came in second place, due to it starting before the horn sounded. The members of this team protested and claimed that the Manulele Tausala boat should also be disqualified due to it starting in front of the start line. In the end, neither fautasi was disqualified.
We missed watching the championship race due to it starting earlier than announced. However, we did get to the harbor in time to see the Manulele Tausala fautasi come back into its home dock. Lots of people from the village of Nu’uuli were there to welcome the victors. As the boat closed in on the shore, the rowers all stood up, joined hands, and sang a song in Samoan. It was a beautiful song and a unique experience to witness. For several hours after the race, you could hear cheering and horn honking from Nu’uuli!
Flag Day is the biggest holiday of the year for the island of American Samoa. The highlight of the week-long celebration is the annual fautasi races between the various villages. The beauty of sports is the way they can create unique bonds between people. These races are a perfect example of this bonding. These races are not just about entertainment. They represent the pride and love the residents have for their villages, their families, and their neighbors. The fautasi races are a celebration in and of themselves. I am so thankful to have been able to witness it first hand. Happy travels!