Every year, a procession of colourful boats make their way through the waters off Semporna in a celebration of a traditional way of life.
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The Regatta Lepa is an annual water festival held in Semporna, Sabah that features a procession of colourful traditional boats. This festival, which was held for the first time in 1994, commemorates the Bajau community and celebrates the seafaring Bajau way of life. Traditionally, the Bajau were mariners, spending most of their lives at sea, only coming ashore to restock on food and water. Some of the Bajau still carry on in this tradition but the majority have settled down on the islands around Semporna or in stilt villages built on reefs along the coast of Sabah.
Although the word lepa is Bajau in origin and refers to a single masted sail boat, the Regatta Lepa is much more than a mere procession of boats. Held in April, it has evolved into an official state holiday in Sabah and is a major Malaysian festival. The Regatta Lepa is a whole day affair, featuring boat racing competitions and demonstrations of traditional Bajau seafaring culture and feats. These include the lepa tug of war, where two boats connected by a rope try to pull each other across a certain distance, and individual motorboating runs by the younger generation of Bajaus. Their skill in piloting the boats is amazing, executing various stunts on the open sea. A favourite maneuver would be the 'water wheelie', where the front of the boat is lifted entirely out of the water and balanced without tipping over as the boatman powers up the outboard motor.
In recent years, the festival has also included some demonstrations by the Royal Malaysian Marine Police, including a mock operation to recapture a hijacked fishing vessel in the 2010 edition. The operation even included a helicopter, which hovered close to the water, just above the fishing vessel.
The true highlight of the festival, however, is the parade of the Lepas. Over a hundred boats participate in the parade, forming the colourful spectacle that makes up the regatta. Each representing a village or a community, these beautifully decorated boats are literally floats in this remarkable water parade. All along the way, a female dancer dressed in colourful traditional Bajau costume onboard each boat will perform the igal-igal dance to the beat of traditional dance music played by musicians accompanying her on the boat.
Each lepa competes in several elements. First, the boat itself: its decoration, the carvings and the colorful sails and flags. Second, the music played on the boat and third, the costume and performance of the dancer.
Visitors to the festival should book their accommodation well in advance as the festival is very popular among the locals, and Semporna only offers limited accommodation. Alternatively you can stay on Mabul Island, Kapalai Island or Tawau and travel to the festival in the morning.