Please select your home edition
Edition
SailX 728x90

Mystery Chinese sailing junk is finally going home

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 22 Apr 2012
Free China sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in 1955 .. .
The Free China is an authentic Chinese sailing junk - the oldest surviving wooden Chinese sailing vessel in existence and the last of its kind. Its first fifty years are a mystery, but in 1955 the Free China made headlines when it beat all odds to cross the Pacific with a crew of five young Chinese men and one American diplomat. Now it is going home.

Free China is an approximately 80-foot, 40-ton sailing vessel that was constructed about a century ago. All that's known of her first 50 years is that the ship spent time with smugglers in Taiwan and China, changing hands among its unsavory caretakers when they were imprisoned.

But the boat emerged from obscurity in 1955 when Calvin Mehlert and five Taiwanese fishermen who had never sailed before took her on a headline-grabbing journey about 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

Arriving in San Francisco, Free China underwent pronounced changes in the decades that followed: One owner saddled her with a massive diesel engine; another took a chain saw to her stern.

These days Free China bears little resemblance to that eye-catching vessel with its large rectangular sails and upturned prow captured on film as it sailed toward the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955.

Nor have the elements been kind to this relic with its faded stripes of peeling paint. For the past eight years, the vessel has sat on blocks in a Bethel Island storage yard in East Contra Costa County, abandoned when money for repairs ran out.

But the winds of fortune shifted and, on Thursday, the rare Chinese junk began its journey back to Taiwan. Free China's return is largely the work of one Dione Chen, whose father was among the six men who made history when they entered the junk in a yacht race.


It's a fascinating story:
Reno Chen, like most of the other young men who would become his traveling partners, was working aboard a modernized fishing vessel after World War II.

'After the war, fishing companies were abandoning junks in favor of big motorized ships,' said Mehlert, a Sacramento native who worked at the U.S. Consulate in China before joining the Free China crew. But a handful remained active, and they caught the eye of fisherman Paul Chow.

He noticed that the junk sailors often didn't have radios to receive typhoon warnings, instead taking their cue to flee from the big boats that would turn around and head back to shore.

To Chow's frustration, the junks often beat the powered ships because they took advantage of high winds. 'It would tick me off and then I thought, 'I would like to get my feet on one of those junks,' Chow said. 'Then I saw in the newspaper about a yacht race from Rhode Island to Sweden.'

Inspired to enter, Chow rallied a crew of fellow fishermen and started looking for a boat, finding the 50-year-old junk after scouring the offshore islands.

'The junkmaster was in jail for smuggling, but they contacted him and he raised his price: It was more than the boys had when they put all their belongings together and sold them,' Mehlert said.

Eventually, Mehlert said, the governor of Taiwan agreed to chip in enough money to make the purchase if the sailors would agree to name the junk Free China, a reference to that territory's desire for freedom from Chinese communism.

'It's like the Spirit of St. Louis to the Chinese,' Chow said.

The name would make a bold political statement if the junk entered the race.

But delays foiled that plan, which had them sailing south through the Panama Canal to join the trans-Atlantic race. Crew members were forced to turn back shortly after weighing anchor when they realized they lacked some necessary equipment, and their second departure took them directly into a typhoon.

'We could have turned back, but we said no way,' Chow said.

The ship survived the storm but the mechanisms used to control steering were damaged, so a passing ship bound for Japan towed Free China back to port.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, though the crew didn't arrive in San Francisco until August 1955 -- two months after the race began. The Taiwanese sailors were met with great fanfare, and ultimately inspired a documentary and a book.
Chow gave the boat to the San Francisco Maritime Museum in hopes it could be maintained as part of the collection, and the crew disbanded.

But the museum deal never panned out, and it then spent some time as a pirate radio station and the home of a pirate radio activist who made it his home for ten years. Finally it became too expensive to maintain. Largely forgotten, abandoned, rotting and on the verge of destruction, the Free China faced imminent destruction.

But one man's junk is Dione Chen's treasure. For the past four years, she has struggled to find the boat a permanent home. 'I did this to honor my father, (and) I wanted to inspire other people to capture their history, talk to their parents while they're alive,' she said.

Later this month, the vessel will be hoisted onto a container ship in Oakland for an 18-day trip to the port city of Keelung in Taiwan, a trip that costs about $169,000. There it will be restored using a combination of Taiwanese government funds and private money and put on display at the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology - a fitting end after such an adventurous life.

Bakewell-White Yacht DesignT Clewring - GenericBarz Optics - Melanin Lenses

Related Articles

America's Cup - Arbitration Panel Hearing over Kiwi Qualifier for July
ACEA CEO, Russell Coutts has confirmed that the Arbitration Panel will hold its first Hearing in July. In a yet to be published interview in Sail-World, America’s Cup Events Authority CEO, Russell Coutts has confirmed that the Arbitration Panel will hold its first Hearing in July. This is the first official indication that the three person Arbitration Panel had even been formed, however Sail-World’s sources indicated that it had been empanelled since last January, possibly earlier.
Posted on 27 May
Rio 2016 - The Qualification Games - Part 2
Yachting NZ's refusal to nominate in three classes won in the first round of 2016 Olympic Qualification is unprecedented Yachting New Zealand's refusal to nominate in three classes won in the first round of 2016 Olympic Qualification is without precedent. Subject to Appeal, the Kiwis have signaled that they will reject 30% of the positions gained in the ISAF World Sailing Championships in Santander in 2014.
Posted on 22 May
Gladwell's Line - World Sailing changes tack after IOC windshift
Over the past year, we've given the International Sailing Federation (now re-badged as World Sailing) a bit of stick Over the past year, we've given the International Sailing Federation (now re-badged as World Sailing) a bit of stick. Every blow well earned over issues such as the pollution at Rio, the Israeli exclusion abomination plus a few more. But now World Sailing is getting it right.
Posted on 21 May
Rio 2016 - The Qualification Games - Part 1
Antipodean selection shenanigans aside, the Qualification system for the Rio Olympics appears to be achieving its goals Antipodean selection shenanigans aside, the Qualification system for the Rio Olympics appears to be achieving goals set in the Olympic Commission report of 2010. Around 64 countries are expected to be represented in Rio de Janeiro in August. That is a slight increase on Qingdao and Weymouth, but more importantly a full regional qualification system is now in place
Posted on 19 May
Taming the beast-a conversation with Stuart Meurer of Parker Hannifin
While AC72 cats were fast, they difficult to control, so Oracle partnered with Parker Hannifin to innovate a better way. If you watched videos of the AC72s racing in the 34th America’s Cup (2013), you’re familiar with the mind-boggling speeds that are possible when wingsail-powered catamarans switch from displacement sailing to foiling mode. While foiling is fast, there’s no disguising the platform’s inherent instability. Now, Oracle Team USA has teamed up with Parker Hannifin to innovate a better way.
Posted on 18 May
From foiling Moths to Olympic starting lines-a Q&A with Bora Gulari
Bora Gulari’s is representing the USA at the Rio 2016 Olympics in the Nacra 17 class, along with teammate Louisa Chafee. Bora Gulari (USA) has made a strong name for himself within high-performance sailing circles, with wins at the 2009 and 2013 Moth Worlds. In between, he broke the 30-knort barrier and was the 2009 US SAILING Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. His latest challenge is representing the USA at the Rio 2016 Olympics in the Nacra 17 class as skipper, along with his teammate Louisa Chafee.
Posted on 12 May
Concern for Zika at Rio Olympics is now deadly serious
Alphabet soup is one description that has thus far not been used for either Guanabara Bay, Alphabet soup is one description that has thus far not been used for either Guanabara Bay, or the Rio Olympics. Many others have, and they were apt, but things have changed. So here now we have a situation where one man, Associate Professor Amir Attaran, who does have a more than decent string of letters after his name, is bringing nearly as many facts to bear as references at the article's end
Posted on 12 May
The importance of being Alive
Since buying the stunningly pretty Reichel-Pugh canting keel 66-footer, and re-naming her Alive, Since buying the stunningly pretty Reichel-Pugh canting keel 66-footer, and re-naming her Alive, the team have lined up for a lot of things, won plenty and nabbed a record, as well. She’s presently in a yard in the Philippines having a minor refit in readiness for the Australian season. It will commence with the upcoming Brisbane to Keppel and then head sharply into this year’s Hobart.
Posted on 10 May
Zhik - The brand born of a notion, not its history
here is probably every reason that ocean rhymes with notion. Zhik’s tagline is officially marketed as Made For Water There is probably every reason that ocean rhymes with notion. Zhik’s tagline has been officially marketed as Made For Water, and this is precisely what the company has done for the last eight years before the succinct and apt strapline came from out of R&D and into mainstream visibility.
Posted on 8 May
Shape of next Volvo Ocean Race revealed at Southern Spars - Part 1
Southern Spars has been confirmed as the supplier of spars for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race. In mid-April, Race Director, Jack Lloyd and Stopover Manager Richard Mason outlined the changes expected for the 40,000nm Race during a tour of Southern Spars 10,000sq metre specialist spar construction facility. A total of up to seven boats is expected to enter, but time is running out for the construction of any new boats.
Posted on 3 May