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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 SW
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.

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