An article by William Thomas originally published in Wooden Boat magazine.

DRAGON QUEST | Part 1 Part 2

by William Thomas

Junk Boat

We are two nights out of Hong Kong, just settling into the demanding yoga of the watch-and-watch routine, when Thea calls me up on an eerie, darkened deck. "I thought it was a star at first," she says. "But it's getting closer." Still in the grip of half-formed dreams, I stare groggily along my consort's outstretched arm. A flickering gleam. alone in its own patch of blackness, might be the North Star. But my body knows. With a shock that brings me fully awake, nerve-endings flash an urgent warning: Junk!

"Oh, Christ," I think.

Then she is on us.

I order Thea to hold her course. But someone has sighted us. She turns slightly, a great winged shadow looming out of the night. I don't know whether it's the sudden, soundless rush of her approach, or the nearness of a phantom ship centuries out of place that raises my nape hairs. The junk passes so closely, we can hear the run of the wash along her side. Even close aboard, the single candle-lantern carried at her mainmasthead is a glimmer against Orion. Throwing a spotlight on our own full-battened sail, I wonder at her helmsman's thoughts as we cross tacks 20 yards - and a span of dynasties - apart.

Trimaran and junk. What are the odds for this encounter in waters that haven't seen a half-dozen multihulls since antiquity? But the junks are here, still plying the old searoad between Swatow and Canton. We know that now. And it really isn't such an odd pairing - for our vessels are directly related.

Both share the same Asian heritage. Both are derived from rafts - not those cumbersome log contrivances immortalized by Twain, but more graceful craft with shaped, upswept ends fashioned from hardened bamboo. Light. Stable. Fast under sail. Seaworthy as only an unsinkable boat can be.

James Hornell, our most knowledgeable voice on pre-historic seacraft, thinks the Chinese retained the raft's flat-bottom and broad ends, raising the gunwales to create the much drier, more capacious vessels Westerners know as the "junk". (The term is a Dutch pronunciation of djong, a word used by Malaysians trying to warp their tongues around the Chinese word, chuuan, for boat.)

It's hard to say exactly when this took place. But early Chinese texts tell of men making wide-ended boats from rafts around 2700 BC. And it looks very much as if the Egyptians were copying this shape - along with the Chinese tiller and stern rudder - two centuries later. We do know that the first junks were catamarans. Cro-Magnon cave paintings on the Indochina coast show junk-shaped, double-hulled vessels - the Eastern answer to improving offshore performance while retaining the raft's stability.

The Austronesians stayed with the multihull concept, developing sophisticated double-canoes and single-outrigged proas tat would take them to remote outliers scattered over one-fifth of the planet's surface. The double-outrigged "trimaran," a Vietnamese derivation, subsequently cruised the Indian Ocean at a time when the Chinese were making incredible voyages of their own in vessels whose single hulls must have struck those first dock committees as exceedingly strange.

But the junk sailed just fine. In 459 AD, the Chinese monk, Hui-shen, acting on rumors of a legendary land called Fu Sang, voyaged northeast through Japan and the blustery Aleutians to Alaska, where he turned south, following the American west coast. You can read an account of is voyage in Chinese court records - embellished, no doubt, but hardly science fiction. Within 50 years. Chinese knotted cords, wheeled toys, elephant figurines and Tai Chi symbology were filtering south from Panama.

By choosing the simplicity, stability and capacity of a single hull whose length was roughly three-times its beam, draft half the beam, the Chinese set a standard for shipbuilding unmatched in the West until the late 16th century. You can say many things about the junk - and many people do. But 4,600 years of continuous service must be the benchmark for "traditional" watercraft.

Maybe this explains it. I love Celerity. The trimaran's sailing qualities exactly suit my nature. But I am obsessed by junks.

Maybe the adventurer in me is attracted to these progenitors of voyaging - single and multihull craft alike - which were the first to reach for far horizons. Or perhaps it's this notion of the East I find so compelling - the Tao and receding purple mountains and people who are wise in ways a Westerner cannot know. But, most likely, my delight comes from the hart of all obsessions. Quite simply, junks turn me on.

"There are no more junks here," we were informed upon our arrival at Hong Kong. "The fishermen have traded their sails for bus engines, and their blunt-bowed boats for hybrid foreign hulls. The true Chinese sailing junk is gone."

But we had sailed all the way from Fiji for a glimpse of this exotic craft, whose silhouette once spelled old Cathay as unmistakably as calligraphy. "If a single junk remains," I informed the mate, "we will seek her out and photograph her under sail."

My vow was kept - not once, but on many occasions. Our informants were wrong. During our year afloat in Hong Kong waters we saw junks nearly every time we sailed - high-sterned, three-masted craft gliding out of the past against misted, timeless hills. Here was the remnant of a trade so archaic, these might have been ghost ships ghosting along an ancient shore. But, in time, it was Hong Kong's descending jets. glittering cruise liners and neon skyline that seemed to us illusion.

A thousand years are as fleeting as a junkman's smile. Tacking in intricate ballet, we followed junks with bare steerageway through the midsummer chaos of Victoria Harbor. Hovercraft, jetfoils, Star ferries, crude carriers and container ships formed a dizzying procession. "Just call out the traffic within 50 yards," I finally told Thea.

Through it all, the junks wended their way. Silent, unhurried, immutable as only the Chinese can be. Though the British Jack flew boldly from police launches that often stopped them to check for contraband and IIs (Illegal Immigrants), the junkmen knew who owns these waters. When the fickle monsoon failed, the engineless junks would come to anchor in a few favored bays among the hundreds of inlets that indent Hong Kong Island and the New Territories. We often joined them there, anchoring Celerity well clear before rowing across to watch the great sails come rattling down. We could not speak Fukinese. But we could smell the smoke from cooking fires tended on the high poops. Furled sails and woodsmoke remain some of my strongest impressions of junks at rest on the mainland coast.

Sometimes, though, a junk would prefer to lie where the monsoon left her, awaiting an inshore breeze. Off Tai Tam Bay in the hush of a summer sunset, the creak of tiller ropes echoed from high bluffs as we closed on a wallowing junk looking for an evening slant. The sound of hemp squealing through wooden blocks raised the flesh on our arms, evoking a nostalgia all sailors share: the call of working sail, as old as sail itself.

A Chinese selling powerboats in Aberdeen told me that many of these trading junks are 80 and 100 years old. I can well believe it. Gaping, paint-starved planking and sails that look like a kicked-in picket fence are signs of significant entropy. Just add teredos - for which this coast is justifiably proud - and the whole rickety assemblage of an authentic China trader looks more precarious than promising.

Until you try to catch one.

Now, Celerity is no sluggard. Even loaded with cruising gear, the gives us eight knows to windward in a fair breeze. We usually needed that and more to overhaul junks setting out for home on the wings of the winter monsoon.

We could outpoint them - just. Our trimaran tacks through 90 degrees; the junks we pursued managed to get around within 100 degrees, This is a weatherly as many cruising ketches, and far superior to the 130-degree tacking angle of square-riggers at the height of their development.

Leeway was noticeable close alongshore - where we often found ourselves trying to coax capricious winds around an obstructing headland. Celerity's shoal-draft provided an identical handicap. In neither case would I call this leeway excessive - certainly no more than that of the old gaffer I once took through Canada's Gulf Islands.

Though somewhat slow in stays, an 80-foot junk tacks at least as quickly as the brigantine that later carried me to the Philippines. There is no question that the unstayed lugsail is a much easier rig to handle. Just put the helm down, and let those self-tending booms come across.

But junk sails are big, and very heavy. Though they can be reefed easily on any point of sail by even a boy, who simply drops the required number of folds between the lazyjacks before belaying the halyard, we often saw two or three men straining at the midship windlass to take up a stretched halyard or peak the main upper yard.

An intact southern Chinese lugsail, properly trimmed with its multiple sheets, is a lovely foil. North of the Yangtze River, junk sails are almost rectangular, with a luff about twice the length of their foot. Only the uppermost battens are inclined toward the bow. On China's south coast. from Fukien Province to Canton and Hainan Island, the angle of inclination of the upper yards becomes so pronounced that the leech takes on a graceful, rounded shape.

Edwin Doran Jr., an authority on early Pacific seacraft whose writing provides much of this article's technical detail, believes this rounded lugsail is a more recent innovation. Perhaps. The southern Chinese have always been that country's radicals. But the shape looks precociously right. Scale up a Hobiecat sail, and the resemblance is startling.

Shanghai junks still use leeboards to assist them upwind, a Chinese invention that preceded the Dutch use of such devices by 800 years. Many south coast offshore junks set a daggerboard well forward to balance the big leeway-resisting rudder aft. The rudder is balanced on river junks - another 1,000 year-old Chinese innovation - and fenestrated on all junks of appreciable size.

These diamond-shaped rudder cutouts are quite large. The owner of Gloria Maris, the only sailing junk we met employed as a yacht during our eight-year Pacific cruise, told me that these fenestrations eased the helm greatly - particularly when backing under power. He also showed us photographs of his Chinese-built fishing junk hauled on a Solomon's slipway. She wasn't flat-bottomed at all. Surprisingly narrow-sectioned, her rockered underbody was round and sleek as a dolphin's.

I studied that picture for a long time. Just like Celerity's, I thought. Combine that round bottom with elliptical, rigid sails offering unlimited draft control, and what are in effect twin daggerboards (junk rudders may be fully raised for beaching) and you've got an advanced sailing craft indeed - hardly the lubberly box the junk's detractors claim.

The trick is avoid stacking a lot of superstructure atop those beamy decks. Gloria Maris had an enclosed wheelhouse, and no board. She motor-sailed to windward - but did that efficiently, with the engine just ticking over.

The engineless sailing junks we later ranged alongside carried no structure above their raised poops. All showed an exceptionally clean wake. Here again, the Chinese found the key to reducing water resistance millennia before the West got over its fish fixation. Up until the late 16th century, European naval architects placed the master-couple - the cross-section of maximum beam - forward of amidships. They thought that ships could swim as well as fish if their hulls were shaped like a cod's head, with a mackerel tail.

But a ship lives on top of the water, in a turbulent interface of waves and wind. So the Chinese placed the master-couple aft of amidships, like a duck. Not only is this a more effective shape for moving across the water at all but very high speeds, but in foul weather the broad stern sections of the duck and the junk help keep both creatures weathercocked into advancing seas. Tailfeathers - and high poops - help, too.

As it turned out, we fetched Hong Kong on a night Clavell would have envied, with a big sea running in half a gale, rain and fog. The motor-junks we encountered 10 miles off Waglan Light we riding head-to-wind as snugly as the seabirds on the crests around them.

Their sailing sisters would later lead us on many a merry chase, Beating, or footing fast with the sheets started, we were hard pressed to get within camera range of quarry carrying far greater sail area than Celerity on two to two-and-a-half times her 30-foot waterline length.

On one memorable weekend while visiting the temple at Fat Tong Mun, we chanced to sea a junk resplendent in fresh paint and new sails making for the narrow, tide-ripped gap where her forebears once paid a tax for using this shortcut through Hong Kong. At first we thought she was British owned - she looked as pretty as a classic capitalist yacht. When we saw that she hailed from the People's Republic, we ran for the dinghy.

But we had some drama in the narrows. She got away. Next day, we spotted her distinctive tanbark mainsail down near the Chinese border. It was blowing fresh by then. She had the wind up her skirts and the look of home in her eyes. I gave Celerity every stitch of sail she could carry.

Our pursuit was wild and glorious in the extreme, spray shattering like ice as the lee float punched through the deep-jade swell, main and jib fisted into hard-bellied curves. Uncommon sunlight cast sea and shore in old relief as we chased that junk to within a biscuit's toss of the China shore - caught her, too, with her crew cheering us on. Later that evening, I found Celerity's long-suffering maststep split right down the middle.

The maststep was replaced with an additional steel plate, in case we should ever meet that junk again. I take my obsessions seriously.

No doubt, the Chinese wondered what all the fuss was about. Junks are nothing special to them. In fact, they eschew the moniker, "junk," identifying their craft instead according to the district where they were built.

Shipwrights working entirely by "eye" have gradually adapted their vessels to the areas they serve. There are skewed junks whose oddly twisted bows mimic dangerous river bends, barge-like junks meant to be dismantled after a single river passage, offshore fishing versions with outboard catwalks, modified to handle nets or lines. More than two dozen coastal derivations - not counting river or lake types - navigate Chinese waters today. No wonder British steamship masters once found their latitude on the China coast by noting the style of junks they passed.

Winner of four Canadian journalism awards, articles and photographs by William Thomas have appeared in more than 50 publications in eight countries, with translations into French, Dutch and Japanese. Clips from his video documentaries have appeared on CNN, NBC, the CBC and the current mainstream movie release, “The Corporation”.