by William Thomas
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
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
James Hornell, our most knowledgeable
voice on pre-historic seacraft, thinks the
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.