by William Thomas
Recent excavation of a 60-tonner built in Canton
during the Ch'in dynasty show that junk construction
has not changed for at least a thousand years.
A junk has no keel or stemposts, no frames as
we know them. Following ancient techniques once
used worldwide, the Chinese built the shell of
the vessel first, installing solid bulkheads
as the edge-fastened planking was built up. Great
semicircular wales of timber spiked along the
sides gave additional support. Monocoque construction
is tremendously strong -asbuilders of today's
cold-molded boats know. Full bulkheads also gave
junks the same watertight integrity as a length
of jointed bamboo.
Of course, in the absence of adhesives, the
fastenings of a junk's edge-planking is critical.
The Chinese drilled diagonal holes through the
edge of each plank into the plank beneath. Long
nails were then driven in to prohibit lateral
movement. (Some of these iron spikes were recovered
at the Canton dig - iron nails, circa 221 BC!)
Plank separation was prevented by iron dogs -
very large staples - joining adjacent planks.
For caulking, Chinese shipbuilders used chunam,
a mix of ground lime and tung oil, with chopped
hemp or old fishnets added to achieve the proper
viscosity. Setting hard within 48 hours, this
2,500 year-old recipe is said to be superior
to all but a few of the very latest caulking
But modernity's greatest influence has been
the depletion of traditional junk-building materials
- yakal supplanting the camphor, fir and redwoods
discovered at Canton. River junks are flat-bottomed.
But offshore junks, as I saw in the Solomons,
have pronounced rocker. To achieve this shape,
the joined bottom planks are winched down hard
against a sloping bed of sandbags and timbers.
The side-planking and bulkheads that follow serve
to retain this curve.
The rocker of a deep-sea junk is echoed in the
sheer that sweeps high fore and aft. The side
have a marked tumblehome, curving sweetly into
transom ends at approximately half the beam of
the vessel. The transoms themselves are inclined
outwards. At the waterline, they round smoothly
into the bottom.
You can bet those blunt bows pound as they
dip to a head sea. To watch a junk pitch to
square chop that builds over the shallow South
China Sea is to invite internal distress - especially
since your own craft is likely doing the same.
Weary of the rigors of overland voyaging, Marco
Polo took passage on a junk from Fukien to the
Persian Gulf. He wished he hadn't. "I long
for the sight of land," he wrote in 1295
- presumably when he could hold a nib back ashore.
Junks are also prone to capsize. Weight aloft
and shoal-draft have always proved a dangerous
"Just south of Taiwan we ran into the worst
storm of our lives," the owner of Gloria
Maris related. "We could not sail. The seas
were huge, breaking and confused. With the engine
running hard ahead she road well head-to-wind.
But we had a problem with the batteries. The
engine started cutting out. I knew that if it
packed up and she turned broadside, we were gone." Gloria
Maris survived that low with jumper-cables and
prayer - only to be caught by a typhoon at Guam.
This time she played duck. pivoting safely on
her mooring as 100-knot winds blew every yacht
around her ashore.
It was her seagoing virtues that once made the
junk monarch of Far Eastern seas. Centuries before
the first Portuguese carrack rounded the Cape
of Good Hope, fleets of up to 2,000 junks dominated
Once called "Dragon Ships" or "Sea
Hawk Ships" according to their function,
combined flotillas of war, trading and treasure
junks combed Indonesian waters. On the routine
10-day run between Shanghai and Tientin, six-masted,
1,0000 ton junks carried cargo in 13 holds -
and several hundred crew. Junks launched at Canton
touched African shores. The Chinese were prodigious
shipbuilders. Between 1405 and 1419, 2,149 junks
were constructed at Nanking. Among 23 different "rates" were
94 treasure ships, perhaps the largest wooden
ships ever built. A 36-foot long rudderpost unearthed
there in 1962 would have turned a 452 square-foot
rudder blade - big enough to steer the 449 by
184-foot junk that Edwin Doran and others believe
was attached to it.
Sixty years before Columbus' mutinous crew sighted
land, the Three Jewel Eunuch, Chengo-ho, took
100 junks and 27,000 men on a voyage through
the Indies. From Ceylon they passed into the
Persian Gulf and the Red Seam where they called
at Mecca. Chengo-ho, or one of his detached squadrons,
crossed to Africa, coasting as far as fabled
Zanzibar. But Chinese charts from this period
indicate that one or several junks rounded the
Cape of Good Hope and continued westward into
the open Atlantic.
Who knows where the junk might have gone from
there? Shortly after Chengo-ho returned bearing
tales more incredible than treasure, China's
Imperial government reverted to strict isolationism.
And the building of large, seagoing junks was
From the apogee of her reign, the junk nose-dived
into obscurity. By the time the Portuguese reached
Macau in 1557, the armadas of giant junks they'd
heard so much about had vanished. Tens of thousands
of junks remained in the coasting trade. but
today, those numbers have dwindled into the thousands.
So, when the crew of the brigantine Ji Fung described
how they had sailed "through a fleet of
sailing junks" just outside Swatow, I determined
to go there. Celerity was y then in Japan. During
our year in Hong Kong we had negotiated in vain
for permission to sail up the Pearl River to
Canton. Local sponsors, diplomatic contacts -
even a polite request from the Crown colony's
unofficial government, the Hong Kong Shanghai
Bank - failed to move a bureaucracy intimidated
by the unprecedented. Foreign yachts in Canton?
No way, they said. Politely.
In late 1983, Swatow was declared a Special
Economic Zone. The principal junk trading port
south of Fuchow was re-opened to outsiders. In
the fall of '84, I flew back to Hong Kong. China
Travel was not yet handing out visas to Swatow.
But a Chinese friends got my passport stamped
and booked my passage on a steamer.
Two days later I was at sea.
The only Occidental aboard an all-Chinese ship,
I am treated well. A pretty stewardess conducts
me to my stateroom: tiny, worn but comfortable.
For dinner, I descend to the crowded dining room
and point out the dishes I want. the weather
is calm, the Chinese unobtrusive. I sleep well.
"Oh Susannah" and "The Star Spangled
Banner" sound an incongruous reveille. But
I am already on deck, straining to sight the
first junk. Sampans bob like toys in the paling
darkness. Propelled by a standing oarsman facing
forward and a companion sculling aft, the small
boats shoal like the fish they seek three miles
off the moonlit China coast. Some are assisted
by small squaresails. I see no junks.
The sun tops the horizon, and I begin to panic.
As the ship noses into a channel between the
shore and an offlying island, Swatow opens ahead.
Four junks, ephemeral as dream in shifting monsoon
mists, appear from behind the headland.
I rush to the starboard rail. Six, eight, a
dozen junks take form like a mirage. I stand
without breathing. The seabreak booms loudly
over the cries of gulls. But the junks make no
sound as the glide steadily seawards, haunting
as a screen-painting in that fragile light.
Distant sails are still emerging when the island
cuts them abruptly from view. Like pirates of
old, we swoop into the lee, surprising the rest
of the fleet making sail there.
I want to shout. I cannot speak. Thirty or forty
junks are getting underway - I don't have time
to count. Some are moving under power, their
diesels thumping urgently. Others are sailing
wing-and-wing toward open water, graceful as
butterflies startled into flight. The rest are
running up a latticework of sail, casting off
moorings, gathering headway between neighbors
turning out for the day.
We turn hard to port into the miles-long mouth
of the Han. Two gray gunboats, their crews mustered
fir morning colors under awnings aft, lie anchored
in the river approaches. As we slip between them,
they exchange piercing whistle blasts.
China, China, China. The thought pounds like
a chant as we pass shipping moored in the roadstead,
Ferries overladen with commuters and their bicycles
crisscross the river. A tug and several junks
hurry past us downtide. The low-roofed city of
Swatow seems to swallow up the surrounding plain.
Far in the hazy distance, a scattering of junk
sails takes shape against the mountains of the
Han. Our ship's siren sounds. Our hook is let
go and a string of firecrackers shrouds the wharf
in gunsmoke as we come alongside. The sun tops
the cloudbank, exploding the leading sails white.
The Red Guard clears us ashore. Emerging from
the customs shed, I find myself in a narrow lane
filled with shouting food venders and the din
of construction. The only Mandarin I know - a
ready sailor's "I love you" - proves
of limited usefulness in arranging transport
and lodging. Mangling a dozen guidebook phrases,
I clamber into the back of a three-wheeled jitney
without exchanging a single intelligible word
with its driver. I can only hope I'd pointed
to the ideograph for "hotel" instead
of "toilet" as he slams the kick-start
The motorcycle fires, and we accelerate at full
throttle into broad, tree-lined streets jammed
with cyclists and pedestrians. The dust, heat
and colorful garb of the populace are unexpected.
The bedlam isn't.
Our horn blares. Limbs, faces and other jitneys
are framed for an instant in horrifying close-up
in our plastic windshield - then magically whisked
aside. I shut my eyes. The hotel, a newly opened
luxury showpiece miles out of town, is a kind
of quarantine anchorage for visitors. I am their
second foreign guest. After checking in, I head
immediately back to the waterfront.
Following that afternoon's reconnaissance, I
spend the next two days photographing junks.
Crowds of curious people press close without
speaking as I record junks dried out on river
mudflats, junks being poled through shallows,
junks carrying a tide running at four knots or
better along the Swatow shore.
My God, they are magnificent.
There are small, ,skiff-size junks carrying
a lone fisherman and a single sail. High-ended,
oceangoing junks laden with tea, tallow, kerosene,
coal and lumber - and no doubt more contemporary
trading goods hidden in lockers below. Two-masted
junks pretty as yachts. And broad, barge-like
three-masters carrying gravel on freeboards so
low, Herreshoff would've applauded.
On the last afternoon I narrowly escape arrest
after pointing a 5000-millimeter lens at this
militarily-sensitive harbor. Bowing low, apologizing
profusely to two irate officials, I back quickly
onto a busy street. Red shoulder-tabbed PLA swarm
everywhere. I dart into a long alley past people
cooking meals, gossiping and repairing machinery
on their doorsteps. Children gaze wide-eyed as
I emerge at a run behind a seawall in time to
see the big river junk I'd been photographing
swing in toward her anchored sisters.
She comes down very fast on the flood, sails
flung huge and tattered before a following breeze.
Fenders are hastily rigged on the nearest anchored
junk. Her onrushing sister never slackens speed.
An instant before collision, her helm is put
hard over. The 60-foot ship spins on her heel.
She shoots high into the wind, lets go her bower,
and drops back alongside her neighbor in one
clean motion. Spring lines are made fast as the
sails come down like a curtain on a performance
that should silence forever uninformed carping
about "clumsy" junks and "inept" Chinese
I exit Swatow before the next dawn aboard a
minibus bulging with Chinese travelers and our
luggage. For the next 12 hours we jolt over a
landscape of red earth and ceaseless toil. By
dusk I am standing on the 23rd floor of my room
at Canton's White Swan Hotel watching junks come
up the Pearl River under tow. Most are making
for Whampoa, another 25 miles upstream. But as
the light fades, I spot a pair of oceangoing
traders moored neared the opposite shore.
The following morning I trespass a walled factory
yard, moving to within a few feet of the inshore
junk. Her crew are cooking a meal aft. Laundry
flaps on the main boom.
I'd guess her to be 70-feet overall. In this
strict police state, I don't dare risk their
livelihood by asking to go aboard. But I can
see the mainsail parrels clearly, and the big
wooden windlass in the waist used fro handling
ground tackle and running rigging alike. The
raised daggerboard shows a maximum draft of five
There seems to be a lot of rigging hanging from
her mast. In my excitement, it takes me a moment
to notice the club-footed jib hanked on the junk's
Rigging! A jib! Her stem is pointed, too. I
hadn't seen it because everything blended so
naturally. But now, viewing that sharply V-shaped
bow from ahead, a single notion dominates my
Those rakish Islamic lines show as distinctly
as genetic traits resurfacing in some bold mutation.
Had Tim Severin seen this when he brought his
dhow here? I never saw his book. But I'd read
that southern junks had borrowed from another
of my favorite craft. (Like "junk," "dhow" is
a misnomer too evocative to discard.) Only this
wasn't "borrowing." This was a marriage.
It looked like a long and happy union. I could
see how the Chinese lugsail would eliminate the
lateen's severe handling drawbacks. The Arabian
bow and Western jib would give the junk a whole
new outlook to windward. Here, I realized, was
the ultimate Chinese evolution of a craft frozen
for 300 years in a state of "perfection" by
Celestial Kingdom rulers. I would have liked
to have seen her sail.
As the afternoon hovercraft blasted downriver
past junks tacking out to sea, I speculated on
the fate of these ancient seacraft. This vast,
desperately poor country can ill afford to lose
the last vestiges of her windborne commerce.
Will China reconstruct her aging junk fleets?
Or will the tapping of inshore oil reserves and
an overwhelming desire for technological "face" hasten
the junk's demise?
Only necessity, China's perpetual arbiter, will
decide. But if extinction appears inevitable,
eulogies are premature. I think back to our nighttime
encounter. And the incredible dawn that followed...
On the Dragon Sea named so aptly by the Chinese,
already hull-up when I gain the deck at daybreak,
nine junks ride a crack in the eastern sky. Their
patiently spread sails stir like fans brushed
pink by an unglimpsed sun.
We are surrounded by junks. Swatow lies 40 miles
north. Their destination, Canton, bears 150 miles
southwest. But here there is only a slow-heaving
swell, gray as unmarked slate awaiting a scrawl
of breeze. I rub my eyes, unused to crossing
time zones measured in centuries.
Even as our own sails fill, the nearest junk
turns toward us. She comes down on an invisible
banister of air, narrow-waisted, 70 or 80 feet
in length. Her bluff bows are raked more sharply
than those of junks we've seen inshore. I cannot
guess her age, though she must be old. Her people
crowd the rail as we pass, Silent. Staring. Are
we mirrored anachronisms, strangers to our era?
Or do our respective wooden sailing ships bring
full-circle the divergent trends of junk and
outrigged canoe in a new Dawn of Sail?
The answer lies in the Far East, in the country
we are seeking, where the Japanese are already
trading with ships whose computer-controlled
rigid sails would have been recognized by junk
masters a thousand years ago.
The circle is broken. Our vessels pass, dwindle,
vanish into the China dawn. And once again we
are alone with our thoughts. Alone on the Dragon