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

DRAGON QUEST | Part 1 Part 2

by William Thomas

Junk Boats

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 compounds.

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 the short, 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 combination.

"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 Asian commerce.

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 prohibited.

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 down.

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 seamen.

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 feet.

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 headstay.

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 appraisal: dhow.

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 Sea.


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”.