History May Not Save Priceless Abandoned Ship

Historic Chinese ship searches for a new home

Half a century ago, six men with no sailing experience climbed aboard an aging Chinese junk in Taiwan and survived a typhoon that nearly wrecked the little ship. But after sailing nearly 7,000 miles across the Pacific, they were greeted by cheering crowds as they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now that turn-of-the-century junk, which experts say may be last salvageable vessel of its type, could be destroyed if it does not find a permanent home by the end of December.

With it would go a piece of U.S. and Chinese history — the boat's name, the "Free China," evokes Cold War rhetoric. But the ship also holds the unwritten knowledge of traditional Chinese boatbuilding, said Hans Van Tilburg, a historian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It's a rare document, a rare record of hundreds, maybe thousands of years of seafaring tradition," said Van Tilburg, who has written about the "Free China" in his book, "Chinese Junks on the Pacific." "This was never recorded. It was always an art, a skill passed down in families."

The junk is sitting in a Sacramento River Delta boatyard — abandoned by the last of a series of volunteer caretakers after he fell behind on storage payments. And the boat yard owner has given notice that it must be removed.

The hull has integrity; the curved wooden planks bent over fire by craftsmen on China's Fujian coast are still true. But the painted eels and phoenixes that brought luck are long gone, as are the mast and the battened sails. A 13-foot section of hull was hacked off the stern so the boat would take less room in storage.

But to Dione Chen, the aging hulk evokes the stories her father, Reno Chia-Lin Chen, told about his 112-day trip from Taiwan in 1955.

He was one of five Chinese middle-class professionals who fled their homeland's communist revolution and wound up as commercial fishermen in Taiwan. The dangerous work held no future, so one of them, Paul Chow, seized upon a newspaper item about a yacht race from the U.S. to Sweden; they sent in an application to enter the contest and somehow were accepted.

"There was never going to be any other way to come to America," said Dione Chen. "There was never going to be any sponsor, any money, any job, any relative to help."

The young men had no boat, so they sold what they had — even bikes and typewriters — to raise money. The governor of Taiwan offered to purchase an aging junk if they would name it the "Free China," advertising Taiwan's dispute with the communist People's Republic of China.

When they applied at the American Consulate for U.S. visas, Vice Consul Calvin Mehlert — also in his 20s — not only granted them the papers but asked for a place on board for an adventure of a lifetime, even if it wasn't well planned.

"I thought 'This isn't a big deal, the winds blow in that direction,'" said Mehlert, now 80. "I knew I'd never get another chance like this."

After a failed launch attempt damaged the boat, delaying their departure from Keelung harbor, a typhoon off Okinawa destroyed the junk's rigging and forced weeks of repair in Yokohama.

They had hoped to sail through the Panama Canal to join the trans-Atlantic race in July, but the delays made that impossible. The junk never left San Francisco.

And yet, the trip across the Pacific went smoothly. They even kept two chickens; photos and movies shot by Mehlert show the crew feeding the birds — and turning one into dinner on Paul Chow's birthday.

Arriving in San Francisco, they were feted with invitations, a television appearance and an historic marker.

Chow eventually became a physics professor at California State University, Northridge, and Chen an engineer. Mehlert returned to Taiwan and served as an interpreter during President Nixon's 1972 visit.

The junk did not fare as well, said Dione Chen. "Many people were passionate about it, fell in love with it, but it never had a permanent caretaker," she said.

After Reno Chen died in Sept. 2007, Dione Chen took her children to see the junk and was moved by the sight. "It struck me that this is a unique vessel, that tells a bigger story — of immigration, of the Chinese community, of my own family," she said. "I was on the hook. I started doing everything I could to save it."

She reached out to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where curator John Muir recognized the 65-foot vessel's rarity.

"It's a basically extinct vessel type," Muir said. "It's very likely one of the last remaining original vessels of this type."

However, the maritime park run by the National Park Service cannot afford to take in the vessel, Muir said.

"We're all sailors, and in the dream scenario, someone could get it to sail again," he said. "But that's a tall order."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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