The story of how an inexperienced crew of five young Chinese fishermen and one American diplomat realized their dream of crossing the Pacific Ocean is a story of determination, luck and spunk.
Now, as then, the Free China has the power to capture the imagination and goodwill of many and to spur interest in and understanding of maritime achievement and history.
Fall 1954: Journey starts with an implausible dream
Paul Chuan-Chun Chow was a mainland Chinese refugee who became a fisherman upon joining a United Nations program to develop modern fisheries in Taiwan. Between long fishing trips, Chow hatched a seemingly impossible idea to enter an authentic Chinese junk in a transatlantic race from New York to Sweden.
To his surprise, the New York Yacht Club race committee accepted his application. Now came the challenge of making the dream become reality. He faced many challenges:
· He didn't own a junk and knew it would be hard to find one.
· He didn't have the funds to buy one.
· He didn't have a crew.
· He didn't know how to sail.
· He didn't have a visa to America.
These challenges didn't stop Chow.
Winter 1954-55: Crew is recruited. Journey captures public interest and support.
The story of the dream to enter an authentic Chinese junk in a transatlantic race became a well-known cause and source of pride in Taiwan.
Amazingly, with luck, perseverance and the support of many, things fell in place. The Rotary Club, Fisheries Administration, army, navy, local business community and others donated supplies and funds. The Governor of Taiwan donated the funds to purchase the junk at the then-prohibitively costly amount of $1,150 US and gave the junk its new name, the Free China..
The Free China crew of six included five Chinese fishermen—all originally from mainland China—and one American diplomat.
· Purser: Reno Chia-Lin Chen
· Coxswain: Benny Chia-Cheng Hsu
· Navigator/Radio Operator: Paul Chuan-Chun Chow
· Skipper: Marco Yu-Lin Chung
· Rigging Master/Doctor: "Huloo" Loo-Chi Hu
· Photographer: Calvin Mehlert
None of the crew knew how to sail a junk.
Spring 1955: Far from smooth launch.
The crew's lack of sailing experience led to near-cancellation of the journey, great embarrassment and concerns over the crew's safety when they were unable to sail the Free China following a gala send-off from Keelung harbor on March 8, 1955. Unable to handle the heavy mainsail, the crew lost control over the junk, breaking lashings and bolts, and knocking the ship's compass over the side.
Following repairs and emergency sailing lessons, the junk left Keelung again on April 16. This time, the Free China succeeded in leaving the harbor but not long afterward became disabled after snapping all spare tillers in deteriorating weather. Defying official orders to abandon the junk and return to Taiwan after being rescued and towed to Okinawa, the Free China set out for Japan following additional repairs. On May 13, 1955, they arrived in Yokohama harbor and were greeted by cheering schoolchildren, Chinese organizations, vessels, officials and media representatives. It took one month to make the necessary repairs, and it was not until June 17, 1955 that the junk departed again. The delay eliminated any hope of making the July deadline for the transatlantic race, but they were determined to proceed to San Francisco.
Summer 1955: Uneventful Pacific crossing.
The actual transpacific crossing from Yokohama to San Francisco took 54 days and were relatively uneventful. To the surprise of the five fishermen on the crew, not a single fish was caught during the entire voyage. The junk averaged five to seven knots. The whole voyage from Taiwan lasted 112 days.
On August 8, 1955, the Free China was welcomed to San Francisco harbor by a Coast Guard cutter escort and hundreds of local San Franciscans and other spectators, and docked at Pier 43. The successful completion of the voyage was celebrated in Taiwan as well.
Local newspapers reported, "The first Chinese junk to enter San Francisco Bay in a century—or, maybe ever—did so yesterday."