Travelmag Banner

Pacific crossing in a Chinese junk

On April 13th 2008 the Princess Taiping, together with her crew of eight, set sail for Hong Kong, the first leg of a 15,000 mile journey that would take us from the island of Xiamen, in the Fujian Province of China, to our final destination in San Francisco.

The return trip would take just over a year, and would provide further proof that such a crossing was indeed possible for ancient Chinese mariners using traditional boat-building skills and navigation techniques.  Onboard were five Chinese, two Taiwanese, including the only woman on the trip, and myself, Hugh Morrow, the only American. I was twenty-eight years old and for me it was the adventure of a lifetime, the realised ambition of a young boy that dreamed of sailing the world. It was, coincidentally, also the first time I had sailed on the sea, having previously picked up my sailing skills on the lakes and rivers of Oregon. A chance meeting several years beforehand kindled my interest in sailing, a passion that really began by accident.

When I was twenty-four I met a retired couple that were living on a ketch moored on a Portland river. I struck up a conversation with them. I was amazed at their ability to live such a life — it seemed exciting, they made quite an impact on me. The day after meeting them I drew out 2400 dollars from my bank account, pretty much all my savings, and bought a boat, a twenty-six foot long Chrysler. At the time I knew nothing about boats, I just did what felt right, trusted my instincts. I guess people thought I was a little crazy. I certainly brought a smile to a few faces on my first sailing from Longview, Oregon to Portland, Oregon, about sixty miles along the Columbia River. My lack of experience cost me my wind vein and part of my rigging, lost as I tried unsuccessfully to navigate under a bridge. Eventually, I got to my destination together with my sailing companion, Roxy, my Doberman.

And so in 2004, I started to learn how to sail. Every weekend and every spare moment I had, I spent on a boat, nurtured and coaxed by a local boat-builder, Jeff, who helped me develop my skills.

I arrived in China having read that the island of Xiamen in the Fujian Province, had ambitions to become one of the yachting capitals of the world, I quit my job and headed for the island, determined to become part of the boating-development boom.

The Princess Taiping, which was 15 feet wide at the beam, and 54 feet long, was an exact handcrafted copy of a Ming Dynasty war junk. She was constructed using the same traditional methods and was already preparing for her sea trials by the time I found out about the planned expedition. Finding local boat builders with the right skills had been a difficult task for her captain. Finding a tree that was both straight and long enough for a mast was also another major challenge. Ten men took three months to find an appropriate timber. The hand stitched sail had to be dyed many times because this process provided UV and vital anti-fungal protection.

A local ex-pat magazine, the Xiamen Wave, reported that the skipper of the Taiping was looking for an international crew. I applied immediately, gave up everything I owned once again, and headed for sea. My head was filled with adventure: the reality of the voyage though was a little different, more about survival than the swashbuckling heroism and daring-do I craved.

Our outbound route from Xiamen, took us first to Hong Kong, then Taiwan, Japan and then to California, crossing the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was much tougher than I expected and facilities very basic. Being at sea for extended periods of time was a real challenge, there was no privacy on board and meals were a constant diet of fish with rice. At times the psychological demands on me were as hard as the physical demands, but I was determined to complete the trip, no matter what. Sleeping in the hold was very uncomfortable; I used to sleep sideways on in my bunk because I was longer than the allotted sleeping space. My back was often twisted and painful. During the outward crossing we lost our water supplies. The water containers corroded and we had to drink rust-coloured water, filtered through our towels, for several days in order to survive. We also lost other essential equipment after being hit by a rogue wave on the port side. This held us up because we had to take on new supplies and provisions.  I guess we were running a month late by the time we entered American waters.

In mid September, a large low-pressure system moved in on us, surrounding the Princess as she chased for Vancouver. Our boat was 40 degrees north, 153 degrees south when waves started to get larger and larger. We were all laughing as breaking water started to pound the bow, splashing everyone. Gallows humour: in truth, we were very frightened. Blown by giant winds, our tiny boat bobbed recklessly like flotsam. In the gray rain-draped daylight, we jagged across walls of water that towered in front of us, stomachs taut with anticipation as we remembered the faces of our loved ones, wondering whether we would ever see them again.

And so, on September 18th 2008, after I finished my watch, I retired below deck to try and sleep. The Taiping Junk was pitching and rolling heavily in the gathering storm, it was impossible to rest as fear pumped adrenalin into my system. In the darkness of the hold I heard the sickening ‘bang’ that signalled that the boat had turned over. The Princess had capsized.

Achia brings in a Mahi Mahi

Outside our skipper was yelling that he wanted everyone out. I tried to open the sliding hatch cover but it would not move. Freezing water was pouring in, splashing onto my shoulders as I fought with the cover. Eventually I pushed my hand through a ventilation hole and tried to move the blockage. I wrenched my hands around, desperately clawing at anything that might be blocking my exit. A pile of books and pipes showered around my head, falling onto my bed, filling the hold with water and debris. I grabbed the lifejacket I used as my pillow and scrambled on deck. The whole starboard side was flooded, the crew were already doing what they could to empty water out—our buckets had been washed overboard. We were frantically bailing out with coffee-cups, our bare hands and a broken dustpan. I thought we were going to die. Some of my buddies, woken suddenly from their rest, had no time to put on clothes and were dressed only in their shorts. The sea was freezing and water still pouring in. We shivered with cold as we worked but knew we had to get the boat upright again somehow. Maybe someone was watching over us; maybe luck was on our side, we eventually got the boat to lift from the sea. In order to remove the remaining water from the hull we had to move our pump around to different flooded sections of the boat. We used cord from one of our cell-phones and an iPod lead to make an extension cable to run power to the bilge pump. I guess this was the first time an Apple product had ever been used to help save a distressed Chinese junk!

About four weeks later, after crossing the Pacific, we were supposed to end up in Vancouver after a 69-day voyage from Japan.

Lao Lang with a catch of squid

However we could not sail north because of prevailing head winds into which a junk, unlike other boats, cannot sail. We were therefore forced to sail south and into more turbulent seas. On October 3rd the Taiping arrived at Eureka, California and from there we made our way in rough seas but without incident, to San Francisco where we arrived on the 12th October. We got a great welcome from everyone, people were very interested, very kind, and some made donations to help us on our return journey. Despite this, some of the crew decided to leave before we started our return journey in November: they had had enough and wanted to go home to their families. Finally, after visiting San Diego we headed back, stopping over in Hawaii for two months as we waited for the high-pressure systems to move in and change the wind direction so we could sail. In Hawaii we got to meet the descendents of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary and leader, who played an important role in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. Whilst staying on Waikiki beach we also had an opportunity to sail with the Hokule’a.
After spending over a year of my life on the Princess Taiping my journey ended at the port of Naha, three hundred miles from the end of the expedition: I was asked to leave by the skipper who wanted to take the junk back to Taipei without the original members of the crew on board. He had arranged in advance, to have a new scratch crew join the expedition to help him complete the final few hundred miles. I was disappointed, but he was the leader, I reluctantly acquiesced.

On the night of the 26th April, at around 2:49am approximately 30 miles from its final Taiwanese destination, The Princess Taiping was rammed by another vessel, allegedly a tanker that failed to stop. Eight hours later the junk sank. The Taiwanese navy and coastguard picked up the crew and everyone was fortunately saved.

Despite this dramatic ending the expedition for me was still very much a success. We demonstrated that it was possible for early mariners to have made the voyage. So who knows, perhaps Columbus did not discover America after all. Despite successfully standing up to the elements, the Princess Taiping was never built to withstand being hit by a modern ocean going vessel. Early Fujian boat-builders developed the compartmentalised hull that helped to save the lives of those on the final leg of the journey, keeping the boat afloat for many hours until she finally went down.

As such it is a testimony to the ship building skills of the Fujian Province.  This Chinese building method is now a standard feature for ship-builders throughout the world.

On a personal level, I learned a lot about myself, about others and what it is to have the sea and stars as your constant companion: for over a year my only horizon. When I was a boy I loved geography. I would often sit staring at a globe or trace my fingers along the borders of the coast of far off countries. I would read about Jerusalem and Gibraltar, wondering what the food smelled like and how people passed their time. Having never seen a mountain I would try to imagine how big the Alps were. If I ever have children, I would not only want them to study geography, I would want them to live it.

Now the trip is over I plan to write a book, perhaps a screenplay, with my writing partner from England. We are looking for a publisher. We are interested in bringing together the story of the original Princess Taiping and my real-life journey. The Princess was forced to take her own life and her children were put to death, quite a tragic end for her. Sometimes I can’t help but think that maybe she watched over us as we sailed, determined to make our sailing safe despite the hazards, her way of reminding us of the importance of compassion and caring. At least I like to think so. And, just in case you are wondering: would I do it all again? You bet I would!

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific