Back to the future
Jan 18, 2007
I purchased a Chinese junk-rigged schooner more than 20 years ago. From everything that I had read about the junk rig at the time, it was not the most efficient sail plan for racing, especially to windward. However, it was billed as a boat for easy cruising and living aboard. Made up mostly of lines and knots, the rig guaranteed less maintenance and replacement costs. There would be no expensive standing rigging, stainless fittings, winches, or high-tech sails and line.
I wanted a boat easily, safely, and comfortably managed from the cockpit with a minimum of sail handling on the foredeck. Lastly, I was won over by the ancient design and the cruising exploits of several well-known sailors who experimented with modern interpretations of this two-thousand-year-old rig. As some would say, a billion Chinese cannot be all wrong. The rig has a long and up-to-date history.
In 2006, a Turkish boatyard launched the Maltese Falcon, a 289-foot mega yacht with three free-standing masts and a modern sail incarnation somewhere between a Chinese junk and a square-rigger. It personified the notion of back to the future.
Some 600 years ago, Chinese were sailing 400-foot junks across the China Sea and Indian Ocean according to Louise Levathes in her book, When China Ruled the Sea
Almost everyone's first sailing hero is Joshua Slocum. His greatest exploit, the first singlehander to make it around the world in 1895, is wonderfully narrated in Sailing Alone Around the World
. He accomplished this awesome feat in a boat called Spray, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner. However, later in life, he built the junk-rigged Liberdade for a trip from South America back to the United States. He described this adventure in the book The Voyage of the Liberdade.
One of my all-time favorite sailor-authors is Bernard Moitessier. This Frenchman was born in Vietnam and acquired much of his early sailing experience in traditional junks. Although he changed to a more modern Bermuda-rigged boat for his many sailing exploits, he wrote nostalgically in A Sea Vagabondâs World
about his early sailing days in junks.
In the 1970s, Thomas Colvin designed and built several junk-rigged boats in Chesapeake Bay. One of his most popular designs, an aluminum junk-rigged schooner called Gazelle, can still be found occasionally in classified advertisements. He extolled the unique charm of the Chinese junk rig in a book called Cruising as a Way of Life.
Englishmen, Blondie Hassler and Michael Richey, made history by sailing the junk-rigged folkboat, Jester, in the first and thirteen successive Atlantic singlehanded races. It was the first singlehanded Atlantic race in 1960 that pitted Chichester against Hassler and his junk-rigged sloop. Chichester's Gypsy Moth won that race, but Jester subsequently established a record for most race attempts by Michael Richey in this annual competition. The fact that the boat and rig held up in the inhospitable North Atlantic Ocean race course is a testament to the boat and sail designs.
In 1988 Hassler teamed up with Jock McLeod to write a definitive book on junk-rig designs called Practical Junk Rig
. The Brits seem to have adopted this ancient sail plan for modern Western craft, and formed the Junk Rig Association
to further the study and exchange of ideas toward improving the rig.
For more on sailing and ocean crossing in a modern junk rig, read my book "Dreaming of Columbus
", available from online booksellers.