Fifty-seven years after it made a historic trans-Pacific journey from Keelung to San Francisco, Free China, a wooden junk, finally returned home thanks to years of preservation efforts made by former crew members, their families and supporters as well as marine specialists and government officials in Taiwan and the US.
Built in Fuzhou, China, in 1890, the 21.3m by 5.2m vessel is the only existing Chinese-style sailboat that has ever crossed the Pacific Ocean.
The story began on April 4, 1955, when five young Taiwanese men and an US embassy official embarked on the junk, determined to cross the ocean to take part in a sailing competition in the US, though none of them knew how to sail. A couple of stops in Japan, a few storms and 114 days later, they arrived in San Francisco.
They had missed the race, but the six young men were deemed heroes who marked a memorable moment in Taiwan’s marine history.
After the voyage, the boat was donated to a US museum, but later ended up in a private shipyard. A preservation effort initiated by former crew members and their families in 2007 led to the boat being rediscovered.
In May this year, Free China was shipped back to Keelung and found a permanent home at the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology.
Three surviving crew members, Paul Chou (周傳鈞), Hu Loo-chi (胡露奇) and Calvin Mehlert, along with family members and hundreds of visitors, attended a ceremony outside the museum yesterday to celebrate the boat’s return. Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) presented certificates of appreciation to the trio to honor their effort.
Chou, now 86 years old, said he had decided to make the ocean voyage simply to see the world during a time when Taiwan was on the front lines of the Cold War.
“The honor we received today belongs to all of the people of Taiwan. If you didn’t give us support and encouragement, we could never have made it,” said Chou, a retired professor residing in the US. “Now that we are old, we hope the spirit can be passed down to younger generations, the spirit to have dreams and to fulfill your dreams.”
Mehlert, long retired from the US State Department, said he looked forward to coming back again when the vessel is restored to its former glory.
Lwo Lwun-syin (羅綸新), an academic who heads the preservation project, said more money is needed to fund an indoor display in order to properly preserve the vessel.
According to Lwo, the NT$2 million (US$66,800) funding provided by the Ministry of Culture is only enough for basic preservation work and a simple outdoor display.
“It depends on how long we want to preserve it. It will probably last 10 years if left outside. But we are aiming for 50 years at least,” said Lwo, who is the chairman of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Taiwan Ocean University (國立台灣海洋大學).
Kehr Young-zehr (柯永澤), director of the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology Provisional Office, said Taiwan’s humid climate is harmful to the wooden sailboat.
“The weather in northern California is relatively dry. But it rains a lot in Taiwan. Without protection, the boat could get mildewed and decay easily,” Kehr said, hoping that private enterprises and corporations could contribute funds.
Free China is currently on display outside the marine museum.