And now for something completely different!
After sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a 15th century Chinese junk, Captain Nelson Liu and his crew of seven on the Princess Tai Ping spent their last few days at the San Diego Maritime Museum before making their way to Hawaii and eventually back to Japan and Taipei.
The 54 foot, 35 ton Fujian style warship, built and launched from Xiamen using the same materials as their ancestors, is following the conjectured route of 15th century Chinese admiral Zheng He who, according to some theories, may have arrived on the North American West Coast long before Cabrillo.
The voyage across the Pacific took 69 days along a route following the easterly trade winds north of the Hawaiian Islands. Though they had planned to make landfall in Seattle, a wild storm pushed them further south to Eureka and from there to San Francisco. From there they sailed south to San Diego where I had a chance to see the ship and visit with the crew.
The crew, a mix of Taiwanese and Chinese along with one American, showed a warm hospitality to visitors, taking them onboard and explaining the workings of the vessel.
Captain Liu, who is from Taipei, said that most of the crew had never sailed before, but it wasn’t an issue since no one has experience sailing a 15th Century junk! He had a calm personality and it was easy to see that he would be a joy to sail with; no Captain Bligh here! The ship behaved quite well as it sailed with the wind, though he found that if the starboard gunwale was a bit higher, they would have taken in considerably less seawater. I asked about sailing into the wind, since those ancient Chinese junks had that capability long before the European vessels. He said the way they rigged the sails wasn’t ideal for tacking, and he would have configured it differently based on their experience.
The Princess Tai Ping is quite small; about the size of a bus. Captain Liu believes the size of Admiral Zheng He’s vessels was similar to this vessel, and not the behemoths some have described. You can see bamboo poles stored horizontally next to the mainmast. These are spares in case of breakage; seven were needed on the voyage east.
As you can see, the living quarters are very cramped, yet the crew got along well. After talking with several crew members, I could understand why. They were all very kind, intelligent and understood the historic value of their quest. Unfortunately, one of the women in the crew, though holding up her end, was seasick on the entire voyage so they were looking for a replacement in San Diego for the return home. Too bad I couldn’t take five months off!
Both China and Taiwan share a seafaring history. Sailing together helped illustrate to me what can happen when politics takes a back seat and newfound friends come together in scientific discovery.