On April 4, 1955, a massive crowd flocked to Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor.
Firecrackers were lit. Champagne corks popped. Speeches were made.
The celebratory atmosphere was a rare spectacle in Taiwan at the time. The island was in the midst of the first Taiwan Strait crisis against the Communists in mainland China, while the effects of World War II and the Korean War lingered.
Politicians, media and residents of Keelung City had come out to bid farewell to the Free China, a half-century-old junk boat, and its six crew members.
The boat’s name was bestowed by the governor of Taiwan – a reference to the ongoing battle with the mainland – who sponsored part of the adventure after reading about the crew’s ambitious plans in a newspaper. A special commemorative postmark was even created for the occasion.
Carrying the hopes and dreams of the six crew members and their supporters, this small junk boat with a politically laden name was about to set sail across the Pacific Ocean to compete in an international yacht race.
The event would kick off on the other side of the world, starting from Newport, Rhode Island in the US, ending across the Atlantic in Gothenburg, Sweden.
There was just one problem. What the revelers in Keelung Harbor didn’t realize was that none of the five Chinese crew, nor the American vice-consul who joined at the last minute, knew how to sail a junk boat.
Meet Paul Chow, the mastermind
Paul Chow, now 94, was the mastermind of the voyage.
A retired physics professor at California State University, Northridge, Chow grew up in a relatively wealthy family in China – his parents were among the few able to receive an education in the US.
His dad was a government railroad manager, meaning Chow spent his childhood hopping around cities.
In 1941, with the Japanese army pushing into the region, Chow’s mother took her four children and moved from Hong Kong to mainland China.
“Then Pearl Harbor came. At that time, my father was in Haiphong, Vietnam. Our relatives and friends were all in Hong Kong. We were completely cut off,” Chow recalls in a recent interview with CNN Travel.
Chow and his brother dropped out of high school to join the army. They arrived at Myitkyina in Myanmar in 1944, where Allied forces would win an important battle at the Siege of Myitkyina. They were then flown back to China, fighting battles as they made their way to Japan-controlled Guangzhou. Just as they were about to launch an attack in Guangzhou, the Japanese army surrendered.
“So we didn’t attack Guangzhou. We marched into Guangzhou as victors,” says Chow.
After the war, he flew back to Shanghai to reunite with his mother.
“I came to the harbor. The first thing I noticed was the smell – ooouf – the smell of food,” says Chow.
The scents were coming from the fleet of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration – diesel boats brought from the United States to help restore China’s war-torn fishing fleet – docked in the Huangpu River.
“I had been starving since the war, since 1937 when the Japanese came. Food was all we dreamed about. They asked me to come on board for a meal first. That was the first American food I had ever had. You could eat as much meat and cakes and pies as you wanted.
“So I told my mother: ‘That’s it. I’m not going to college. I’m going to be a fisherman,’” says Chow.
This is how he got acquainted with Reno Chen and Benny Hsu. The fun-loving young fishermen quickly bonded, joining various crews in search of new thrills. They then met fellow fishermen Marco Chung and Hu “Huloo” Loo-chi.
In 1949, the five fishermen were stranded in Taiwan when the Communists declared victory and took control on the mainland, leaving them cut off from their families.
They remained in Taiwan for the next few years, sharing an apartment in Keelung until one day in 1954, Chow saw a story in the newspaper about an international yacht race. He asked his fellow sea mates, “Do you think they would accept a Chinese junk to join?”
While working on a diesel boat for nine years, Chow fished alongside traditional Chinese junk boats. But never on one.
“One time in a big storm, we hauled our last net and rushed for shelter,” he says. “We put our 300-horsepower-diesel boat on full speed. The junk boat right next to us pulled up all their sails. By the time we got to the shelter, they already dropped their anchors and were washing their deck. They beat us to it.
“I was very impressed. I thought to myself, ‘If they could beat a diesel boat, they could beat a yacht.’”
Chow decided to write a letter to the newspaper that had featured the post.
Unexpectedly, he received a reply from the North American Yacht Racing Union – a telegram stating that Chow’s “junk boat” was accepted in the yacht race. It was even assigned a racing number: 320.
There was just one hiccup: Chow didn’t own a junk boat.
Find a boat, then a crew
With just a few months to spare, Chow traveled around Taiwan’s islands looking for a junk boat – he says he was almost caught in a fierce battle between the Communists and Nationalist (Kuomintang) armies on Yijiangshan island at one point – before returning to Keelung.
Then he saw her.
“It was the last ever commercial junk with a shipload of salted fish from mainland China,” says Chow. “The trades were cut off after that and all other junks were converted to fighting junks (because of the conflicts between the two sides).
“The owner realized that it was the end of his career. Meanwhile, there was no other way for me to get a junk. So we were like the only boy and only girl on earth – the marriage was immediately settled.”
Chow sold all his valuables, scrounged up every penny of his savings and borrowed more money from Hu. He bought the boat for a total of TWD46,000 ($1,670).
“Sink or swim, I figured I wouldn’t need those earthly belongings anymore,” says Chow.
Chow enlisted five shipmates. Chow was to be the navigator and the radio master. Marco Chung, being the “nicest guy,” was voted to be the captain. The multi-talented Hu Loo-chi was to be the sail master and de facto barber. Reno Chen was designated purser and Benny Hsu was to be the boatswain in charge of maintenance.
Lin, who was to be the sixth member of the team, dropped out at the last minute.
Their story soon made the news and support started rolling in. Their grand plan started to take shape.
A six-month food supply was donated by the Rotary Club of Keelung and Taipei, complimenting the three tanks of fresh water and two hens they already had.
But another challenge loomed: Securing US visas for the five crew members.
When they got to the consulate, Chow says a friendly looking guy came out and started asking questions. He gave the crew “10,000 reasons why we couldn’t go”.
That guy was Calvin Mehlert, vice consul.
A few days later, the American showed up at the