Choosing a Chinese Junk Rig

Sunbird Yachts publicity photo

It is November 30th and the end of another Florida hurricane season. I am grateful for a nine-year stretch with no hurricanes and pleased to have survived all the other boat aging problems like barnacles, mold, rust, rot, blisters. . . . After three decades aboard Sabra, I have no regrets over my choice of boat. Migrating every year to my Florida boat home, reinforces the decision to buy a 32-foot, Chinese junk-rigged schooner built to rugged North Sea standards.

The junk rig, is definitely not the most efficient sail plan for racing or cruising to windward. However, the rig’s simplicity―mostly lines and knots―guaranties less maintenance and lower replacement costs of expensive stainless fittings, winches, blocks or high-tech sail material. Ease of handling is another consideration. I looked forward to singlehanded or sailing with inexperienced crews. I wanted safe and comfortable handling from the cockpit with a minimum of work on the foredeck. Sails can be lowered and raised easily like venetian blinds with no heavy-weather flogging. Lastly, the design and cruising exploits of several well-known sailors who experimented with modern interpretations of this two-thousand-year-old design confirmed my decisions.

Back in the 1970s, Thomas Colvin designed and built several junk-rigged boats in Chesapeake Bay. One of his most popular, an aluminum schooner called Gazelle, featured the unique charm of the Chinese junk rig in his book, Cruising as a Way of Life.

Englishmen, Blondie Hassler in the junk-rigged folkboat Jester raced Francis Chichester on Gypsy Moth in the first singlehanded Atlantic race in 1960. Chichester won that race, but Jester, subsequently established a record for the next thirteen race attempts (never winning) by Michael Richey. That the boat and rig held up in the inhospitable North Atlantic Ocean windward race course was a testament to the boat and sail design.

In 1988 Hassler teamed up with Jock McLeod to write a definitive book on junk-rig designs called Practical Junk Rig. The Brits adopted this ancient sail plan for modern Western boats, and formed the Junk Rig Association to exchange ideas on improving the rig.

One of my all-time favorite sailor-authors is Bernard Moitessier. The 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 about those early sailing days in junks.

Almost everyone’s first sailing hero is Joshua Slocum. His greatest exploit is being the first singlehander to make it around the world in 1895 and write about it in Sailing Alone Around the World. He accomplished this awesome feat in a boat called Spray, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner. Later, he built the junk-rigged Liberdade for a trip with his wife from South America back to the United States. This adventure is described in The Voyage of the Liberdade.

The writings of these famous sailors made an impression on my choice of boat. Admittedly, I was already drawn to the uniqueness of the sail design and wanted a look different from most other sailboats.

Almost everyone that stops to stare at my rig admires the unusual design, but quickly turns the discussion to her poor, light-air, windward performance. I share this assessment while maintaining that there is much more to cruising than going to windward. The positive qualities of the rig far outweigh this one concern.

Over my years of coastal cruising, 20 to 40 percent of passage time was spent under engine power or motor-sailing. On two transatlantic crossings, I used engine power much more sparingly, and the sailing was slow but kindly. Even after an unfortunate dismasting of the foresail in mid-ocean, 1,500 miles from the Canaries and with another 1,500 miles to the Bahamas, the mainsail provided a safe, albeit much slower passage.

In his wonderfully illustrated Ships of China, Valentin Sokoloff writes, “A hand crafted sailing ship is a living thing with its own character and charm. A Chinese junk is even more so, and no wonder, as it was invented by an offspring of a nymph and a rainbow. His name was Fu Hsi, the first great ruler, who, they say, was born in 2852 B.C. Then Lu Pan, founder of the art of carpentry, greatly improved the original design. Further generations of Chinese shipwrights gave junks their final seaworthy and practical shape.”

by Manfred Slotta

Chinese poet, Li Po, wrote:

When one has

Good wine,

A graceful junk,

And a maiden’s love,

Why envy the immortal Gods?

For those seeking a unique traditional rig, the junk-rigged sail plan is an interesting alternative.

[This article first appeared in Ocean Navigator, Annual 1999 “Sail Away” issue.]

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