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A historic Chinese junk that was trundled off Bethel Island last weekend has been biding its time on Benicia’s waterfront, waiting to make the final leg of its journey.
And if the weather cooperates, a barge will carry the old vessel to the port of Oakland on Friday where it will be lowered onto a container ship that’s returning to Taiwan on Monday.
“This is so exciting,” murmured Calvin Mehlert as the San Jose resident videotaped the first stage of repatriating the fishing boat that had carried him across the Pacific Ocean more than a half-century earlier.
“Poor thing has been abused for so many years.”
And indeed, Free China bears many scars from a storied life that brought her to the Delta boneyard, where she languished for years while waiting to be turned into scrap metal and wood.
But more than five decades after leaving Taiwan, the junk that’s thought to be one of the last traditionally built Chinese commercial vessel left in the world is heading home.
The trip is a long and complicated one that’s been coordinated by Parker Diving Service, a Sausalito-based boat salvage company.
The relocation began last week with a Benicia-based house moving company towing the junk from Bethel Island to Fulton Shipyard in Antioch and up a ramp to a waiting barge.
The barge then made the approximately 4½-hour trip to Benicia, where steel braces were added to stabilize its valuable cargo in choppy waters en route
to the port of Oakland.
In addition, two, 24-foot steel beams were welded onto the base of the junk at a 90-degree angle to the keel to protect the fragile vessel from being crushed by steel cables as a crane hoists it onto a container ship.
Free China then will make the 18-day trip to the port city of Keelung, where it will be restored and displayed at the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology.
Free China is an approximately 80-foot, 40-ton fishing vessel that was constructed about a century ago, but the first 50 years of its travels remain a virtual mystery.
All that’s known is that the ship spent time with smugglers in Taiwan and China, changing hands among its unsavory caretakers when they were imprisoned.
But the boat emerged from obscurity in 1955 when an American and five Taiwanese fishermen who had never sailed before took it on a headline-grabbing journey 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
Arriving in the Bay Area, Free China underwent pronounced changes in the decades that followed: One owner saddled her with a massive diesel engine; another took a chain saw to her stern.
These days Free China bears little resemblance to that eye-catching vessel with its large rectangular sails and upturned prow captured on film as it sailed toward the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955.
Nor have the elements been kind to this relic with its faded stripes of peeling paint. For the past eight years, the vessel has sat on blocks in a Bethel Island storage yard in East Contra Costa County, abandoned when money for repairs ran out.
But the winds of fortune shifted, and on April 19 the rare Chinese junk began its journey back to Taiwan.
Free China’s return is largely the work of Dione Chen, a Sunnyvale woman whose father was among the six men who made history when they entered the junk in a yacht race.
Reno Chen, like most of the other young men who would become his traveling partners, was working aboard a modernized fishing vessel after World War II.
“After the war, fishing companies were abandoning junks in favor of big motorized ships,” said Mehlert, a Sacramento native who worked at the U.S. consulate in China before joining the Free China crew. “These junks were abandoned in the mud flats up and down rivers and along the coast, where they gradually just decayed.”
But a handful remained active, and they caught the eye of fisherman Paul Chow.
He noticed that the junk sailors often didn’t have radios to receive typhoon warnings, instead taking their cue to flee from the big boats that would turn around and head back to shore.
To Chow’s frustration, the junks often beat the powered ships because they took advantage of high winds.
“It would tick me off and then I thought, ‘I would like to get my feet on one of those junks,’ ” Chow said. “Then I saw in the newspaper about a yacht race from Rhode Island to Sweden.”
Inspired to enter, Chow rallied a crew of fellow fishermen and started looking for a boat, finding a 50-year-old junk after scouring the offshore islands.
“The junkmaster was in jail for smuggling, but they contacted him and he raised his price: It was more than the boys had when they put all their belongings together and sold them,” Mehlert said.
Eventually, Mehlert said, the governor of Taiwan agreed to chip in enough money to make the purchase if the sailors would agree to name the junk Free China, a reference to that territory’s desire for freedom from Chinese communism.
“It’s like the Spirit of St. Louis to the Chinese,” Chow said.
The name would make a bold political statement if the junk entered the race.
But delays foiled that plan, which had them sailing south through the Panama Canal to join the trans-Atlantic race. Crew members were forced to turn back shortly after weighing anchor when they realized they lacked some necessary equipment, and their second departure took them directly into a typhoon.
“We could have turned back, but we said no way,” Chow said.
The ship survived the storm but the mechanisms used to control steering were damaged, so a passing 10,000-ton ship bound for Japan towed Free China back to port.
The rest of the trip went smoothly, although the crew didn’t arrive in San Francisco until August 1955 — two months after the race began. In fact, the winner of the race had flown to the Bay Area to greet the Taiwanese sailors, whose arrival was met with great fanfare.
So unusual were Free China and her crew that they inspired a documentary and a book.
Chow gave the boat to the San Francisco Maritime Museum in hopes it could be maintained as part of the collection, and the crew disbanded.
Three of them since have died; the rest are in their 80s. Chow taught college physics in Southern California and wrote a book about the Free China. Loo-chi Hu immigrated to New Zealand in 1967, and Mehlert has been spending his time lately helping shepherd the Free China home.
But Free China didn’t make a smooth passage into retirement.
The museum deal never panned out, and a board member of a San Francisco maritime history association bought it for a dollar.
He passed it on to a man who installed a steering wheel from the Staten Island Ferry and a giant motor, altering the junk’s classic design.
In 1989 the junk was sold again, this time to Govinda Dalton, a pirate radio activist who admired its Manchurian cedar logs and camphor bulkhead.
Dalton made the Free China his home for 10 years.
“The woman I was living with and our child, we would go out to Angel Island and anchor,” he said, explaining that he worked at the time as a tree trimmer, a job that paid well and didn’t require a lot of hours. “We basically tooled around the Bay, would drop an anchor and hang out for a while.”
It was Dalton who took a 14-inch chain saw and sliced off the back of the junk to the horror of Free China’s former crew members. In 1996, he hauled the junk out of the water at Bethel Island to work on it and ended up turning it into an illegal radio station that broadcast throughout the island for a summer.
The boat ultimately needed more maintenance than he could afford, however, so Dalton left it at the boat storage facility.
Rescue and retirement
But one man’s junk is Dione Chen’s treasure.
For the past four years, she has struggled to find the boat a permanent home.
“Even though it’s been changed over time, the story that it has to tell makes it a rare historical artifact,” said Hans Van Tilburg, a maritime archeologist who featured Free China in his doctoral dissertation.
Judging by the style of iron fasteners that join the wood pieces and the caulking materials used to seal the seams, he estimates the boat is about 100 years old.
Chen initially took on the project to learn more about her own roots, however.
“I did this to honor my father, (and) I wanted to inspire other people to capture their history, talk to their parents while they’re alive,” she said.
As a girl, Chen hadn’t attached much importance to the stories her father recounted of his ocean-faring days, but after he died in 2007 she decided to track down the junk.
“It was in terrible shape,” she said, recalling the first time she laid eyes on Free China after so many years. “Without knowing the history, it (was) just a boat — a boat in bad shape.”
When Chen learned of its historical significance and impending destruction, she swung into action.
Chen’s inquiries led her to a group of individuals who not only shared her enthusiasm for the undertaking but had the expertise to help.
Among them was a professor of ancient Chinese maritime activities, a marine surveyor, and a small boats curator at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
Chen also created a website to solicit help, and began contacting anyone who might further the cause with advice or money.
Since then she’s made countless dozens of calls and emails, reaching out to organizations from the Smithsonian Institution and maritime museums in Hong Kong and Shanghai to the Chinese Historical Society of America.
As word of the project spread, some who recognized Free China’s potential as a tourist attraction contacted her as well, among them a Hong Kong real estate developer and speculators from Lake Tahoe and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Chen’s break came when a Taiwanese reporter suggested she contact that country’s president. The government responded by forming a task force to investigate the project’s merits, and in 2010 those emissaries recommended the boat be saved.
“This old gal lasted so long, so many former owners passed away,” Chow said. “The only living ones are Govinda and me. And it’s going to outlive us.”
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Contact Sean Maher at 925-779-7189.