Junks and a Barquentine

Doug Sherr

© Copyright 2019 by Doug Sherr

Photo of Barquentine Osprey in Hong Kong harbor, 1982.
Barquentine Osprey in Hong Kong harbor, 1982.  
Note junk in backgrount just to the left of Osprey.

The 747 shuddered as the landing gear and flaps deployed. We broke through the clouds into a misty, gray day over Hong Kong. The window was fogged, but so was I after 21 hours jammed in with more than 500 other people. The plane banked sharply to starboard and I was looking at Mrs. Kwan’s laundry drying on her balcony as we flew through Kowloon instead of above it. The plane banked even more sharply to avoid smashing into the hill just ahead as it slicked into Kai Tak, an airport that had been built for biplanes not 747s. Even before the engines shut off the smell of the city invaded the cabin joining the already stale air of a day-long flight. The in-flight magazine said that Hong Kong, in English, means fragrant harbor. Different cultures define fragrant differently.

When the urge to travel had come on too strong to ignore, I’d chosen Hong Kong because I’d found a flight from Oakland for $204. Before I left the States, I’d called my friend Cynthia for any contacts she had in Hong Kong—Cynthia knows somebody most anywhere you can think of. She gave me the name of a woman who was working on some kind of charitable project in Hong Kong. After a shower at the YMCA hotel, in Kowloon, I called Cynthia’s friend. It was Year’s Eve and she invited me to a party. It turns out that the Chinese think it’s silly of gwai lows (definition: ghost man—the Chinese equivalent of pale face) to waste all those fireworks on some weird New Year’s celebration that’s not based on a lunar cycle.

There’s nothing more fun than traveling to a new place for no apparent reason: no schedule, agenda, or clue what to do is the beginning of a good trip. Wandering aimlessly is a great way to get a feel for a place. Kowloon is the world’s most densely inhabited city. It seemed like every intersection had more people gathered than the crowd at a NBA game. Along Nathan Road were as many gold stores as convenience stores on a street in East LA. Madam Lu could have her Rolls Royce pull over to grab some gold before dim sum with the girls. On my second morning stroll, a fire broke out in a high-rise a block up the road. Sirens blasted over the already loud street noises and trucks roared in from several directions. The firemen quickly attached the pumper trucks to hydrants, ran the hoses out, and had the fire under control in 10 minutes. Imagine my disappointment! A Chinese fire drill is an efficient exercise; another myth busted.

Growing up in Chicago and spending some quality time in New York, LA, and London gave me the impression that I understood cities. Hong Kong’s 24-hour hustle makes those urban centers look laid back. At 2 am little old ladies are sorting mung beans on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant or produce store. The youngest and the oldest have jobs they can handle. Even those who choose to not work, do it an intense level. The homeless/bums/street people seemed to take pride in being filthy, as though their hands that hadn’t been cleaned in years separated them from the frantic people trying to make it in the big city. But even the bums were business oriented; street people in tattered clothes gathered in front of the Hang Seng Bank electronic readout to watch the running tallies of the currency exchange rates fingering their pocket change to figure out if they had enough for a meal.

While tea is most identified with China there were little coffee stands on the street that served people in a great hurry. I saw one young man down a large cup of coffee in two gulps at a corner stand. He didn’t look like he enjoyed his caffeine rush; it seemed that he was playing the part of a very busy, on-the-go businessman in a city that functions on a rush of nervous energy. I was getting exhausted by just walking down the streets, so I decided to take the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong and wander some more. The island is more British than Kowloon, but every bit as frantic. Hong Kong’s importance to the British was that it had abundant sources of fresh water for their ships. I didn’t see any trace of ancient China there because there aren’t any. There are moldering British buildings and new and under construction high-rise monsters. The fascinating aspect of Chinese construction practice was that the scaffolding was made of bamboo.

A year before I arrived, a smug English promoter brought in modern steel scaffolding to bring the “Orientals” into the current century. The next typhoon blew all the scaffolds to pieces and the flying bits broke hundreds of windows. The bamboo structures were, as always, intact. The local scaffolding companies are family enterprises with the old folks down on the street preparing the poles and lashings while the young men stories above the street seem to be practicing for a local production of Cirque de Soleil.

I discovered a British pub in a basement and had a few pints. After a fine afternoon I wandered back to the Star Ferry dock and while I was waiting for the boat I saw a large square-rigged ship (think clipper ship) at anchor off of Stonecutters Island. I’d sailed a few square-riggers in the West Indies and since the tall ship community is small it was possible that I knew someone on the crew. The next morning I jumped on a Walla Walla harbor taxi and rode out to the ship. A man from that city, who probably enjoyed hearing the Chinese pronounce his boat names, started the Walla Walla service.

The Barquentine Osprey was a three-masted vessel with the foremast fully rigged with square sails and the two after masts schooner-rigged. She displaced 225 tons, was 176 feet overall and carried 17 sails. I told the Chinese man who came on deck that I was Captain Doug and was just paying my respects.

He asked, “You a Captain?”

I said yes.

He said, “You come aboard, I call office, we need captain.”

Wow! Stay calm and let it unfold.

The deckhouse was a surprise. On deck, Osprey was a traditional sailing ship, but inside the house and below deck she was a Japanese disco, complete with a disco ball. The Chinese man picked up this amazing phone set attached to a mahogany and brass box that was a beautiful example of early twentieth century technology. He spoke in Chinese for a minute.
Then said to me, “You wait here, they send boat to pick you up.”

Ten minutes later an 80-foot harbor tug chugged up and took me to the Hong Kong side to meet with the ship’s agent. The office door had several business names listed and inside it was an unadorned room with two desks, a couple of file cabinets, and three chairs. CK Pak was a sleeves-rolled-up, open-collar businessman. Since he went to English schools his English was better than mine. He needed a captain who could sail a square-rigger for a sea trial to verify a repair done at Hong Kong United Shipyard. There was only one person in Hong Kong qualified to master a tall ship and he had a job running the 140-foot brigantine, Ji Fung. While I was a captain and had sailed on a few square-riggers, I hadn’t been the master of one. The devil is in the details.

Barquentine Osprey was British flagged in Hong Kong, but owned by a Japanese real estate developer. The crew consisted of seventeen Japanese, three Chinese, and one Uruguayan. The captain and chief engineer had left and the second mate managed to knock off the main topmast at anchor. That is not easy to do. Even though Mr. Akimoto had an Unlimited Second Mate’s ticket from the Japanese Merchant Marine he was not very good at anchoring. Somehow he’d let Osprey drag down on a cargo vessel off-loading in the anchorage and the ship’s cargo boom knocked off the topmast. Hong Kong United Shipyard had built a new mast and in order for Tokyo Insurance to pay the bill a successful test, called a sea trial, had to be done. The Hong Kong Marine Department is a serious organization and they insist on doing things in a professional way. My Panamanian Merchant Marine license and sailing experience were acceptable and they instructed Mr. Pak to hire me for the trial. What a wonderful bit of luck; a several hundred-dollar paycheck and a chance to sail in the South China Sea.

Three days later, we gathered at 0800 hr. on Osprey: a representative from Tokyo Insurance, Mr. Pak, Mr. Kitagowa, the owners agent, a rep from HKU Shipyard, an official from the Marine Department, a harbor Pilot and several men who were probably just along for a cruise. There was an element of show business to this all. Mr. Pilot took command of the vessel and Mr. Akimoto handled recovering the anchor. We had to test the vessel with all 17 sails flying. Mr. Lee of Lee Sails and I were out on the jibboom hanking on (attaching) the new flying jib as we motored out of the anchorage. I went back to the helm and it was clear that Mr. Pilot was not happy. Mr. Pak said the pilot had never been on a sailing vessel. I took the helm and Mr. Pilot smiled.

Once we cleared the anchorage and entered Lamma Channel we had a little maneuvering room and I called for the sails to be raised. Mr. Akimoto called the sequence, but he had it backwards. The order that sails are raised on a large vessel is critical. He said he always did it in that order and I said that today we were doing it my way. Had we done it his way we would have lost control in a still fairly restricted maneuvering space near Lan Tau Island. There was a chalkboard on the quarterdeck and I drew the sail plan, numbering the sails in the order that they should be raised. It took 45 minutes to raise all sail, which was a bit slow. The crew seemed a little out of practice. With all the sails up Osprey came alive. Once again she was free to voyage the world.

It was warm and clear, a perfect day for a sail. Mr. Wong, the cook, served coffee and some sweets and the mast repair seemed sound. Everyone relaxed. There was a chart table near the helm and I was trying to fix our position on the chart. Hong Kong is a group of 235 islands and I had no understanding of the area. We had passed Chueng Chau Island and were closing on Wailingding Island. I asked if we were still in Hong Kong territory. Several men looked at me as if I were dull witted and said, “No, People’s Republic of China, very bad!”

I called, “Ready about,” the command to change direction relative to the wind.

Everyone turned to look at me. Mr. Akimoto had a bemused expression. Some of the Japanese crew smirked.

Louder, “Ready about!”

In the distance, but closing rapidly, was a gunboat.

Is that a PRC gunboat?”

Yes, very bad!”

I jumped down from the quarterdeck, yelled down into the engine room for Mr. Lee, the new engineer, to get the main engine on line. I ran forward and let go all the jib sheets; Osprey slowly began to come up towards the wind. I ran 100 feet back to the quarterdeck, grabbing two crewmen to help center the mizzen sail. Then forward again grabbing crew and putting them on lines and in a pantomime showing them to watch me and the signal for either easing or hauling away on their respective line.

Osprey was right at the eye of the wind and just then Mr. Lee stuck his head out of an engine room hatch and nodded. I put the engine in gear and she came through the wind. I ran forward again and got the crew to handle the lines in the proper sequence and then ran back to the helm. We were still in PRC waters and the gunboat was right on our starboard side. Just like when the cop is next to you and you don’t want to glance at him I waited a moment before I looked over: I was thinking about fighting the rats for bits of rice and fish heads in some horrible prison cell for violating the sanctity of China. When I looked over at the gunboat the crew was laughing and waving at me; one guy flashed a peace sign. They had been watching my antics through their big binoculars and clearly we had brightened their day with our little comedy.

The topmast repair was sound, we hadn’t been captured by the PRC, and the sail back to the harbor was quite pleasant: a great day. Mr. Pak told me that Chueng Chau meant Long Island, but because of its shape the locals called it “Dumb Bell.” That was certainly appropriate. While the crew was straightening up the lines and harbor furling the sails there was a meeting going on amongst most of the key men who had sailed with us. Then the man from the Marine Department said to Mr. Pak, “You hire that captain!” Osprey was a ship and all ships in HK harbor must have a qualified captain. It wasn’t an option, the government had just given me a job. I had my own square-rigger: the dream or fantasy of most big boat sailors. Two days later, I moved aboard Osprey and found that it wasn’t just a simple act of taking command. While the young Japanese crew had been trained in the excellent program of the Nippon Maru, a 340-foot, four-masted barque, used by the Japanese Merchant Marine to train future professional seamen, they were not comfortable working aloft and less comfortable taking instruction from me.

A modern sloop, with one mast, that can be seen sailing all the world’s oceans, has perhaps a dozen lines that control the sail functions. Osprey had 180 pieces of running rigging, most of which had to be adjusted in concert with others: a square-rigger is a giant upside down marionette. After a month of daily training, the crew improved and we settled into the day-to-day of keeping the vessel ready for sea and the whim of the owner. The crew now answered commands reasonably well, but it was obvious that they weren’t really interested in the world of tall ships. The rest of the crew consisted of Mr. Lee, our chief engineer who was a gem as well as Mr. Wong, the cook who produced some wonderful meals. Alberto, my Uruguayan deckhand, was a monkey and was aloft and in place for a minute before the rest of the crew arrived. Mr. Akimoto clearly wanted to be somewhere else.

For me, the normal routine of running a boat is not particularly exciting, but watching the junks that worked daily through the harbor brightened my days. The basic design of these vessels was perfected several thousand years ago. A cargo or warship of the Athenians or Persians of antiquity bears little resemblance to a ship of the 19th century similar to Osprey, but a junk from ancient times looks and handles very much like the boats traveling through Hong Kong carrying granite and other low-profit, bulk cargoes. Mr. Pak said that some of the junks were over 100 years old. The larger ones were around 100 feet long; usually crewed by three men, two young and one ancient. When the wind died they’d ship long oars and slowly, majestically move through the harbor––time measured by the frantic hustle of Hong Kong meant nothing to them.

One afternoon I was invited to sail on the brigantine Ji Fung. The vessel, captain, and crew were sharp and as we tacked up the harbor a large junk was heading in the same direction: The race was on. Tack after tack we neither gained nor lost on the junk. We had a crew of 20 working at a terrific pace to bring the big ship through the wind. The junk crew just pushed the helm over and the old boat changed direction. They never looked at us as if they were not really racing. Harbor traffic actually made way for us. When we passed a colony of boat people they stopped work and watched––not much normally stopped their workday. This was the great tradition against the modern intruders: it was a draw. As we came to the eastern end of the harbor the junk continued on and we turned back. We gave three cheers and they sailed on without looking at us.

We had several offers for extended charters, but a deal was never finalized. Operating funds were limited and it was becoming clear that the owner really couldn’t afford to keep Osprey. Mr. Pak and I started a campaign to convince the owner to set up an agreement for me to charter the boat from him because I felt I could make a living with her running cargo and adventure charters in the South Pacific. Also, Osprey was vulnerable to typhoons and needed to be moved to a less dangerous homeport.

The owner finally agreed to let me release the old crew and recruit a crew that really wanted to sail. I was now confined to anchor and it was only myself, Mr. Lee and Mr. Wong so I just became head caretaker. After puttering about fixing little things aloft and a-low, I had time to explore Hong Kong territory in depth. I got an invitation from the woman who was my first contact in Hong Kong to visit the small fishing village where her organization was based. The village was a half-hour bus trip from Kowloon and I got there in the late morning. A meeting was going on at the organization when I arrived so I took a stroll through the village.

There was a small temple to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. While I am not a religious person, I was sailing the South China Sea and you need every advantage you can get. I went in, stood in front of the image of Tin Hau, meditated a bit on the strangeness of the last few months and asked that my ship and crew be safe from the dangers of the sea. I lit some incense and burned a dollar bill as a small offering. When I walked out a crowd of villagers was gathered in the road; they were not happy. A young man came up and asked what I was doing in the temple. When I explained my reason my status changed from ugly tourist to honored guest. These fishermen and their ancestors for uncounted generations believed that Tin Hau would keep them safe from storms and demons. I was the only gwai low who had ever visited their temple to pay homage.

Despite their staunch work ethic, the Chinese are party animals. It was decided in about two minutes that a feast should be held. While preparations were underway a man from a nearby village came to buy a dog. Dog is the prime dish at any decent party, but a local dog is never eaten. Fy Do was an honored member of the village and not a meal. Of course, the Chinese, who invented clever business practice while the rest of mankind was still whacking their neighbors with ass jawbones, would sell the worst dog they had for the best price. As the man walked away with the dog the locals laughed at the good deal they had made. An emissary from our village was sent to find a prime dog for our fete. When he returned with a sad-looking little mongrel the villagers laughed at the good deal they had made. Irony doesn’t seem to be common amongst the Chinese.

The dog knew what was happening. He was wiggling and trying to get away. The young man who first confronted me outside the temple handed me a large knife; it seemed that killing the dog was a privilege. There was no way I could slay the dog. The dog spotted me as a softy and looked at me with pleading eyes. I remained calm and looked around the crowd. There was a boy who had stayed close to me and was clearly well liked in the village. I handed him the knife, which turned out to be a good move: everyone nodded approval. I will never forget the look of betrayal the dog gave me just before the sacrifice.

Quickly the dog was reduced to wok-sized bits and sizzled with veggies and spices. A man brought a bottle of Chinese whiskey and I was given the first drink; it had the flavor of earth, which seemed appropriate. I smiled and ate a generous portion of dog. It was not to my taste, but I had no reference. The party lasted well into the night even though the men were off in their boats before dawn to fish. I don’t remember how I got back to Osprey. Chinese whiskey provides a generous hangover.

On one foray to the Hong Kong side I went to Hollywood Road where most of the antique stores were located. I wanted a piece of jade. I had met a jade dealer and he said that he was fooled about 40-percent of the time on jade quality. He said that inferior nephrite was ground up and mixed with epoxy to emulate the more prized jadeite. He shared the trick of taking a small vial of MEK, methyl ethyl ketone, which would dissolve the epoxy. Generally, if you just produced the vial the dealer would immediately show you the real thing. I visited several stores with fantastic antiques, real or fabricated, but didn’t find what I wanted.

There were steps that led down from the road where some shabby-looking men had set up a sort of flea market spread out on the steps. There was a man with a small propane burner that had a pot of something boiling that smelled good. He had two stools and a small table that held bowls, spoons, and chopsticks. Most of the items for sale had probably come from garbage cans. One man had a few items spread on a once elegant piece of cloth. Amongst the spoons and a broken watch was a jade coin with the square hole in the middle that is the symbol of heaven. I fingered the watch, picked up a steak knife, and glanced at the coin. I nodded at him and started to turn away. The rest of the men had gathered around because a bargaining session was about to begin.

He knew I wanted the jade coin. I picked it up as casually as I could and asked the price. He thought about it and raised ten fingers; we were negotiating in Hong Kong dollars. I shook my head and turned away. All the men were watching us. Turning back I showed three horizontal fingers, which is the proper way in China. He indicated seven. Two men nodded at each other; everyone was having a good time. We finally settled on six and shook hands over a good deal. The man with the soup waved a bowl at me and pushed an old man off one of the stools. He pulled a long thing out of the soup that looked like the intestine of a small animal. He snipped off a piece and dropped it into the soup. He looked at me and smiled and then clipped off a little more. Everyone likes a good bargaining session. Along with that first sail on Osprey this is my favorite memory of Hong Kong.

Finally, the negotiations for the charter agreement were unsuccessful so I returned stateside in June of 1982. I think that anyone who lived in Hong Kong before the PRC takeover has an attachment for the place that is almost mystical. I can’t say why. The city isn’t old. It jammed the poor and wealthy closer together than most cities could tolerate. It is the purest example of capitalism run wild and successful in history, yet it breathes through the smoke of joss sticks and rotting fish and energizes you to get up and join the dance. I don’t think I could ever go back.

When I got back to the States, people asked me what China was like. I said, “I recommend that your children learn Chinese,” i.e. Mandarin. For most of China’s history they ignored the outside world because it was populated by barbarians—that certainly had some truth. When I arrived in Hong Kong, Deng Xiaoping had been in power for about 4 years and already you could see what was about to happen—a billion hard working, smart people were about to enter the greater world’s economy. During my time there the village of Shenzhen, about twelve miles north of Hong Kong, was being turned into a metropolis to link Hong Kong with the mainland. The Chinese built a city to practice capitalism! When a despot waves his finger, stuff happens.

On 9 September 83, Typhoon Ellen hit Hong Kong with winds reaching 128 knots. At 0100hrs Osprey dragged anchor in Repulse Bay. Captain Gary fought to control her and headed down Lamma Channel to the southwest as crewman Bao monitored the radar to help avoid Lamma Island. At 0300 hrs Bosun Hiraki Ogura took the helm. Perhaps it was the wind and tide that forced Osprey south into the eye of the storm. At 0600 hrs by crew Susan Ulland’s watch Barquentine Osprey foundered. Crewmembers Ulland, Franklin, Forntner and Ogura were thrown into the sea. Of the nine crew only Ogura survived: he was found 60 miles south of Hong Kong floating in his life vest. The company that owned Osprey immediately filed for bankruptcy. Mr. Ogura and the relatives of the dead crew received no compensation. In 1984 the wreck was found 12 nautical miles south of Hong Kong, sitting upright, in 60-feet of water. Her masts had broken off and one door was missing. The sea has never been an easy place to work.

As a postscript, thanks to the Internet, there is an Osprey discussion site that gave me a contact for Alberto, my Uruguayan crew. He is doing well in the Consular Service of Uruguay assigned to Valencia, Spain, a beautiful city. This world connectivity is pretty cool.

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