Want to sail one?

Hitching a Ride There are no traditional trading routes left where junks ferry goods from one country to the other, as was the case in centuries past. In this part of Asia the only remaining junks still in service bring goods from one coastal village to the other, or ferry passengers and local goods from islands to mainlands. You might also find junks or at least lug-rigged vessels being used as fishing boats, especially in Vietnam.

Both in China and Vietnam there is no culture of going out on the water as a leisure activity. Both countries, with their centralized governments, do not encourage leisure craft to go out onto open water since it is regarded as a way of losing control. Equally the fishermen and sailors in both countries are not encouraged by their governments to take foreigners with them while sailing.

However, if you are persistent enough you might find a junk willing to take you with him, although most likely you will have to pay for it. Do not be too selective. If yo have managed to find a junk rigged wooden sailing boat but it has an engine, consider yourself lucky and get on board if you agree on a price.

Arrange for a translator to come with you. The ideal trip that enables you to get a proper idea about the life of the last junk sailors would typically last two days and at least one night.  See for the last places where you can find junks the list in the chapter,Where can you find junks´

Furthermore, there are three places in China where you can visit replicas of original junks. Here their names of the junks and their places:

a. “Jin Hua Xing”, an east Canton junk (without engine) built in 1950’s, now anchored at Zhuhai of Guangdong Province, China.

b. “Lv Mei Mao”, a Fujian-Zhejiang style junk (with a 99kw engine) built in 2003, now anchored at Zhoushan island of Zhejiang Province, China.

c. “Da Feng Fan”, a Dali style junk (without engine) built in 1980’s, now at anchor at Erhai of Yunnan Province, an inland lake, China.

Renting a Boat In Indonesia it is possible to charter a pinisi, on Brazilian beaches you rent out a jangada sailing vessel per hour and in Egypt tour operators take you down the Nile in their feluccas. What of China or Vietnam? There are no or next to no possibilities to officially rent out or charter a junk along the shores of the Chinese Seas. Reasons for this vary.

One of the most common explanations for the lack of interest of the Chinese for their own maritime traditions is that the seas and oceans in Chinese culture has never had the romantic notion Western culture attached to it. Boats are transport vessel that serve an economic purpose, which is one of the reasons why individual junks are never given a name.


Main sail of junk Duk Ling, Hong Kong, 2005 © Besar Bears

The Hong Kong Yacht Club has twelve thousand members, one of the largest of the world, but hardly pays attention to junks and its related maritime culture. China has around 1 billion people and out of that group only two Chinese blogs were created that deal with junk history.

A handful of junks in China have been rebuild as replicas and there are plans to build more of them. ,,But such vessels need between US$10,000 and US$20,000 a month to operate, stand fast capital costs, neither general social attitudes nor elite attitudes to culture, alone per capita GDPs, are anywhere near the point where sustainable programmes are feasible´´, according to Stephen Davies, director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

There are, however, exceptions to the Chinese maritime apathy. In 2008 a junk named Princess Taiping was rebuilt under the guidance of Luther Xu, a Chinese naval architect. The boat sailed to the US and back, a journey of 17.000 miles, before it was rammed, on 25 April 2009, by a Norwegian tanker close to Taiwan, after which the Princess Taiping sunk. There is a growing interest among Chinese scholars for the subject and several conferences are planned.

There is, despite this downbeat analysis, still a possibility to sail a lug-rigged non motorized junk in the region. A guy from New Zealand called Paul Tarrant came in 2001 to Vietnam and started in the area of Hoi An a boat building enterprise. He rebuild an 10,5 meter local ,ghe nang´ junk. The boat, with crew, can be chartered. Recently local clients asked him, although he is a foreigner, to design and build a replica of another local boat, which speaks volumes about the state of indigenous boat building skills in the region.

Building a Junk Junk rigs are particularly suitable for smaller boats and in recent years there were hundreds of Western amateur boat builders who built a junk themselves. Or, more precisely, since it is not the hull but the rigging that appeals, they rigged their masts with junk sails. The advantage of the junk is that it has the ability to easily reef the sail by just lowering the halyard. Together with an unstayed mast you have a very efficient rig, especially suitable for short hand sailing.


Junk, China, unknown date © Okinawa Soba

The junk is one of the oldest surviving ships types, mainly because of this efficiency. Modern Westerners seem to have a greater appreciation for this than the Chinese themselves. There is an organisation and a forum for these junk lovers.  A number of books have been written for those who want to build a junk by themselves:

- Design and build your own junk rig, Derek van Loan (2007),

- Practical Junk Rig, HG Hasler & Jk Mcleod (1988),

- Sail Making, Thomas E. Colvin (1995).

Chinese and Western experts on these boats confirm that the interest in the junk is growing, not only for the rigging but also for the boats itself, both in China and elsewhere. 

The growing interest in the Western world for junks, and the appearance of a Chinese middle class interested in watersports and possible its own maritime cultural history, might finally translate into a revival of the number of new boats being build locally, similar to what happened in Indonesia during the nineties, when dozens of foreign individuals and foreign companies ordered to have their pinisi build.