"The Ships"


Chinese Junks

- sampans, - "floating cities" , - and "the Boat People"

It is commonly accepted, that the age of sail died out towards the end of the 1800's - - - -
However, - any sailor who has navigated the great oceans of the World up through the 1960's and 1970's-, cannot quite agree to that.
In the Indian Ocean you would often meet large ships of the type the Europeans refer to as "dhows", - with huge lateen sails, and looking very much like the portuguese ships that traded in these waters in the 1500's.
In Indonesia you could see huge fleets of sailing ships with schooner rigs, - obviously copied from the European schooner type -, and even in the port of the capital Jakarta you could see rows and rows of beautiful schooners loading and discharging their cargoes to and from the nations many remote islands.
And when navigating the South China sea, you would often find yourself surrounded by 30 - 40 Chinese junks.
They came in all sizes with up to four masts, and was driven only by sails.

This is quite amazing to think of - - - -
Ships has been around in China for an awful long time, - we talk about 2 - 3000 years -, and there was a time, when the Chinese were at least 5 - 600 years ahead of Europe when it comes to ship design using watertight bulkheads.
Another important Chinese invention, - the stern mounted rudder -,  came even earlier and was first developed in Europe in the 14th. century, - 1300 years later!
Also when it comes to sail and rigging, the Chinese were far ahead.
They built ships with more than one mast several hundred years before the Portuguese came up with the same idea in Europe.
Since the 9th. century the Chinese used the characteristic lugger sail on their big, oceangoing junks, and could with this rigging sail very close to the wind, contrary to the the Europeans, who had been satisfied with their huge square sails, which were great as long as the wind came in from the aft, but not very efficient when the wind came in from ahead.
Finally, - the most important of all navigation instruments, - the compass -, was invented in China.
Therefore, - before the 15th. century it is not wrong to say, that the Chinese were far ahead of the Europeans in maritime matters. Their ships were simply bigger and better, with their watertight compartments and a more efficient rigging distributed on several masts.

But in the 15th. century, the Chinese and the Europeans finally became equals when it comes to rigging, since the Portuguese now had introduced the lateen sail, and in addition to that, the Europeans now also had the compass, and the stern mounted rudder had already been introduced the century before.
Then the Europeans took the lead, with improved knowledge of navigation, and better understanding of wind, weather and the ocean currents - - -

But the Chinese junks sailed on well into the twentieth century, - and we sailors marveled at the sight of them, being it on the open ocean or navigating China's great rivers as they had done for a thousand years - - - -
They were extremely beautiful to look at, - often gaily painted -, with their sails spread out with long flexible bamboo sticks, but as modern sailors we could not help to notice, that from our point of view they were far from perfect with their too low freeboard and high, square and bulky aft structure, that virtually begged big storm waves to smash them, and the colourful lugger sail would of course not have a chance towards the modern, triangular, very tall and narrow "bermuda" type sail.
However, - this hopelessly old fashioned rigging type did in fact have its advantages.
It was quite impressive to see how fast the Chinese sailors actually could lower the bamboo supported lugger sails.
In just a matter of a few seconds, everrything, - sails and bamboo -, came crashing down, - a great advantage in the South China Sea, where sudden typhoon winds often is experienced, and you have to act fast before you capsize in the strong gusts of wind.
Also it was a bit disturbing for us to know, that they had no keels, which would have a bad influence on their ability to maintain course, but also this disadvantage could be turned into an advantage, when navigating in shallow water as they would often have to do on the long Chinese rivers and canal systems, - as well as operating in shallow waters between the coastal islands.
With this design, the junks could go almost everywhere, - deep ocean or on inland waterways -, and that might be the answer to why they survived for so long time.

A lot of pictures in this web site are taken in Hong Kong waters, - including it's outlying islands -, in the first half of the 1970's, and Hong Kong in those days was a great center for junks and their smaller "sisters", - the sampans.
They seemed to be everywhere!
Complete "floating cities" of junks, - with the small sampans crowding the water between them-, could be found at anchor in almost every bay and at every island, - not to mention in the special typhoon shelters, where many of the junks were permanently moored, because they were too old and fragile for active service, - but still they served well as a floating home to a Chinese family.
In addition to that, there were also shipyards along the coasts, where traditional wooden junks and sampans were built and maintained - - - - -
Most important though, were the junks we met at sea, - with all sails up! Quite an impressive sight - - - -
In those days, the junks were so typical and important to the general picture of Hong Kong, that I would dare to say, that people that did not know Hong Kong and this special maritime culture in the 1960's and 1970's do not know Hong Kong at all - - - -

But eventually the junks disappeared from the South China Sea, and it happened very fast, - it took just a few decades, then they were all gone -, and today's sailors will not anymore experience the thrill and joy of seeing traditional Chinese junks spreading their wings on the South China Sea - - - -   A great pity - - -

In this section on Chinese junks, I will show some of my many pictures of these wonderful ships - - -
They are long gone now, - but certainly not forgotten.
Please enjoy - - -

Quick, direct links to all 9 pages:

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Page initiated:  Sept.29.2006
Page updated:   Dec.10.2006, -  Dec.11.2006, - Dec.12.2006, - Dec.16.2006, - Jan.11.2007, - Feb.13.2010, - Dec.04.2010, - Jan.09.2011, - Jan.10.2011