Batwings & Bamboo

Chinese junk rigs carry traditions.

Even the dog beside me was quiet while the old man rowed his dory towards us. Minutes earlier our on-water party had been laughing. My father and I had just sailed from the Comox Marina to Newcastle Island, and our neighbours wanted to hear of our adventure. But we were silenced.

The old man looked thoughtfully at each of us.

“Which boat you in?”

My father nodded vaguely towards Nanaimo Harbour, “Not ours. We’re bringing down someone else’s to Sidney. Just a white boat.”

Alan Farrell, builder of the legendary Chinese junk China Cloud grinned. Behind him, the colours of his orange-red and black boat shone. “Another one of those white boats with blue sail covers?” he asked mischievously.

Modern Day Junk Rigs

Between Victoria and Port Hardy, Lasqueti Island and Vancouver, boat builders have embraced the colourful Chinese junk. West Coasters build modern day junk rigs because they are affordable, “beachable” and maneuverable in the water.

“A flat-bottomed junk can be built for the price of a modern day kayak,” Dan Prain says. He finished his own junk rig on a Herreshoft Meadowlark hull four years ago.

“Boats of 30-plus feet [19.5 metres] can be made. Paint comes from paint exchanges, lines from government wharf dumpsters and sails cut out of plastic tarps,” Prain says. While the materials can come cheap, the form of the rig varies artistically with each builder.

Michael Parker, who has built 10 to 13 metre beachable West Coast junks in a “funky” style, agrees. In 1966, Parker was fishing on a junk, The Lotus Princess, near Sooke, B.C. He was amazed at the spaciousness of it and the simple catwalk that bordered the cabin. His life has never been the same since. Junks make him feel, “overwhelmed, touching nostalgia.”

Years later, when Parker was building his own junks, he was handed a piece of yellow newsprint. The article was about an old fishing boat that had come from Hong Kong. It was The Lotus Princess. Parker was astounded that the junk had come so far. This confirmed his belief in the strength of the junk form. He sums up a 2,000-year history simply: “Chinese junks are practical. Built to take abuse [and] water damage.”

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Batwinged vessel at anchor.

Original Chinese Junk Boats

Since 221 B.C., during the Ch’in Dynasty, the Chinese junk has dominated the world’s sailing fleets. A thousand years before European ships dominated the seas, the junk was already using maritime innovations such as the balanced rudder, watertight compartment and spoon-shaped stern.

In China, spotting a junk on the horizon was considered a symbol of good luck.

Certainly for Hong Kong, the junk not only symbolized luck but also industrial and financial security. Hong Kong has a long shipyard history, producing junks for industry and pleasure. Although fewer junks are being built there today, fishing junks are still being shaped with heat and charcoal.

Given its various forms, it is no wonder that the shape of the traditional Chinese junk remains a mystery. Chinese shipbuilding has long been recognized for an absence of written plans. Expertise was passed down between generations. This verbal exchange of instruction continues among builders in British Columbia.

“If it looks right, then it probably is right,” says Prain, citing a general rule of thumb for building a junk.

Those who build junks share newspaper clippings and out-of-print books; it is this dialogue that makes the junk form stay alive.

When Prain is asked what distinguishes the junk’s body, he says, “It is not so much a hull form, but a state of mind.”

New Material Choices For Junk Hulls

Steel is becoming more common in the Gulf Islands as the material of choice for junk hulls, though they are traditionally made of wood. Wooden junks on the West Coast have mostly been flat-bottomed. Sailboats generally have a keel that descends from the hull to a drop of approximately 0.6 to 0.9 metres. The longer the keel, the deeper the water needs to be when the boat anchors. Thus, a boat without a keel not only anchors easily in shallow areas, but also beaches on sandy shores. Most junks have a detachable rudder that can be raised when beaching the vessel.

Red and yellow cedar, fir, and yew are the primary woods used to build junks. Natural crooks and knees are used as latches, rudder handles, and joints. The Chinese junk is an expression limited only by the imagination.

The junk is environmentally safe. “I’d rather be an attraction than a detraction,” Parker says of the junks beached near his home on Hornby Island. By keeping his boat on the beach, Parker avoids painting the underside of his hull with fouling agents. The more time the boat spends on the beach, the more time the bottom has to dry, warding against marine growth.

In addition, “The [lug rig] sails don’t flap … and all the other sails in the wind flap … a heck of a racket,” says Parker. He claims that a silent lug rig can be orange tarp or Dacron. Traditional junk sails are Chinese red, an orange-like mix of white, black and red, or deep green. The sail rigging uses multiple lines. The more lines there are in a rig, the less chance of stress on any one line. The battens (the crossbeams of the rig) are made of bamboo or fir. Parker insists that the sails can be put up easily in the wind, just like an “automatic transmission.”

Junk Rigs Used On Non-Traditional Junk Bottoms

Junk rigs are used on boats other than the traditional flat bottom junk, such as Colvins’ Gazelle and St. Pierre Dories.

Rolf Zarr lives aboard his 13-metre sailboat at Stamps Landing, B.C. He has had success adopting a junk lug rig to his sizable boat, making it manageable for one sailor. His initial rig plans came with a Pelican design. He had never seen a junk. When asked about first raising his junk sails, Zarr’s face lights up.

“Some people don’t like junk rigs at all,” says Zarr, “but it suits my personality.”

Junk rigs come naturally to some people. “It felt like something I’d done before. It doesn’t make a lot of practical sense, but…” Parker hardly pauses in his thoughts when describing the first time he saw a junk, “…it felt like coming home.”

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