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Crew members recount memories on historic sailing boat

2012/04/28 09:46:29

Taipei, April 28 (CNA) Two of the six crew members who embarked on a historical voyage from Taiwan across the Pacific on an old wooden sailing boat in 1955 have said they braved the waves to see the world and seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Calvin E. Mehlert, a former U.S. vice consul to Taiwan and Paul Chow, a former commercial fisherman in Taiwan, were the crew of "Free China," one of the only existing Chinese wooden sailing boats to have made a passage across the Pacific.

At a press conference in Taipei Friday, Mehlert and Chow, who is now a retired physics and astronomy professor in the U.S., recalled memories on the old boat in a video conference with Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai.

"The six of us were bachelors in our twenties. We were not married and didn't have families of our own," said the 83-year-old Mehlert in Mandarin, explaining the reasons for their venture.

"They (Taiwanese crew) said they were going to ride on a sailing boat and I thought that was a good plan, so I went along," he said. "If there is an opportunity to do something interesting, it's better to go for it, or the opportunity might just slip away."

The American and five Taiwanese commercial fishermen, three of whom have since passed away, set off from Keelung in April 1955, hoping to join an international sailing competition from the United States to Sweden in June that year.

Although they failed to make it in time for the trans-Atlantic competition due to storms along the way, they managed to arrive in San Francisco in August after a 114-day journey.

Since then, the vessel has remained in the U.S. It was first donated to an American museum and later found abandoned in a private shipyard in 2009.

It will be shipped back to Taiwan in late May and preserved in a museum in Keelung, where it will make its first public appearance in Taiwan on the country's Maritime Day on July 11.

Lung said the boat has historical significance as a "record of a young Taiwan."

She said she couldn't stop wondering how five Taiwanese fishermen were able to embark on a journey on an old wooden boat across the Pacific at a time when tensions were heightening across the Taiwan Strait during the Cold War period.

Chow, who is now 85 and was the boat's navigator, said that before they bought the boat, it was used as a vessel to import salted fish from China's Fuzhou to Keelung, where fish were sold.

"The boat was built in Fuzhou's Mawei. The owner of the boat was unable to run the boat anymore, so he was glad to sell it to us," Chow said.

When asked by Lung if their voyage was at all motivated by a desire to embrace freedom at a time when Taiwanese could not travel abroad freely, Chow said their venture was simply moved by a desire to see "what's out there."

He mentioned Puyi, the last emperor of China, as an example, saying that the emperor "had everything (in the Forbidden City), but he still wanted to see what was out there."

"The more you forbid me to go, the more I want to go," Chow said.

"Why did Zheng He led the expeditions to the 'Western Ocean'? Was he not treated well in China?" Chow asked, referring to the legendary 15th-century explorer. "He wanted to see what's out there. Young people like us had those thoughts at that time."

In addition to the six crew members, two hens were also brought onto the boat because the crew members wanted to eat eggs. One of the hens was cooked on Chow's birthday because, he said, it would not lay eggs and was bullying the other hen.

But the favor to the bullied hen backfired, Chow said, because it stopped laying eggs after the death of its partner.

"It is the same with people. We fought on the boat every day, but we were like the hens. If you killed one of us, the other five would have quit as well."

(By Christie Chen)