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'Free China' junk unveiled in Keelung, preservation challenge remains

2012/07/11 20:32:52

Taipei, July 11 (CNA) The historic sailing boat "Free China" was unveiled Wednesday on Maritime Day next to a museum in Keelung on Taiwan's northern coast, where it set off 57 years ago on a rare cross-Pacific voyage.

While it was their dream to journey out into the Pacific decades ago, "bringing the boat back to Taiwan was the dream of the young people," said Paul Chow, one of the three living crew members who attended the welcoming ceremony in Keelung.

"We hope the spirit of young people remains," said Chow. "And what is that spirit? It is the spirit that young people must have dreams and must realize their dreams."

Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai called the boat "the contemporary legend across the Taiwan Strait," and said Taiwan opens its arms to welcome the "three musketeers."

Vice President Wu Den-yih, who also attended the ceremony, said he expresses his "sincere greetings and respect" to the crew members of "Free China," which he said has ushered in a new era.

Wu presented certifications of appreciation to the three crew members -- Chow, Calvin E. Mehlert and Hu Loo-chi, while Lung presented certifications to those who helped bring back the boat.

The boat, 23 meters long and 5 meters wide, was exhibited outdoors next to the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in the city. It will be displayed publicly at its current site while repair work on the ship continues.

While the boat has successfully been brought back, many challenges remain ahead regarding the preservation of the boat. For example, it is placed outdoors and exposed to rain and heat.

Lwo Lwun-syin, who heads the boat's preservation team, said placing the boat outdoors was not an ideal plan, but was a result of a lack of funding.

"There is hardly any budget, just NT$2 million (US$66,797) to do some simple repairing work," said Lwo, calling on the private sector to donate to preserve the boat.

Kehr Young-zehr, director of the museum's provisional office, also said he is "very worried" as Taiwan's humid weather could accelerate the decay of the wooden boat.

He said the ideal plan is to build a transparent covering over the boat, "but right now we don't even have that money."

The vessel, believed to have been built around 1890, is believed to be the oldest existing Chinese junk built according to ancient methods and one of the only ones to have sailed across the Pacific.

The boat first left Keelung on April 4, 1955, with six crew members, the others being Benny Hsu, Reno Chen and Marco Chung.

However, none of them knew how to sail a junk, which became apparent immediately as the crew lost control of the ship soon after it left Keelung Harbor.

The junk was brought back to Keelung for repairs, and the crew set out again on April 16.

The crew hoped to get the vessel to the United States in time to compete in an international race from the U.S. to Sweden in June, but further mishaps prevented the ship from entering the trans-Atlantic competition.

It did arrive safely in San Francisco, however, after a 114-day journey.

The vessel has remained in the U.S. since then. It was first donated to an American museum and later found abandoned, on the verge of total decay, in a private shipyard in 2009.

It was shipped back to Taiwan from Oakland in April 2012, arriving in Keelung on May 17.

(By Christie Chen)