Back to the future

I purchased a Chinese junk-rigged schooner more than 20 years ago. From everything that I had read about the junk rig at the time, it was not the most efficient sail plan for racing, especially to windward. However, it was billed as a boat for easy cruising and living aboard. Made up mostly of lines and knots, the rig guaranteed less maintenance and replacement costs. There would be no expensive standing rigging, stainless fittings, winches, or high-tech sails and line.

I wanted a boat easily, safely, and comfortably managed from the cockpit with a minimum of sail handling on the foredeck. Lastly, I was won over by the ancient design and the cruising exploits of several well-known sailors who experimented with modern interpretations of this two-thousand-year-old rig. As some would say, a billion Chinese cannot be all wrong. The rig has a long and up-to-date history.

In 2006, a Turkish boatyard launched the Maltese Falcon, a 289-foot mega yacht with three free-standing masts and a modern sail incarnation somewhere between a Chinese junk and a square-rigger. It personified the notion of back to the future.

Some 600 years ago, Chinese were sailing 400-foot junks across the China Sea and Indian Ocean according to Louise Levathes in her book, When China Ruled the Sea.

Almost everyone’s first sailing hero is Joshua Slocum. His greatest exploit, the first singlehander to make it around the world in 1895, is wonderfully narrated in Sailing Alone Around the World. He accomplished this awesome feat in a boat called Spray, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner. However, later in life, he built the junk-rigged Liberdade for a trip from South America back to the United States. He described this adventure in the book The Voyage of the Liberdade.

One of my all-time favorite sailor-authors is Bernard Moitessier. This Frenchman was born in Vietnam and acquired much of his early sailing experience in traditional junks. Although he changed to a more modern Bermuda-rigged boat for his many sailing exploits, he wrote nostalgically in A Sea Vagabond’s World about his early sailing days in junks.

In the 1970s, Thomas Colvin designed and built several junk-rigged boats in Chesapeake Bay. One of his most popular designs, an aluminum junk-rigged schooner called Gazelle, can still be found occasionally in classified advertisements. He extolled the unique charm of the Chinese junk rig in a book called Cruising as a Way of Life.

Englishmen, Blondie Hassler and Michael Richey, made history by sailing the junk-rigged folkboat, Jester, in the first and thirteen successive Atlantic singlehanded races. It was the first singlehanded Atlantic race in 1960 that pitted Chichester against Hassler and his junk-rigged sloop. Chichester’s Gypsy Moth won that race, but Jester subsequently established a record for most race attempts by Michael Richey in this annual competition. The fact that the boat and rig held up in the inhospitable North Atlantic Ocean race course is a testament to the boat and sail designs.

In 1988 Hassler teamed up with Jock McLeod to write a definitive book on junk-rig designs called Practical Junk Rig. The Brits seem to have adopted this ancient sail plan for modern Western craft, and formed the Junk Rig Association to further the study and exchange of ideas toward improving the rig.

For more on sailing and ocean crossing in a modern junk rig, read my book “Dreaming of Columbus“, available from online booksellers.

Jimmy Cornell on 01/19/2007 13:06

As with everything else that is (or looks) odd in sailing, I an always prepared to give tbe other side the benefit of the doubt. This is more than true in the case of the junk rig whose main attraction is its ease of handling and, implicitly, its safety. However, the main reason why I am ready to look at it objectively is that I know that Michael successfully completed a double Atlantic crossing in his junk-rigged Sabra,which proved that the rig was workable, convenient and safe. Let’s hope that some builder or designer is open-minded enough to launch a production boat with such a rig so more sailors can make up their minds if they wish to follow in Sabra’s wake.
Jimmy Cornell
Aventura III

Bob Hedges on 01/19/2007 16:17

Yes, Michale loves those junks! He sailed my Freeedom 36 too. He loved the free-standing rig. It just did not have enough knots and lines.

Raf Frankel on 01/25/2007 06:47

It’s delightful to read Michael’s logs and to learn about the influence of historical events on modern, practical sailing. Add to the mix a unique blend of cultural, societal and economic observations and those sailing adventures become fascinating, educational journals.

Robin Blain on 01/28/2007 12:26

Michael Frankel’s yacht is a Sunbird 32 built by Sunbird Yachts who were building in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s until the business was killed by the UK government’s levy of 25% tax on luxuries.

The Sunbird 32, designed by Alan Boswell is the only production yacht designed for the junk rig in the world. The problem is that there are not enough of them as junks, as some were built with Bermudan rigs, when they had to have 12″ added to their keel depth and this filled up with ballast. This is an interesting necessary alteration between the two rigs on the same hull.

Sunbird has been in business for 30 years and now concentrates on designing and supplying junk rigs for all types and sizes of boat from an 8 foot inflatable to an 80 foot motor fishing vessel. They also operate a Brokerage service for junk rigged boats only.

I, Robin Blain, am the Hon. Secretary of the Junk Rig Association and we publish two glossy 4-page colour newsletters every year and distribute an Information Pack on junk rigs.

We run a lending library and organize 3 or 4 weekend rallies every year in the UK.

We also are available for advice and information via Email , Telephone 10239-842613 or by post at 373 Huntspond Road, Fareham, Hants,
PO14 4PB

We have an ongoing research and development programme in co-operation with Sunbirds and members of the J.R.A.

There is a discussion group on that anyone can join and more information at the JRA website at

By Ocean Navigator