Crew recalls historic 1955 Tiaoyutais trip


TAIPEI–One of the six crew members that sailed a traditional Chinese sailboat across the Pacific from Taiwan in 1955 said Thursday the boat berthed at an uninhabited island believed to be one of the disputed Tiaoyu Islands.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who received the three living crew members of “Free China” earlier in the day, said the incident was part of the history of the islands, underlining that the Republic of China (Taiwan) has sovereignty over the island group, which is also claimed by both Japan and China.

Paul Chow, one of the crew, recalled that his crewmate Calvin E. Mehlert climbed to the top of a high hill on the island after the vessel was forced to dock there for repairs.

The crew members were hoping to sail the vessel to the United States in time to compete in an international race from the U.S. to Sweden in June that year, but a number of mishaps prevented the ship from entering the trans-Atlantic competition.

It did arrive safely in San Francisco, however, after a 114-day journey that started from the northern port city of Keelung on April 16, 1955.

The boat, 23-meters long and 5-meters wide, was recently restored and unveiled to the public in Keelung July 11. The vessel is believed to be one of the oldest existing Chinese sailing boats built according to ancient methods, and the only existing Chinese wooden sailboat to have made a passage across the Pacific.

Mehlert, a U.S. vice consul to Taiwan at that time, apologized to the others after coming down from the hill “because he forgot to take a Republic of China flag up there,” Chow told Ma.

During the meeting, Ma inquired about the trip and the island, asking how long it took them to sail there from Taiwan’s northern coast, how many nautical miles they covered to reach the island and how large the islet was.

Chow, who returned to Taiwan from his U.S. home to attend the unveiling ceremony, told the president they probably sailed more than 50 nautical miles by the time they reached the island, which he described as being hilly.

“I think (it was the Tiaoyutais) because the hills on the Tiaoyutais are high. The highest elevation is 383 meters,” Ma said.

Also at the meeting was ruling Kuomintang Legislator Chiau Wen-yan, who showed some documents and videos he compiled, including journals the crew kept, and argued “Free China” did indeed anchor at the island between April 19-22, 1955.

According to Chiau, fishermen from northeast Taiwan sometimes went fishing near the islands or sought shelter on the islands during bad weather, Chiau said.

This shows the islands and their surrounding waters were traditional fishing grounds for Taiwanese fishermen, Chiau added.

Such findings are very helpful for Taiwan’s assertion of its claim over the Tiaoyutais, Wang Ching-hsiu, deputy director of the Department of Land Administration under the Interior Ministry, has been quoted as saying.

On July 6, Taiwan lodged a protest with Japan over a Japanese politician’s recent trip to the Tiaoyutais, days after Japan demanded a Taiwanese vessel leave waters surrounding the disputed island group, which is known as the Diaoyutai Islands in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan.