An Extract from

   Mingming and the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing

  - By Roger Taylor

The subtlety of the Chinese junk rig is hard to convey; to be appreciated it has to be experienced, to be lived with, and at length. Enlightenment advances slowly. It is a process of gradual and piecemeal absorption. To an extent it starts, for the occidental, as an act of faith. Too many built-in, scarcely recognised prejudices militate against easy acceptance. Without acceptance, understanding is not possible. The western sailor is, in the main, too impatient. His leaning is for the quick and the obvious. He wants results, and now. Peremptory rejection, scornful dismissal, delivered in double-quick time, is the usual verdict on this most elegant of rigs.

Born of two millenia of infinitely patient trial, error and sinuous inventiveness, graced with a score of tiny details whose relevance hover, like Columbus’ egg, just the other side of comprehension until the penny drops with an obvious and embarrassing clunk, infinitely forgiving to mast and sail and hull, supremely easy to manage, the junk rig is a perfect manifestation of the oriental genius. It expresses as well as anything the salient characteristics of the eastern worldview. It is a non-confrontational rig, soft, relenting. It absorbs rather than resists. It turns the other cheek, feinting gently away, while calmly appropriating the forces directed against it. It advances quietly, without thrash or bang. It sets up no strains on the hull it drives.
The mast wants to fly, to rise up through the partners and take to the air, rather than drive itself through the keel below; it yields to the wind, curving gently, the pressure of the sail ranged evenly along its height through the regular spacing of the battens and parrels. The sail delivers its power at the slightest of angles to the breeze, its fan-like configuration ready to be closed up in a second or two when reefing is called for. No junk-rigged craft need ever be forced on its ear. The sailing is upright, sedate, unstressed. It strives for a simple non-aggressive harmony with wind and wave.

The contrast with the bar-taut, hard-edged and, until recently, cumbersome rigs of the  West is asgood a metaphor as any for the great divide between the eastern and the western psyche. The modern occidental rig seems to set itself up in opposition to natural forces. It attacks them, brutally. Its aim is to overcome them rather than to work with them. The principle is to create ever stronger materials then stress them to the limit in a triumph of myopic engineering machismo. It is a hotbed of high tension. Every bit of kit is wound up to within a fraction of its breaking point. Everywhere winches, levers, turnbuckles and multi-blocked tackles are ratcheted up to deliver tons of opposing tensile and compressive forces on mast and hull. This is the finest
and dandyest of set-ups, go-fast and gung-ho, until a shroud or a swage or a thread or a rivet or a humble pin gives up the ghost and the whole edifice comes tumbling down in a mess of alloy and astonishment.
The aerodynamics of the junk rig are still poorly understood. Advanced scientific analysis, wind tunnels and all, has not yet come up with a definitive theory as to exactly how it works. The rig seems to defy comprehension. Forget smooth air flow. Forget aerofoils. The disturbances and vortices set up by the battens seem to be a positive attribute. The saggy luffs so hated by the western sailor seem to enhance performance. Everything is arse-about, counter-intuitive, typically bloody foreign.

No sail is easier to cut and more forgiving of its material than the junk sail. The cloth, and it can be virtually anything you like, even old hessian sacking if that’s all you’ve got, is simply laid out flat and cut to size. No fancy cambers or curved seams are necessary. The sail-maker’s skill is redundant. Any Tom, Dick or Ha Jin adept with a sewing machine or a needle and thread can knock up a sail between breakfast-time and happy hour. Once made the sail will last and last. Mingming’s mainsail, as we left the Faroes astern, was in its twenty-seventh year. Supported at every point by close-spaced battens and their multipartite sheeting, the material is seldom stressed. It never flogs. Holes and patches have little adverse affect on performance.  The sail battens are traditionally made from bamboo or tree branches. Just cut to size however many lengths you need and hey presto! A few spares are usually carried on board in case of breakage. In the West the repertoire of materials used has inevitably expanded to include aluminium, plastic, fibreglass. No doubt somebody somewhere is using carbon fibre or kevlar or whatever is the latest space-age compound. Each material has its ardent advocates and its indignant detractors; each has its good points and its not so-good points. In the arcane world of junk rig specialism the debates and arguments and experimentation continue year after year, with little sign of agreement or resolution.

       " ...there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in junk-rigged boats" 
                                                               - the Chinese Water Rat

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