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Rig and Sailing

On Deck

Below Decks

The Rig

Steve: "When I came out to Hong Kong to join Precious Dragon, I hoped to meet some eastern junk rig experts to learn more about rigging and sailing junks. But in the time available I  didn't find any, they must be very rare these days. There is a very good museum with junk models and  associated history in Macao, but again I didn't have the time to go and visit. In preparing Precious Dragon I had to rely on my limited experience of western style junk rig. This was gained re-rigging my boat (a 20ft. dory) with a junk rig - using information from the Junk Rig Association's magazines, and Hasler and McCloud's, book Practical Junk Rig. Any comments or advise from junk rig sailors or historians would be very welcome, use our Message in a Bottle service or Email me."

The Rig

Precious Dragon has a Chinese junk rig with three masts in tabernacles with stainless steel wire standing rigging. It is very unusual for junks to have stayed masts - they are usually free-standing. Junk rig sailors should look at the "Sailing Precious Dragon" section below for comments on this rig!! The sails are made of terelyne with traditional bamboo battens dividing the sails into panels. The foresail has five panels, the main six and the mizzen five. The sheets that control the sail are connected to all the battens on the sail with rope "spans" running through "euphroe". The euphroe is a shaped wooden block with holes through which the rope span is laced back and forward to the battens. The sail is held to the side of the mast with "mast parrels" - ropes tied to the battens, passed around the mast and back to the batten in such a way that the sail can be swung fore and aft, adjusting the amount of sail forward of the mast. The advantage of the junk sail is that it can be easily reefed in strong winds, the sail can be reduced in size by one panel at a time.

Our first sail in Hong Kong

Sailing Precious Dragon

In her previous incarnation Precious Dragon was primarily a motor sailer. For her trip to England in 1997 the sail area was increased by thirty percent, but the main and fore mast were kept the original height, the mizzen was replaced with a larger mast and sail, and moved forward a few feet. The keel was added to by a two foot deep steel section to help the windward performance. Even with these alterations, the 1997 voyage was mainly motor sailing.

Stayed Masts

This rig, unusually for a junk, has stayed masts. This was normal for the Hong Kong fishing junks - an idea copied from the first western visitors to China. Why this was done is unclear as it destroys some of the great advantages of junk rig: the ability to hoist the sails with the wind on, or even aft of the beam; the ability to sail down wind without the danger of a gybe, as the sails can be sheeted out till they are forward of the mast enabling you to sail "by the lee"; easy reefing on any point of sail, the sheet can be can be let loose and the sail weathercocks allowing it to be simply reefed by one panel at a time.


A couple of day sails, in light winds, gave us some idea of the sailing qualities. With the all sail set, there was so much weather helm the boat just came up into the wind, stowing the mizzen help reduced this, so 20 or 30 degrees of helm kept you on course! The mizzen is now only used when we want photographs!! We found that the closest to the wind Precious Dragon would sail was 60 degrees, this is not good compared to modern yachts, but as all the crew are ex square rigger sailors it's what we are used to, anyway the voyage should be mainly tradewind, therefore downwind, sailing.


The stayed masts caused problems sailing down wind, the stays are fixed - no running backstays. The maxinum the sails could be boomed out was about 45 degrees!! The downwind sleighride from Shanwei in 25 knots of wind showed the limitations, with the heavy following swell making steering difficult, we had to sail with the wind 30 degrees off the stern to avoid accidental gybes ("Even then I managed to do it, luckily before the wind was at its strongest so no damage" Steve). The foresail being slightly in the lee of the mainsail regularly gybe with the heavy rolling, luckily we had fitted the double sheets (see below) by then and with the lee sheet adjusted so the sail only swung halfway accross the boat it loked after itself with no damage.


We can only sail with the wind between 60 degrees of the bow to 30 degrees off the stern. Zheng He's treasure junks would have sailed better than this, probably not as close to the wind as our junk. But with their many unstayed masts downwind sailing would have been easy and downwind trade wind sailing is what decided their choice of route.

sailingportside.jpg (47256 bytes)

Changes to rig

Sheets and Spans

The day sail showed a few problems with the sheeting system. The spans didn't run easily through the euphroe and if the spans were long enough to reach all the battens when the sail was fully hoisted, they were too long when the sail was reefed, the mainsheet coming block-a-block before the sail was fully sheeted in. The spans also caught round the end of the battens when tacking or gybing, this was a particular problem on the foresail, as there wasn't room between the leech of the sail and the  mainmast to flick the sheet spans clear.

New Spans

The spans were altered first, in "Practical Junk Rig" there are diagrams of traditional Chinese "running spans", these have one end of the span ending at the euphroe, so by hauling the end of the rope through the euphroe and putting a stopper knot in it, the span can be shortened when reefed. See diagram to the right (not to scale). The sheet on the mainsail isn't a single pull as illustrated but a block and tackle, the mainsheet euphroe had to be remade so a sheave was incorporated into it for the tackle thus getting rid of the existing heavy steel block.

Mainsail sheeting system

Double Sheets on Foresail

The problem of the foresheet getting hung up on the battens when tacking, was solved by using double sheets. The existing single sheetspan was attached to the aft ends of the battens and when the sheet came slack the span hung down the windward side of the sail and therefore got caught by the batten ends as the sail swung across. The double sheet system uses a sheet on both sides of the sail, attached two or three feet forward of the leech. The sail is sheeted using the windward sheet cleated to the windward side of the boat, the lazy sheet hangs down the lee of the sail and is cleated to the lee side. When the boat tacks the windward sheet goes slack and as sail swings across the lee sheet tightens and as the boat passes through the wind becomes the new windward sheet, thus the sheets always stay on their own side of the sail so don't need to pass the leech and the batten ends. This system works extremely well, the foresail now tacks and gybes it self with no crew input needed.

To do the same with the mainsail would mean using a lot of rope and as there is room aft of the sail it is possible for the crew to pull the sheet back and clear of  the battens as the sail crosses the boat. Well most of time!!!

Picture of double sheet system to come shortly

Main Halyard

The halyard for the main sail gaff was attached nearly right at the forward end, with no peak halyard to keep the aft end up, this was done by hauling the sail to the mast with luff parrels, so the whole weight of the sail was hung from the length of unsupported gaff.
This type of Junk used to have "Hong Kong" parrels, lines joining the forward ends of the gaff and battens to a point half way along the next batten down, like individual peak halyards on each batten. So thinking this may be a way of spreading the weight of the sail between all the battens, we tried fitting these, but were unable to get them tight enough to have any effect.
So the final solution was to move the halyard attachment point to a third of the way along gaff, therefore reducing the unsupported length of gaff. This resulted in dropping the sail lower on the mast, so low that the boom would hit the poopdeck when tacking, probally because a larger sail had been put on the original mast. The simple solution to this was to put in a semi permanant reef by tying the boom to the the first battern, the smaller mainsail would help the weather helm problem. In light winds when trade wind sailing and unlikely to tack for several days this reef could be shaken out.


We first reefed  in anger on the trip back from Shanwei to slow down, to time our arrival at Hong Kong in daylight. This was difficult, first because downwind the sail was pressed on the stays ("Those cursed stays" Steve) and because as the gaff was lowered it sagged away from the mast causing the aft ends of the batterns to drop and the forward ends to stay hoisted. This meant they had to be physically pulled down by climbing up attacthing ropes and hauling down - all at night on a rolling deck!

The stays we can't change but there is a simple standard junk rig solution to the sagging gaff, this is the "Yard Hauling Parrel". This is a rope that runs up from the deck through a block on the gaff where the halyard is attached, round the mast and back to the same point on the gaff. This is left loose when the sail is hoisted, then hauled tight thus holding the gaff to the mast.

We experimented with reefing the sails while alongside Aberdeen Boat Club, with the gaff parrel hauled tight. When the sail was lowered to the desired reefed position the batterns dropped down neatly pararell to each other. Doing this for real at sea wasn't as neat but was a vast improvement.

Reefed outside Aberdeen Boat Club, Hong Kong Experiments with reefing at Aberdeen Boat Club.
Two panels out of both main and fore sails.
Well reefed down Well reefed on the way to Qui Nhon.
Mainsheet span reefedMainsheet span overhauled so sheet doesn't become block to block with euphore. mastparrels - click for large imageMansail reefed right down, the gaff  hauling parrel can clearly be seen.

Downwind Solution

The trip from Vietnam to Singapore is all downwind, so a solution  to our accidental gybing was needed.

Being a crew of experienced sailing ship sailors the answer was obvious:

A Square Sail.

Nikki designed and made a square sail for the main mast, using bamboos and the awning. The braces were the mooring lines, the lifts the tender's anchor line. The yard halyard was the boat tackle, the sail halyards the jackstays (replaced with mooring lines) and the borrowed mizzen halyard.

This worked beautifully. See the route section

A square rigged junkA square rigged junk.

E-mail  Rex Warner rex @ dragonvoyage.com Magnus Ström (exBerglund) magnus @ dragonvoyage.com.
Last Updated 31/12/10 Ship communications