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NavWeek: Harbor Sights

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HONG KONG - The iconic Star Ferry is the only way to cross the harbor in this historic Chinese city. Quaint, cheap and visually stunning, the ride is like dipping back into time, if only for an instant.

But for a true plunge into the past, there’s nothing like the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, which sits just adjacent to the ferry terminal at Pier 8. Of real interest for the maritime-minded are the exhibits honoring China’s storied age of exploration on the high seas by the so-called “Treasure Fleets” back in the 1400s, especially the voyages led by Zheng He.

The amount of ink and angst being heaped on China’s maritime rise might make one think this is the first time the Asian Giant ever took to the sea. Indeed, in the latter part of this month, the Pentagon said this in its new “Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy” document:

“China sees a need for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to be able to support China’s ‘new historic missions’ and operational tasks outside the first island chain with multi-mission, long-range, sustainable naval platforms equipped with robust self-defense capabilities. Although quantity is only one component of overall capability, from 2013 to 2014, China launched more naval vessels than any other country.

“The PLAN now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft. Although preparation for a potential Taiwan conflict remains the primary driver of Chinese investment, China also is placing emphasis on preparing for contingencies in the East and South China Sea, the Pentagon notes.

But, as the Hong Kong exhibit shows – and author Gavin Menzies notes in his 2002 book, “1421: The Year China Discovered America” – back in the 1400s, more than 100 huge junks “rode at anchor, towering above the watchers on the quayside.” Each capital ship, Menzies says, was about “480 feet in length (444 chi, the standard Chinese unit of measurement, equivalent to about 12.5 inches or 32 centimeters) and 180 feet across – big enough to swallow 50 fishing boats.”

The armada was composed very much like a World War II convoy, Menzies says. “At the center were the great leviathan flagships, surrounded by a host of merchant junks, most 90 feet long and 30 feet wide. Around the perimeters were squadrons of fast, maneuverable warships. Each treasure ship had 16 internal watertight compartments, any two of which could be flooded without sinking the ship.  Some internal compartments could also be partially flooded to act as tanks for the trained sea otters used in fishing, or for use by divers.”

Some of Menzies’ theories about where that armada went are more than a bit controversial. There is no doubt the ships traveled all of the seas known or believed to exist by the Chinese at the time, but Menzies says the ships followed now-known currents to voyage as far as the Americas:

“As they have for millennia, winds and currents in the Atlantic circle anti-clockwise in a huge oval loop from the Cape of Good Hope in the south to the bulge of Africa in the north. At the Cape, the mariner meets the Benguela current that carries him due north up the west coast of Africa. After some 3,000 miles, the current starts to hook first to the northwest, then westwards to South America. Off the coast of South America, the current continues its anti-clockwise movement, running southwards off Brazil and Patagonia down the east coast as far as Cape Horne before sweeping to the east, back to South Africa. If a sailing ship, carrying sufficient supplies and robust enough to withstand the ‘Roaring 40s’ – powerful winds that circle the globe for hundreds of miles north and south of the latitude that gives them their name – were to hoist its sails off South Africa and sail before the wind and current, then several months later, having crossed thousands of miles of ocean in this great anti-clockwise loop, would return more or less where it started.”

He notes that what appears to be ship wreckage of a large Chinese vessel was found at Wollongong on the coast south of Sydney, Australia, while a 45-ft.-high rudder was found farther north in another New South Wales coastal city of Byron Bay.

There is no denying the Chinese did sail seas far beyond their shores – and they’re about to do so again, more than they have since those forays centuries ago. And this time, they’re likely out there to stay.

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