A dragon sails the Columbia

• Local sculptor restores a Chinese junk to glory

By the time Jerry Joslin bought the Phi Lon, the 45-foot Chinese junk was almost a ghost ship.

'We replaced all the frames and the top 30 inches of planking in the hull,' said the lean and tanned Lake Oswego sculptor, a lifelong sailor. 'Then we had to refit all the bottom boards, because they weren't beveled, so you could force oakum between them to seal.'

Over the past 18 months, the Phi Lon (Flying Dragon) has been reconstructed at Speed Carter's Yacht Repair at St. Helens. It'll be on view at the Portland Boat Show, being held at Portland Expo Center through Sunday, Jan. 13, while Joslin continues to work on the interior.

The three-masted junk has 700 square feet of asymmetrical sails ribbed with bamboo battens. The sail settings are critical to the ship's handling. Joslin and his wife, Jeanie, sailed the Pacific for two years in a Hans Christian 43-foot ketch, but he said this is a different puzzle altogether.

'I'm hoping somebody will come by and say, 'I used to sail one of these,' ' he said.

The Phi Lon was built in 1964 for an American in Hong Kong. It came to Northwest attention in 1972 when Northwest Orient Airlines bought it for advertising. It was shipped to Spokane for the 1974 World's Fair and has surprised Northwest sailors ever since Ñ first on Lake Coeur d'Alene, then around Puget Sound and finally on the Columbia River.

In that time the Phi Lon has served as a cruising vessel, a houseboat and even a brothel at one point.

'There was a huge hot tub forward, the deck was covered with tarps and the moisture from the tub had rotted out the frames,' Joslin said.

By the time Joslin bought the Phi Lon for $7,000 at Kalama, Wahs., it needed everything. But the news wasn't all bad.

The engine was a 130-horsepower Perkins diesel, 'which checked out just fine when the mechanics examined it,' Joslin said. 'I managed seven knots sailing it to St. Helens, and (the junk) was leaking like a sieve.'

Visitors to the Phi Lon will be impressed first by the 16-foot dragons carved on the hull, red on one side, green on the other; by the ornate brass portholes; and by the quality of workmanship, both Joslin's and Speed Carter's.

The ship is mostly teak, its rails are sturdy and handsome, and intricate repairs have often been dovetailed in.

'I did it the way the Chinese would have,' Joslin said. 'Little bits spliced here and there. Even the dragons must have been part of a packing crate. On the back you can read 'Kow-loon Shipping Co.' '

For its size, the Phi Lon offers enormous usable space. The poop is as high as an 18th century pirate ship and big enough for a pool table. The stateroom forward can handle a double bed and shower and toilet. And the chartroom-captain's cabin in the rear is about the size of a one-car garage.

The bridge is midship, where the deck drops from the poop and the foredeck leads to a grated platform at the bowsprit 'where you could lay out and watch dolphins.'

Joslin plans to use the rear cabin as a floating studio.

'I'll be able to live aboard and work. I need elbowroom,' he said. 'I'll keep it on the Columbia or maybe downtown at the Alexis Ñ the guy who runs the marina has a couple of my pieces.'

When he's finished, Joslin reckons he'll have spent about $120,000 on the Phi Lon, not counting his time.

'But I look on it as a piece of artwork,' he said. 'Besides, where would you find another?'

Contact Paul Duchene at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..