5,500 miles by raft: Vietnamese fisherman's Pacific odyssey

By Le Hoang   February 23, 2024 | 03:37 pm PT
In 1993 Vietnamese fisherman Luong Viet Loi embarked on a 5,500-mile expedition across the Pacific Ocean to test the theory that ancient Asian voyagers reached America using simple rafts.

Loi from Sam Son coastal city of Thanh Hoa Province in central Vietnam was chosen by Irish explorer Tim Severin (1940-2020) to helm the voyage from Hong Kong to the U.S.

The Tu Phuc Raft, crafted from bamboo, sets sail for the voyage from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1993. Archived photo

The Tu Phuc Raft, crafted from bamboo, sets sail for the voyage from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1993. Archived photo

After making preparations for three weeks in Hong Kong, the bamboo raft, named Tu Phuc, departed from Aberdeen port in the south of the island on May 17.

The expedition team comprised seven individuals: Tim Severin from Ireland, three Britons Joe Beynon, Rex Warner, and Trondur Patursson, Nina Kojima from Japan, Mark Reynolds from Hong Kong, and Luong Viet Loi from Vietnam. Mark and Nina disembarked before the remaining five departed from Japan.

As Severin later wrote in his book "The China Voyage," everyone except Loi felt inexperienced as they raised the sails and began their journey.

Departing from the wharf, Severin noted that the Tu Phuc raft moved slowly, lacking the agility of Sam Son's fishing rafts. This was due to its heavy load of 7-8 tons, mostly freshwater. Severin humorously likened the raft's departure from Hong Kong to that of a tipsy person leaving a party.

The men learned gradually how to maneuver in the tight spaces aboard the raft.

They had hoped to reach Taiwan, around 120 miles from Hong Kong, in a week to 10 days. But on the eighth day a storm hit while they were crossing the Taiwan Strait.

Loi managed to guide the vessel alone through the storm though a mast was damaged. The next day he fixed the mast using bamboo and other materials they carried.

They wanted to reach Taiwan for repairs and supplies, but had to be wary of big waves and submerged rocks. Any collision could potentially damage the raft.

A meal on the Tu Phuc. Photo courtesy Luong Viet Lois family

A meal on the Tu Phuc. Photo courtesy Luong Viet Loi's family

On the 19th day the crew got lost after being caught in a rapid current called Kuroshio, which flows along the eastern coast of Taiwan and Japan carrying warm water from the tropics to the north.

They were running out of food and kerosene because this part of the trip took longer than expected.

Severin spoke with the group and everyone agreed they needed to eat less to make their supplies last longer.

They only had about two liters of kerosene left, and so could only cook one meal a day.

Severin decided to skip Taiwan and follow the Kuroshio to Japan's Ryukyu Islands.

There they fixed the mast, got more food, and took some short trips through the main Japanese archipelagos.

On Aug. 5 they set sail again, heading to San Francisco, the U.S.

Severin thought it would take around 90 days to traverse the 4,500 miles.

For months the raft journeyed steadily toward its destination. While some days were filled with battles against storms, there were also peaceful moments when the raft moved forward effortlessly. During these occasions the five made tools like bows and arrows and knives to hunt fish and other seafood.

Loi said: "We had Vietnamese meal with rice every two days and western food the rest of the time. Some days we relied solely on fresh fish and shrimp from the sea."

The crew worked in shifts, with two people on duty at a time.

As their journey continued the raft endured four storms.

The most perilous encounter was with a cargo ship that nearly collided with them one night. Loi reacted swiftly, steering the raft away just in time to avert disaster.

Twice, pirates boarded the raft, but Loi did not encounter them directly as he was asleep. Upon waking, he learned from his fellow crew members that the pirates had searched the raft but found nothing of value and left.

On the 103rd day since leaving Japan, the crew noticed that some bamboo trees, integral to the raft’s structure, had slipped away, and the rattan ropes softening and weakening.

Severin said: "The raft looked like a makeshift rope workshop. We had to find a way to secure it so the bamboo wouldn't loosen and drift away."

Meanwhile, a major storm was forecast to hit in the area where they were sailing.

Fearing for the safety of the crew, Severin decided to ask the U.S. Coast Guard to evacuate them.

Loi, when he agreed to leave the raft, seemed "deeply pained," indicating the emotional toll it took, Severin said.

On Nov. 16, 1993, after sailing 5,500 miles (8,800 km) and being only around 900 miles from the west coast of the U.S., the crew abandoned the raft and boarded a ship back to Japan.

The Tu Phuc drifted away into the vast ocean, never to be seen again.

The container ship California Galaxy, which transported the crew, completed the journey to Tokyo in just nine days, covering the same distance that the Tu Phuc had done in 105.

After a brief farewell gathering, Loi flew back to Vietnam the next day, having earned US$1,400 from the trip.

Life after the adventure

Upon his return, Loi gave up the ocean and bought a motorbike to become a taxi driver.

Unfortunately, he had an accident and had to give up that too.

He learned English and began to work as a translator for various hotels in Hanoi and Thanh Hoa.

Recently, due to declining health, he returned to his hometown to live with his wife and children in Truong Son Ward, Sam Son City.

Luong Tat Thang, secretary of Sam Son, said that in 2018 the city, in collaboration with the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, planned to re-create the bamboo raft Loi sailed across the Pacific.

Once complete, it is expected to be displayed at the Doc Cuoc Temple, located at the top of Co Giai mountain, in the Truong Le mountain range, next to Sam Son Beach.

There have been delays, but Thang promised that the city remains dedicated to realizing this project.

A 1/20 scale model of the Tu Phuc Raft, constructed by the Sam Son City Peoples Committee. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

A 1/20 scale model of the Tu Phuc Raft, constructed by the Sam Son City People's Committee. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Sam Son plans to make a biopic about Loi. "The journey across the ocean is a history lesson, showing that the bamboo rafts of Sam Son fishermen can sail all the way to America, not just to Truong Sa or Hoang Sa islands," Thang said.

It also hopes to create tourism experiences based on the expedition.

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