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By Bob Means - Remlik, Virginia - USA

 

More on So Fong

I got an e-mail from a guy in England about my involvement with the schooner So Phong. I thought you might like this story.

I put SO FONG into Google and came up with your article, Why I build wooden boats. I know it's been a while, you said 1988. I sailed on So Phong in the early 70's around the Caribbean and along the east coast. I last saw her in Stamford Connecticut where she had been put up for sale. Subsequently I heard a couple of horror stories by fellow delivery skippers and knew that she had crossed the Pacific probably for nefarious purposes.

When I sailed her she was owned by the wife of Hank Becton of Becton Dickinson pharmaceutical company. No expense was spared. She was always in prime condition. So when I started hearing stories of added plywood it was not a joyous moment. Sometimes we have to do whatever is necessary.

I believe So Phong was built at King Shipyard Hong Kong. Hence the Chinese name.

Are you aware of the boat’s whereabouts now? Or said Robert whom I do not know. Presently I live near Southampton, England.

Thanks

Ian Bergman

Dear Ian, Thanks for your inquiry. As you can see, I too had a relationship with So Fong (Beautiful Girl in Chinese). Lets see if I can help catch you up a bit.

I met Robert while I was doing some work in Vietnam. At the time he was restoring the So Fong which the company he was working for had bought from the Vietnamese Government. The Company Robert worked with was a British firm who were making computers in China (pirating I think). The owner of the company, this guy named Rodger (never got his last name) had a love for classic boats and wanted to start a restoration yard in Saigon. Robert was there buying and selling lumber which I think was a money laundering scheme for all the money they were making building and selling these pirated computers.

Robert came upon the So Fong on one of his trips up to Hanoi traveling along the coast in Hai Phong Harbor he saw two sticks in the air that looked like schooner masts. He went to investigate and found the So Fong. She was in a horrible state of repair, her bow sprit and fore peak were shattered, the inside was a mess and all cut up with some kind of chain saw. Her rigging was in tatters and much of her hull and deck were opened.

How the North Vietnamese got ahold of her is intriguing and shrouded in mystery but I'm pretty sure I got the whole and true story which I'll share with you now. So Fong was bought by some American Senator's son (never got his name). The purpose was to use her on a secret mission to try and find this scuttled WW II German submarine that lay some where off the coast of North Vietnam. Toward the end of WWII the Nazi's built 5 super Submarines and one lay in Hai Phong Harbor toward the end of the war. Rather than have her captured, the German Captain took her out and had her scuttled. The interest that the Senators son had in the German submarine was that these type subs were ballasted with quicksilver (mercury). It was reported that there was over three million dollars in quicksilver still in this submarine and they bought the So Fong to feign a pleasure trip to see if they could locate the sub. In the process, the So Fong and all her crew where captured by the North Vietnamese. The crew were thrown into prison and languished there for over five months until, through diplomatic channels, they were released. The So Fong was confiscated and the north Vietnamese thrashed her looking for any evidence that might be used against the crew.

Robert negotiated with the North Vietnamese and bought the So Fong as she would be the first classic to be restored in the new venture. After the close of the deal he and this Australian guy named Sandy, jury rigged the So Fong and sailed her down to Saigon. That's where I got involved. I met Sandy in Saigon at the #13 restaurant one day while eating Ginger Calamari. Sandy and I were both veterans of the Vietnam War; he in the Australian Army and I in the US Marines. Sandy introduced me to Robert and we hit it off pretty well. I would go and help him when I wasn't doing my own project. At the time I was restoring orphanages in Saigon and building medical clinics out in Din Quan Province.

After a couple of months things started to go sour in Vietnam for Robert and the So Fong. Their idea was that once So Fong had been restored Roger and Robert were going to charter her out of the Saigon River. To do that Robert had to get a permit from the Vietnamese Government. At the time they only way one could do business in Vietnam was doing a joint venture with the government. After months of negotiations and haggling, Rodger and Robert decided it was not worth working with the Vietnamese and wanted to move the So Fong either to Hong Kong or Thailand. That's where the "Shit hit the fan'. The Vietnamese wouldn't give them permission to leave and were trying to get back possesion of the So Fong. In the meantime Robert had registered the So Fong out of Guernsey so in reality so was a foreign flagged vessel being held capture by the Vietnamese Government. Robert appealed to the British Consulate in Hanoi but they weren't in any big hurry to help Robert and his plight because they were in the midst of negotiating for drilling rights off the Spratley Islands for Oil. The Brits didn't want to muddy the waters.

I had already left Vietnam but Robert asked if I would return to help him sail So Fong to Hong Kong. I got back right in the middle of this whole mess. We picked a date to leave but the Vietnamese stopped us because I had flown in I couldn't sail out, I had to fly out. Robert's brother and two other Brits were there also and we were all having trouble with our Visa's. I had to leave and shortly after got a desperate phone call from Robert asking if I could help in any way to get him out of there because he was now afraid of getting thrown in jail and the So Fong being confiscated by the Vietnamese once again, this time in pristine condition. I'm Married to a Brit and my brother in Law at that time was the managing editor with the Daily Telegraph in London. I called him and told him the story, which would make a good story. Although me and my brother in law never really got along too well he said he would see what he could do.

My Brother in Law called the DT office in Hong Kong and told their people to look into the matter. They contacted the British consulate and told them they were inquiring about this British registered vessel being held by the Vietnamese. Wanting to solve this problem quickly and quietly they approached the Vietnamese and asked if they would release the So Fong. The Vietnamese to save face told the British consulate they would not release the So Fong but would allow her to escape. Robert new nothing of this arrangement.

A couple of nights later Robert got a visit from the Saigon Port Captain, at two in the morning, and told Robert now would be a good time to try out his engines and motor to Vung Tao at the mouth of the Saigon River. That he could be there by first light. Robert was scared but went as suggested, started the engines and motored to Vung Tao. Robert said upon arrival there was a motor launch waiting for him and this Vietnamese officer came on board. He thought for sure he and the crew were about to be arrested. The Officer was very friendly and told Robert that he could anchor and was told where he could buy provisions in the town. He was then informed that at around ten that night there would be an out going tide and it would be a good time to leave and head for open ocean. And then the official left. Robert and his crew went into town as quick as they could, bought provisions, brought them back to boat and waited for nightfall. As soon as it was dark they weighed anchor and set sail on the outgoing tide, all the time waiting to be sunk or boarded and arrested.

They initially sailed south until they got out a number of miles, then changed course for Hong Kong. The next day the English version of the Saigon News there was a front page story of how the So Fong and her crew had escaped.

The So Fong made her way to Hong Kong where Rodger's group had their office. There her refit was completed and Robert took her down to Phuket, Thailand were they charted her for a couple of years. I stayed in contact with Robert and he told me they were bringing So Fong to the Med to Charter her out on Majorca, Spain. That's where I met up with Robert and the So Fong once more and sailed around the Island for two weeks. Shortly after that So Fong was sold to a Frenchman and she is laying some where of the Southern Coast of France.

Robert lost his job with Rodger's group and I shortly got another call from him to come help him do a refit on this stink pot in Greece. The boat was being re-fitted to go to the Seychelles for diving excursions. Robert and I had a major falling out during that project. He was fired and I was asked to help deliver the Indian Ocean Explorer to the Seychelles, which I did. The last I heard of Robert, he was down in Rangoon building boats for the father of a Burmese girl he fell in love with while in Thailand.

An interesting note is that the Vietnamese never figured out why the So Fong was off their coast. After thrashing the interior of the So Fong they never found the most important piece of evidence. Just above the chart table rolled up in a tight roll was a set of original drawings of a German Super Submarine.

I hope this fills in the gaps.

Warm regards,

Bob Means

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