Bob Means - Remlik, Virginia - USA
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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