Laying under a few feet of water in Catalina Harbor is the wreck of the Ningpo. Built in 1753, the Ningpo spent 159 years in the Yellow Seas engaging in crimes such as smuggling, slave trading, mutiny, and piracy. While the number of people that have been killed aboard the vessel will never be known, it is said that 158 heads have rolled on the decks of the Ningpo.
The Ningpo was launched in 1753 in the city of Fu Chau as a 3-masted, 291 ton junk named the Kin Tai Foong. The 138 foot long junk was said to be the "fastest and best equipped vessel afloat in Chinese waters," and it wasn't long before the merchant trader turned into a smuggler and a slaver. Her first battle was during the rebellion against the Emperor in 1796 and according to Della Phillips' article, it was just the beginning of long series of events that would follow:
1806 Seized for smuggling and piracy
The Before her sinking, the Ningpo was one of the oldest vessels afloat, which brings about the question: How can a wood vessel remain afloat for so long? Nearly everything about the Ningpo's design and construction is unique to Western vessels. For instance, the vessel was designed to resemble a dragon. Her open bow (with her sides joined at the waterline, but widely spread apart at the deck level) was built to look like a mouth.
The two disks on both bows formed the eyes, the masts and sails resembled fins, and her exaggerated high stern formed the tail of the beast. Two green sea serpents were portrayed on her sides near the stern, and lavishly colored Chinese artwork was carved on the transom of the ship. The Ningpo was constructed of Oriental woods rare to the West. Teak planks made up her deck, and ironwood--a wood so strong and dense that it doesn't even float (in fact, the ship's anchor was made of ironwood)--was used as planking for the vessel. This wood has a very high resistance to wood burying worms, and kept the ship afloat for nearly two centuries. A caulking made of fishing nets, tallow, and cocoa fiber sealed the hull planks. Every two and half feet, the planks are braced with camphor wood ribs. Foot long iron (and some bronze) spikes attached the planks to the ribs. To construct the ribs, "a tree of the right curve was selected, whip sawed in halves, and a half used on either side of the ship, thus preventing the slightest discrepancy in shape or symmetry." The fragrant aroma from the camphor ribs once filled the hull with a scent similar to nutmeg. The Ningpo's main mast was made of ironwood; 90 feet long, and nearly 3 feet in diameter, it was estimated to weigh 20 tons. At one time, the mast and its 5-ton boom flew silk sails. It sounds hard to believe that such heavy material would be used for a mast (making the vessel-top heavy), but when visitors were offered the chance to take a souvenir splinter from the mast, "their pocket knives would not even dent the hard surface." The Ningpo was constructed of so much wood that it prompted one seaman to comment that "there is sufficient wood in this old hulk to build six ships of modern construction." One very unique feature of the vessel's construction was the use of watertight bulkheads. The Ningpo had eight of these bulkheads, thus forming nine watertight compartments. There were no doors in the bulkheads, and each one of the compartments was accessible only from the deck. One of these compartments was dubbed the "chamber of horrors," A chi-lung (starvation cage) and "beheading swords" were kept in this compartment, as well as a long spear that supposedly was used to pick up heads from the deck. The giant 10-foot by 30-foot rudder was never mounted to stern. It was supported by two ropes attached to a windlass on the poop deck, and by two ropes that ran under the hull that were tied off at the bow. When anchored, the rudder would be raised out of the water by use of the special windlass on the poop deck, The rudder could be steered by one or up to 12 men by use of two tillers. Bamboo cable--said to be stronger than' steel cable--was, used onboard the ship.
Forward of the main, two 3' long swivel guns were mounted. These small guns were used an numerous occasions, the last being in l911. In 1917, these guns were estimated to be 400 years old. A unique Chinese invention, the capstan, made of mahogany was used to raise the large ironwood anchor. Another capstan, made of iron was used to hoist sails.
Tourists inspect the Ningpo.
During the 20's and 30's the Ningpo sat at anchor in Catalina Harbor with other derelict vessels such as the Palmyra, the Charles F. Crocker, and the Margaret C.. On occasion, she was used as a backdrop for movies filmed at the Isthmus. After a few years, the neglected ship partially filled with water and came to rest on a mudbank near Ballast Point. Summer caretakers charged admission to board the ship up until 1927. In 1935 a fire burned the vessel down to the waterline. For many years, Boy Scouts and local residents would use the wreck as a quarry for rare woods. Since then, the forgotten wreck has slowly settled below the surface and into the soft bottom of the harbor.
Many of the artifacts aboard the Ningpo were said to be of "dubious authenticity. " No one knows how many original artifacts were taken from the ship, or how many fake items were added in order to promote ticket sales.. For instance, the existence of the famous "chopping block" (where prisoners were supposedly beheaded) is doubtful, because the Chinese never used blocks for beheadings
At any rate, authentic or fake, some the items once aboard the Ningpo, (as well as some of the woodcarvings made of the timbers of the ship) can still be seen on display in the Catalina Island Museum in the Avalon Casino.
Sources: Don H. Kennedy, "The Infamous Ningpo," American Neptune, 10(1969), p262-73; Della Phillips, "A Peaceful Pirate," Overland Monthly, 19 (1917), 327-31.; Anna Marie and Everett G. Hager, "The Ning Po, A Fabled Chinese Junk in Southern California Waters," BrandBook, 15 (1978)1 193-03; H. K. Raymenton, "The Venerable Ning Po" San Diego Historical Quarterly, Spring (1958), pp. 50-54.
For more information, see Catalina Harbor