Planning A Trip To China

The current was running fast the same way as the breeze, and I could not get off. One of the launches came up and an official, picking up a rope, offered me a tow to the sea. I would have preferred to drift down, but could not refuse his kindly offer. A mile short of the bar we entered a small tide rip, where the broken water was ideal. I shouted and cast off the rope, and at that moment there came a waft of sea breeze. I started the engine, jumped in, and opened right up at one stroke. The Gipsy Moth rose from the waves easily, and I swept round in a wide arc and flew up-river. I saluted the Ovenses waving on their flat roof, then dived to the water and saluted each launch as I flashed past. I could see belches of white steam at the sirens of the ships and steam launches as I passed, but could hear no noise above the roar of my own engine.

That day the sun was behind me; I had overtaken it, so to speak, and I was leaving it to the south. I was soon out of sight of land, and the sea, which used to give me a cold feeling, was now like an old friend, restful and soothing. A hundred miles from Formosa I flew over the first Chinese territory, a small island 45 miles from the mainland called Tung Yung. I shot past the lighthouse, where five Chinese stood intent on something in a small walled-in yard at the foot of the lamp buildings. As I drew alongside they broke out a red and black Chinese flag at the foot of the mast. The sight of that bunting warmed me, and I regretted having no flag of my own to return their salute. The best I could do was to dip my wings.

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Soon I was over the mainland of China. The moist hot air was oppressive, and I was so drowsy that my head nodded. I started looking for a suitable bay on which to come down. One after another I rejected Funingfu, Tehinkoen, Namkwan Harbour, and Tanue Bay they were all crowded with junks and sampans with black or brown sails, or white sails with black battens like ribs. The whole coast was infested with junks, and it seemed incredible that a single fish could survive so many fishermen. By the time I reached Lotsing Bay I decided to come down, junks or no junks. I chose the southern end, where I could see only one junk for several miles, and I decided that if I kept an eye on that one it should be at least an hour before any of the others could reach me. I shut off, twisted down steeply, skimmed the water to inspect it closely for fishing stakes or flotsam, circled and bounced before settling. That bump humbled my pride in my flying skill, but on coming to rest I found that I had bumped a smooth swell which was invisible from above. Every junk in the bay immediately set sail for the seaplane – except the one close behind me to the south, which continued on its course. I lit a pipe and stood on a float, idly watching the water lap at my feet. It was soothing to be close to the water in a heat so sweltering. Suddenly I spotted a sampan with five or six Chinese on board within 100 yards of the seaplane’s tail. Nothing could have cured my drowsiness more effectively. That sampan must have been quietly dropped off the far side of the junk as it sailed past. I threw my coat into the cockpit, jumped across to the other float, switched on, and began swinging the propeller, wondering if the motor would jib. At the fourth swing it started, and I taxied off seawards. As I rose from the bay I roared with laughter, the slipstream catching me in my teeth. The heat was nearly overpowering, and when I spotted a black rain squall to the east I changed course and flew into it. At first it was delicious, but within a few seconds the sea was beaten flat and covered with a layer of spray indistinguishable from the grey downpour. I turned round and bolted back the way I had come. For 10 or 15 miles I had to fly over the sea, dodging small islands and junks that suddenly loomed up in the murk. After the squall I flew over a hilly coast with a solid little village on every other hilltop, looking like a grey roofed nest of pirates. All the hills were spotted with tombs like cathedral doors fallen flat in stone-faced niches in the hillsides. When I reached the city of Shanghai I flew down the Wusung River beside a cliff of solid buildings. A strong wind blowing across river was broken up by the mass of buildings, and the heat rising from the streets. The seaplane, slapped and buffeted by the gusts, rocked and lurched and bumped down the river, crabbing along half sideways in the cross wind. This drift did give me an unobstructed view to one side of the engine, of the fairway and the ship masts in it. The river was swarming with junks and sampans, but seemed even more crowded with steamers and warships, mostly gunboats, strung together stem to stern between great iron buoys. The neat little warships in grey or pale blue looked tiny beside the steamers. I bumped along 10 miles to Wusung at the mouth of the river, where the cross wind was strong enough to raise a sea. We were tossed about like a leaf as I circled the mouth of the river looking for a flagged buoy. I could not see one, and flew back to the first bend, where a fleet of junks was anchored; still I could see nothing. Then I noticed a dribble of steam at the siren of a launch, and I dived towards it, and saw someone wave. I circled again, and with a firm hand put the seaplane down nearby. Drifting rapidly, I was some distance downwind of the launch before I got my anchor down. The launch, or small tug, came at me. Shouting as hard as I could I persuaded them to hold off, and to send me a sampan. ‘He wants a sampan,’ someone said in an ordinary voice, which I could hear quite plainly coming downwind. They drew off, and beckoned a big sampan to them. It was a wooden antique, like the hull of Noah’s Ark with a high raised platform at the square stern. It looked more suitable for ferrying elephants than boarding my seaplane, and the entire crew was one old woman with wisps of hair streaming in the wind. She stood on the stern platform, wielding a heavy bent scull. A thickset white man, with a mop of long black hair, jumped into this craft, and encouraged the old woman to make for me with dramatic excited gestures as if I was drowning. The sampan came straight downwind for the seaplane, driven by the old woman’s oar plus a 30-mile wind. Taking him for a high official in the Chinese Government I was as polite as possible when I shouted that the sampan was too big to come downwind. Every time I shouted he urged the old woman on more excitedly. The sampan struck the float tip end on with a bang; the stem scraped past, and in spite of my pushing against it with all my strength, fetched up against the wing. A coolie who had jumped into the sampan with the white man seized a boat hook, and jabbed at the leading edge of the wing mercilessly, I was able to strike it aside before it penetrated. Then the wind caught the stern of the sampan, and swung it round broadside on to the wing. The old woman’s cheery smile had not changed, and her steady efforts with the big scull had not ceased; the coolie pushed off the wing, and the sampan drifted past and astern. It had been a lucky escape, and I felt sure that the man would realise that he must come up from astern. To my dismay he returned to the position upwind of the seaplane as fast as he could. ‘Can’t stay here,’ he shouted so dictatorially that I assumed that he was a white mandarin. You are right in the way of shipping; have to move you.’

Taking not the slightest notice of what I said, he directed the old woman to work the sampan across my anchor rope, which the coolie fished up with his boat hook. Then they lifted my anchor. How that old woman had handled the sampan by herself in that wind had been a marvel to me; now she had the seaplane as well, and it takes a man’s utmost strength to hold the seaplane in a strong wind. She stuck grimly to her scull, but we drifted back steadily, right into the middle of the shipping fairway. I implored the white man to drop my anchor, but he jumped about excitedly, waving his arms and ignoring me. He did at last realise that we were going to end up on the opposite shore, and then he did drop my anchor, and returned to the launch, leaving me right in the fairway, with large steamers passing one after the other making a strong wash. Presently he came back, again from the side. I could do nothing; with all my shouting in the strong wind, my voice had died away to a whisper. There was a tearing noise as the stem of the sampan penetrated the fabric of the wing tip. ‘Can’t stay here,’ he cried, ‘shipping-dangerous – not allowed.’ The coolie picked up my anchor rope again with his boat hook, the launch backed down to the sampan, and passed a line to it which the mandarin fastened to my anchor rope with a number of granny knots. The launch moved off at full speed across wind. The seaplane, when pulled from the side, glided forward in the strong wind just as a kite rises into the air when the string is pulled, and was soon broadside on to the wake of the launch. The end of the float began to twitch under the strain, and I expected to see it pulled off. I rallied my voice for some last desperate yells, but no one took the slightest notice. Fortunately the anchor rope snapped, and I drifted sternwards without an anchor. The launch chased me and threw a line. With the mandarin absent on the sampan, they listened to me, and everything was arranged in a few moments. We began crabbing across the wind, dead slow, towards the fleet of junks. Every time the wing started to lift at a gust, I ran out along the spar to keep it down with my weight. At last, when we were out of the fairway, and somewhat sheltered among the junks, they shouted to me to come aboard. But the white mandarin had arrived in the sampan, and with flamboyant gestures, his hair streaming in the wind, he exhorted the old lady to bear down once more on the seaplane, downwind. With the hole in the fabric, the wing tip buckled, and several ribs in the leading edge smashed, besides one or two lucky escapes, I had had enough of him, mandarin or no mandarin. When he came close enough, You bloody bastard,’ I said shaking my fist, ‘if you barge into me again, I’ll wring your neck!’ This he listened to. ‘What do you want, then?’ he demanded.

‘Come up from astern, you bloody fool,’ I said as the sampan struck. Fortunately the old woman’s skill was marvellous, and with my frantic shove from the float the sampan passed round the wing with only slight damage to the tip. In the flurry my hat blew off, and went bowling over the water. At last he came up from astern where, of course, the old woman brought up the sampan with the greatest of ease. ‘And now,’ I said, ‘perhaps you will tell me who I have had the honour of dealing with all this time?’

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