GLOUCESTER — The sight of an 80-foot China-flagged sailboat at the Gloucester Marine Railways has many locals asking questions about how this vessel ended up here.

Local officials also had questions when they learned about the sailboat Zhai Mo, crewed by two Chinese nationals and a Russian who had no paperwork or visas.

But that was because the crew had no intention of stopping in the United States. The Zhai Mo hit an iceberg near the North Pole and Greenland on its journey to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean. The strike, which did not cause a leak into the sailboat, did send it into shore looking for repairs around Oct. 7.

However, communication was a challenge because the crew members don’t speak English and translators for Chinese are not easy to find in this part of the world.

Ultimately, the crew and vessel were cleared to remain on a temporary visa.

Gloucester Harbormaster Thomas “TJ” Ciarametaro said he has seen a lot of different vessels come and go in these waters, but seeing the sailboat emblazoned with Chinese characters instead of the usual names of local fishing vessels and recreational boats was a first.

He said a foreign boat has to clear customs before it can continue into the port, and this had not yet happened when the Chinese boat arrived.

“When you fly from China, you need visas and if you come by boat from China to the United States, you also need visas,” he said.

Ciarametaro and the Coast Guard were in communication about the status of the Zhai Mo when a student from Boston University, a Chinese national, arrived at the Coast Guard station on behalf of the captain, Zhai Mo, after whom the sailboat is named.

The Coast Guard escorted the Chinese sailboat to Boston to go through the customs process where it received clearance and a temporary visa waiver so repairs could be made, said Ciarametaro. “Everything checked out but I was amazed to see this boat because I never expected a Chinese-flagged vessel would pull into our port.”

The captain has been welcomed by a few locals on this unexpected stop in the nation’s oldest seaport. One of them was John Bell, who lives near the Gloucester Marine Railways where the boat has been hauled out. Bell said he and another neighbor, Ken Hruby, learned some details of the journey, which included the crew facing some 125-mph winds, which furthered the need for some work on the sailboat before its return to China.

Zhai Mo and crew were treated to a Chinese dinner by this informal Gloucester welcoming group, and treated to local shellfish and Asian seafood dishes provided by Intershell and cooked and served at Horizon restaurant on Rogers Street.

Disputed media reports

The Zhai Mo and crew’s attempt to complete a non-stop, sail-powered circumnavigation of the Arctic has attracted ample media attention in China and generated differing reports on what happened in the northern waters of Canada.

The fourth-month voyage of the sailboat, which is solar powered, is reportedly sponsored by a number of Chinese state-owned companies and government agencies, including China Mobile.

The Chinese government-run media giant CGTN, based in Beijing, reported on Sept. 16 that Canada illegally stopped the crew from circumnavigating the Arctic Ocean near Lancaster Sound, a part of the Northwest Passage.

The Nunatsiaq News, the newspaper of record for Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec, both in the Artic, reported a different story.

“Chinese state media is reporting the Canadian government stopped a Chinese sailor attempting to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean last week, but Transport Canada says no such thing happened,” wrote David Lochead.

Canada’s CBC has reported that Northwest Passage has been off limits to foreign pleasure craft since March 2020 “due to an interim order from the Canadian government intended to limit the risk of introducing COVID-19 in remote Arctic communities.”

Lochead further reported that an email from Transport Canada stated that Capt. Zhai Mo had not entered Canadian Arctic waters and that Transport Canada relayed the information about the pandemic-related order prohibiting recreational boats temporarily due to COVID-19.

The CGTN report also said, that according to the Pacific Society of China, “Zhai’s sailboat ‘Zhai Mo No. 1’ will return through Panama Canal, cross the Pacific and back to China before the end of the year.” stated.

But the crew took refuge on Cape Ann to have work done to the boat before taking on the return voyage.

An artist at heart

Regardless of the differing reports, one element is not refuted: The 52-year-old captain, Zhai Mo, is driven by his love of art and his love of the ocean.

A Chinese media report in June described him as a “Chinese painter-sailor,” and as a patriot who loves his country. Part of his mission on this voyage around the Arctic iss to raise the world’s awareness of the need to protect the ocean.

Born in China’s Shandong Province, an eastern province on the Yellow Sea, Zhai Mo was the first Chinese to sail alone around the world in a powerless boat, the Chinese media noted, “after which some media outlets started calling him ‘the Chinese Robinson Crusoe’,” wrote Gong Zhe.

After graduating from college, he became a painter, creating works of the abstract or post-impressionist genre, and pursued his interest in sailing, continued Zhe’s report.

“That’s my way of life,” Zhai Mo later told media. “I can sail to places where other transport method can hardly go. In those places I can find artworks closer to the essence of art.”

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