Boat of the Month - Colvin Motorsailer Madam Wong

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The three-masted junk-rigged schooner Madam Wong has been the home of her 57yo Swiss-born owner CHRISTOPHE VALI for almost half his life, but the time has come to part ways.

Boat of the Month - Colvin Motorsailer Madam Wong
Boat of the Month - Colvin Motorsailer <i>Madam Wong</i>
Launched in 1984 in Maryborough, Qld, the Madam Wong is one of many designs by American naval architect Thomas E. Colvin (see She is based on the design of Colvin’s 48ft K’ung Fu-Tse, a multi-chine round-bottom junk, with the exceptions being the wheelhouse placed in the centre of gravity, a longer length of 51ft6in (15.7m) and a full keel. Colvin designed and built his junk in aluminium for his own use and sailed around the world in his personal pride and joy. After 40 years, the vessel is still in operation today.

Swiss-Italian born Peter Bizzini, an avid fan of Colvin’s boat designs (including the Gazelle ocean-cruising schooners) commissioned the build of Madam Wong in 1982. He contracted German-born steel-boatbuilder and artist extraordinaire Dieter Giesse to construct the hull, masts and rigging. Many A-grade boilermakers have since been flabbergasted by the way he translated Colvin’s concept onto steel. She is truly a masterpiece of shape, strength and practicality.

After 27 years in the water, due to the choice of steels and incredible welding work, Madam Wong is still very much in immaculate condition throughout today.

The story goes, Giesse, at the pinnacle of his life and experience, rolled and constructed the hull on his own in a four-month period. To give you an idea of its strength, the yacht was launched suspended above Maryborough’s Mary River by only its four bollards!

A local joiner proceeded in fully fitting the vessel in beautiful timbers — a credit to Bizzini’s choices of tradesmen. Madam Wong, still in early stages of development, was then fitted with two engines on a chain drive, a 25hp CMC and an 80hp Ford Lees. This was a noisy arrangement (including a terrible side pull on the gearboxes) and proved to also be rather inefficient. She now has 175hp Perkins turbo-diesel.

In 1986, Bart Olsen, a third generation sea captain, had fallen in love with the concept and made an offer that Bizzini reluctantly could not refuse. Olsen therefore became the second owner of Madam Wong until 1988.

During that time, he contracted an electrician fulltime to custom-build a colour-coded, double-earthed electrical system, which today is still infallible.

Olsen also replaced an existing manual rudder drive with a hydraulic system, coupled to a TMQ autopilot. He then entered the vessel into the Tall Ships Race from Brisbane to Sydney for Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations in 1988.

During his voyage, Madam Wong accommodated a crew of six and became the object of media attention. The vessel was then affectionately named by the public as the Suzy Wong.

In Sydney, Madam Wong was berthed and moored to the Ecuadorian Navy’s three-masted barque training ship Guayas, a tall ship of immense proportions. A friendship was struck between the two boat’s captains and boat escutcheons (stern nameplates) were exchanged. On Australia Day 1988, Captain Olsen managed to take the lead from the Guayas and Madam Wong led the Tall Ship fleet out of Sydney Harbour.

A few months after the event, Olsen would reluctantly put the vessel on the market.

I first saw Madam Wong at Sydney’s Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and immediately recognised her as the yacht of my dreams... and in that Bicentenary year she was mine!

The three-masted schooner of somewhat modern-day, James Bond-type Chinese junk appearance was to create my future for the next 23 years. To this day, she is still very much in her full glory.

Not having even owned a dinghy in the past, my maiden voyage on Madam Wong was somewhat the story of a horror trip.

I met Alex, a Frenchman and former Foreign Legionnaire in the middle of Botany Bay… he was swimming towards my "odd-looking" vessel… 200m from shore.

Friendship was on its way, and Alex decided to show me my new boat’s capabilities. Upon Alex’s advice and insistence in an adventure, Madam Wong’s Captain and Crewman embarked on a voyage they would never forget.

Alex had decided to take off on a strong-wind warning, forbidding me to use any electronics or modern equipment. "The proper way of sailing," he explained.

Anyway, we found ourselves on our way from Sydney to Tasmania. As the seas were becoming increasingly monstrous, near Eden, the Madam Wong experienced an almighty jibe, which led to the boat dangerously sliding sideways down 17m waves! Due to the 10-tonne ballast, she thankfully never capsized, instead snapping battens and booms on the mid and aft masts.

With the half the sails in the water, the boat was getting dangerously close to the rocks on the Eden coastline. By that stage, I realised that I wasn’t in command of my own boat, primarily due to Alex’s possessed attitude not to turn the engine on, proceeding instead with first words in 24 hours: "Take the wheel, and keep it to 84 degrees..."

He then extraordinarily pulled the sails off the water onto the decks, and proceeded to climb the mast unassisted with a rope and shackle in his mouth attempting to re-rig a makeshift setup.

At one stage, I saw this Tyson-looking ball of nerves flickering like a French flag! This is when I, in a state of stupor, threatened at the top of my voice that I would throw him in the water if he was to fall! Alex finally came down, unsuccessful in his attempt and I had by then engaged the Ford Lees trying to get away from the rocks, which were by now some 10m away.

To make matters worse, the engine cut out. I fell on my knees saying, "This is IT, what am I doing here? I’ve had it!"
I then jumped in the engineroom and by an absolute miracle touched the engine kill-lever forward having noticed a loose spring. Immediately, the engine restarted and we steamed out of the danger zone.

The next morning, the sea was becalmed, and as we approached the inlet to Eden, where I definitely wanted to stop for obvious reasons, Alex insisted that it wasn’t the entrance to the harbour. Two hours later, I now was convinced that it was, and turned the boat around.

Alex then became very gentle and pleaded that he could repair the damage at sea and proceeded on a direct line to Rio (Brazil). Words ensued and I got the better of him.

Finally upon entering Eden harbour, I asked Alex: "Why on Earth did you bring me into such danger? Why did you not say a word to me during the whole trip knowing that I was inexperienced and scared out of my wits?"

He replied in his thick accent: "We must leave all our differences at sea, but I can assure you... you will never be scared at sea on the Madam Wong again!"

It was later known that Alex was a drifter, after experiencing terrible jungle experiences during his service for the French Foreign Legion, and was travelling the world with no passport and money. He was taking lifts hiding aboard big ships and disembarking, climbing down bowlines in search of a new adventure.

In Eden, he helped me fix up Madam Wong and jumped on a tuna trawler, leaving after a month and giving his pay to the crew.

I’ve always lived aboard Madam Wong and after six months in Eden, we moved to Sydney were I worked as builder in the Eastern Suburbs. I’ve cruised her up and down the East Coast and more recently spent five years in Innisfail and the past two years in Cairns.

I’ve spent 22 years perfecting Madam Wong. She’s been used in commercials and documentaries and I’ve had to knock back Sea Patrol a couple of times; they want to "age" the boat, but there’s no way I’ll have her covered in gaffer tape, she’s immaculate.

Looking at her, you would be excused for thinking she is purely a motorsailer, but she is a fantastic yacht under sail as well. I have sailed Madam Wong singlehanded for more than 15 years. Spread over three masts, she boasts 1500ft of sail! On a conventional rig, it would be practically impossible to handle them solo.

The argument is that she does not point well or as good upwind, but I found over the years that for the sake of a few degrees I have always reached my point of destination as fast as any other boat with a conventional rig. Once the sheets are set and the wind turns, the sails will self-tack into different positions according to the direction of the wind. In the case of "unsailable" circumstances, the front sail can be used as a fantastic stabiliser. On the quarter, with 10 to 12kts of wind, I cruise at 6.5kts, and have in the past cruised at hull speed of 7.5kts.

There are quite a few sailors today changing their rigs to junk sails. But I must say it looks odd on a conventional boat.

Now, in the first few years of owning the vessel, and extensively cruising the Tasman Sea, I found that if I jibed on a 35-knot wind, the battens being timber on one side and aluminium tubing on the other, would be likely to break or not return to their original shape.

In 2003, after speaking to Prior Sail in Townsville, I embarked on a mission to eliminate these problems and improve the sailing capability of this rig. I rented a huge shed and totally dismantled booms, sails and rigging. The sails were dropped at the sailmaker and were completely re-sewn and reefed at two points. The booms, two on each sail, were shaved then soaked in epoxy four times, wrapped with Kevlar and the re-epoxied, making them lighter, and 10 times as strong. The battens were replaced with fibreglass
and tensioners added on the forward side, giving them lightness, solidity and above
all, flexibility.

I found that the rig now points upwind that extra few degrees making it a formidable, easy-to-sail boat. And after changing all the lines, plus adding reefing lines, I went and tested the new configuration. Instead of being a somewhat rigid rig, it became (the best way to describe it) like three huge windsurfing sails. I would not ever consider a conventional rig again.

I now have Madam Wong where I would have liked when I first bought her, so it’s mission accomplished. I want her next owner to continue the legacy and the energy to maintain her to a high standard. She has the potential to last 100 years.

She is an extremely forgiving and safe boat, too. About 15 years ago, I was literally left singlehanded at sea when I fractured an arm in the engineroom. It was my good arm, too, and despite being in a splint, I managed to sail back to port six days later one-handed. Did I tell you how we survived Category 4 Cyclone Larry in 2006, lashed to mangroves up a nearby creek as Innisfail was blown apart? Next time, perhaps.

Even though Madam Wong has an Asian appearance, she embodies
Australian multiculturalism. From her humble beginnings in Maryborough she has for the last 27 years been a work in progress always maintaining her original charm and beauty, growing gracefully with the times. Wherever I’ve gone in her, people from superyachts to passers-by strolling along the beach all admire Madam Wong. She is a real queen!

Christophe Vali tells us he is selling Madam Wong for $250,000, considerably less than the $415,000 valuation quoted in the boat’s last survey. She is lying at Cairns’ Bluewater Marina.


FOR SALE: $250,000
YEAR: 1984
TYPE: Junk-rigged schooner monohull
DESIGNER: Thomas E. Colvin
BUILDER: Peter Bizzini & Dieter Giesse
LENGTH: 15.7m
BEAM: 4.5m
DRAFT: 1.7m
WEIGHT: Approximately 28 tonnes
FUEL: 1190lt
WATER: 1500lt
ENGINE: 175hp Perkins turbo-diesel (900 hours)
GEARBOX (MAKE/RATIO): Velvet Drive/1.9:1
PROPS: Bronze three-blade 1624
SAIL AREA: 1500ft² (total)

For further information, phone 0427 020 254 or email:


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