Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the October issue of Lake Murray and Northeast magazine. To see more of the magazine, click here.
The colorful wooden boat, named the Saigon Princess, made her maiden voyage at Lake Murray’s Fourth of July parade. The captain and his crew of one, both Vietnam veterans, wore Army-green T-shirts, camouﬂage shorts, boonie hats and life jackets. As they ﬂoated past the announcer, a judge exclaimed, “Now, here is my favorite entry.”
This Asian beauty, called a sampan, got to the inland waters of South Carolina as a “souvenir” of a return trip to Vietnam by four former Army lieutenants.
In the spring of 2011, war veterans Ronnie Wingard, Chris Clancy, Frank Chapman and Sammy Crouch returned to Vietnam. “We had all served in Vietnam, during the early ’70s, but in different regions. We wanted to go back to these regions and see how the country looked today,” says Crouch.
One leg of the trip was by boat down into the delta where Chapman had served. “On the way to Can Tho, we passed a small factory, where they make sampans,” continued Crouch. “Our guide said, ‘You can buy one of those for 40 U.S. dollars.’” Half jokingly, Chapman said, “Why don’t we buy one and ship it back to the United States?”
The guide did not take them seriously, but Chapman and Crouch decided to pursue it. At the end of the trip, the guide was given money to fund negotiations for the 17-foot, 48-inch wide, wooden sampan.
Crouch agreed to store her royal highness at his lake house and to buy and install an outboard motor. Somehow, between emails in English being interpreted into Vietnamese and orders to the factory, the boat was built equipped with an inboard Vietnamese 5.5 horse power air-cooled motor.
The boat arrived in Charleston in August 2011. When Crouch uncrated it, he beheld a painted lady. “Vietnamese like colorful boats,” explains Crouch, “and they always paint an eye on either side of the bow for good luck and so the boat can see where she is going.”
The sampan is trimmed in aqua and dark blue, with red accents and startling bright eyes. The owners have added symbols denoting their Vietnam War service medals, Bronze Star medals, and Crouch’s Purple Heart.
“The ﬁrst time I put her in the water, she leaked like a sieve,” Crouch says.” Wooden boats shrink up; so after being in the water a few days, she tightened back up.” The motor proved more of a problem since it didn’t have a neutral or reverse gear.”
It takes two people to operate the boat because one person has to sit in back and steer and the other person has to regulate the motor,” Crouch explains.
In July, Chapman registered the Saigon Princess for the boat parade but explained to the authorities, that due to her “delicate condition” the Princess would not start at Bomb Island but join the parade as it approached the dam. Crouch and Chapman launched the boat at the dock near the dam. Unfortunately, the motor refused to crank after several attempts by Chapman. In frustration, Crouch came forward and opened up the throttle. Suddenly, the motor came to life, the boat swung into action, and both men tumbled forward inside the boat as it headed for nearby rocks but survived without a scratch.
However, due to her swelling and shrinking boards, she developed a slight leak. At ﬁrst, the crew was bailing water. Chapman remembers: “We were, very, very fortunate. With all those boats, there was a lot of wave action, and this is a little boat. We were glad to get back (to the landing) safely. We also had a rescue team (consisting of their wives and family members) in a deck boat riding along nearby so they could pick us up if we fell overboard.”
The Saigon Princess got honorable mention in the parade.
Plans are under way to make her decking watertight and add more decorations for her next parade. And the original $40 price tag? With shipping fees, the inboard motor, title and registration fees and other incidentals, the Saigon Princess actually cost — a princess’s ransom.
Gigi Huckabee is a Midlands-based freelance writer.