In a 1990 interview in Meadows of Dan, Virginia with Richard Halliburton‘s closest surviving relative, first cousin Juliet Halliburton Davis, his misgivings about the finances of the ill-fated junk trip came to surface. " Richard came to visit me in Greensboro in 1938 or thereabouts. He was lecturing in the area. He told me about his plans to sail a junk from China to San Francisco. I was very concerned about the danger and I told him so. He seemed fatigued, serious, and somewhat worried about the trip. 'I have to do it for the money,' he confided to me. He said he was tired and that the public was no longer intrigued by his exploits and the time had passed when people were interested in reading about travel to faraway places."
There was little doubt that ever increasing debt was a major factor that drove him to continue his attempt to cross the Pacific to the San Francisco Exposition in that beautiful but flawed junk. He was sure that once tied up at the Exposition he could recoup his losses, revive his fading fame, capitalize on the publicity, and produce another best-seller dealing with the adventure.
As Bill Alexander told me in a 1994 Hollywood Hills interview, he was in Connecticut on an architectural commission when he heard of the Sea Dragon's disappearance. He was quick to point to the weighty engine as the probable cause. "Why would they put that huge engine in there? Junks are sailing vessels. They don't need engines. Take a look at that monster," he said, pulling a picture from his filing cabinet of several men winching a huge slab of metal about six feet high, five feet long and three feet wide into the hold of the ill-fated ship. "It probably broke loose in the storm and knocked a hole in the hull," he complained.
Alexander was not the only doom-sayer as far as Halliburton’s custom designed junk was concerned. Gordon Torrey, a young but experienced sailor from Maine and Dartmouth, who traveled to Hong Kong to be a member of the Sea Dragon’s crew, chose not to sail once he took a close look at the craft with an experienced eye.
Torrey's abrupt decision not to sail with Halliburton after arriving with the rest of the crew in Hong Kong was a closely guarded story. Halliburton hoped the young mariner's predictions that Sea Dragon would never survive the ocean because of the design modifications Richard had made to the ship and because of the inexperience of the crew would not come true. Torrey was quite knowledgeable but hopefully was way off the mark as far as the structural integrity of the ship was concerned, Halliburton hoped. But though Halliburton’s design changes might have adversely affected the vessel’s seaworthiness, he thought they were worth the gamble. After all, hadn’t he always challenged convention and come out on top?
Chief Officer Dale E. Collins of the liner President Coolidge had good things to say about the junk’s construction but quickly added his concerns about the size and weight of the masts in the same breath. "I was aboard the Sea Dragon before and after her completion and she certainly seemed to be a sturdy craft and well-constructed. Her masts, especially the main mast, appeared very heavy and loft in proportion to the size of the junk. Her poop deck was about ten feet higher than most Chinese junks of this type due to the fact that they wanted a galley, radio and chart room located there."
John “Bru” Potter echoed the observation about the heaviness of the masts during an interview with the author in 1994 as he described how he acquired the serious injury that caused the Sea Dragon to return to Hong Kong, terminating the first attempt to cross the Pacific. He also was critical of the ship’s overall seaworthiness and was not very complimentary about Captain Welch. “She was very touchy and not stable at all with all those great, big, heavy wooden masts and all those transverse battens in the sail. There was a lot of weight up aloft and she wouldn’t go to windward at all. As far as the tiller goes, it was eighteen feet long and we had to move it with a block and tackle. You can imagine how hard it was to keep her on a course with a person on each side of it with a block and tackle. The guy who was on the tiller with me let it come up into the wind and the ‘main’ moved, slugged me in my middle and busted my pancreas and some ribs. That’s why they took me back to Hong Kong.
“The ship was very unstable and not at all seaworthy. I don’t like to bad mouth anything but I ‘ve thought about it a lot, in retrospect of course.”
Sea Dragon, the most beautiful Chinese junk ever to sail, had wallowed dangerously and leaked on their rocky, short-lived shakedown cruise back in January of 1939. The hasty addition of ten tons of concrete ballast might have ameliorated the problem but there had been no time to test its effect. All the leaks hopefully had been plugged afterward, the keel tarred, and repairs to the steering gear made. The ship was far more seaworthy than before, Halliburton assured his parents a few short weeks previous in a March 3 letter. However, he wished he had actually had the time to add the fin keel he had fibbed about in a letter just to reassure them. It would have minimized the dangerous rolling they had encountered in past brief tests. Any rising seas would surely test its absence as it would test the mettle of the mostly amateur crew, Halliburton feared.
The monster typhoon of March 23, 1939 did indeed test the mettle of the crew and, more importantly, the effects of Halliburton’s design changes. Unfortunately, a massive but delayed search by U.S. Navy planes and ships almost two months later yielded no clues as to the ultimate fate of the men or the Sea Dragon, the most beautiful Chinese junk ever built - in spite of its fatal flaws.