Senior recalls 1939 sailing adventure with botanist, heiress

LARGO

Michael Fenton's life story reads like a travelogue. His trek across the world began 70 years ago on a scientific expedition that made history.

After high school, Fenton traveled to Hong Kong with his uncle, Thomas "Ted" Kilkenny. Kilkenny was building a 100-foot luxury Chinese sailing vessel — the Cheng Ho — and preparing to captain it on an influential plant-gathering expedition.

The boat, called a junk, was financed by an oil heiress and built for the famous botanist and plant explorer David Fair­child. Fairchild is credited with bringing more than 200,000 species to the United States, including mangos, nectarines, dates and flowering cherry trees. The Cheng Ho trip was the last of Fairchild's life, and it was the first official collecting expedition for what is now Miami's 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

The ship's 19 passengers included Fairchild's wife, Marian, and Anne Archbold, daughter of a co-founder of Standard Oil.

"My uncle said Anne paid for the expedition and to build the junk," Fenton, who is 90, said. "It was gorgeous, with carved teak staterooms and a laboratory for Fairchild."

The group sailed out of Manila in January 1940 and around the exotic islands of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. "I was a gofer," Fenton said. He raised sails, sometimes took the helm, and spent hours playing checkers with Anne Archbold.

"A big part of my job was keeping her happy," he said.

When they waded ashore at tiny Templo Island in the Philippines, he rolled up his pants and carried her on his back.

Fenton helped Fairchild clean seeds and store leaves.

"One plant oozed purple," he remembered. "My hands started burning, swelled twice their size and hurt." Photos from the trip show his hands swollen and blackened by an ebony tree.

"No one knew what to do," he said. "Luckily, the swelling stopped on its own."

Fairchild, who was 70 then, would scan the shoreline with binoculars looking for interesting trees and plants. When he found something, he'd yell, "Stop!"

The long, three-masted junk would leisurely turn around, while a collector named Hugo Curran hopped into a small boat and headed to shore.

Fenton often ventured along. "Once when I went ashore with him and was hurrying to keep up, I tripped over what I thought was a log."

He had stumbled on a 20-foot python.

"Hugo cut the python's head off with a machete and dropped it into a sack," Fenton said. "If we'd been at sea, I think the crew would have jumped ship. We didn't know it was a Chinese god."

The python represented Tien Fei, patron goddess of seafarers. The Chinese crew feared that its death would bring wrath upon the Cheng Ho.

When the junk anchored that Sunday, a fire started in the engine room.

"A panel of switches shorted," said Fenton. "We got everyone out of their rooms and put the fire out.''

The trip was cut short after Germany invaded Holland and travel became more difficult, but in six months the crew gathered more than 500 species, including 90 types of palms. They collected jade vine, with its fluorescent green flowers; the iridescent rainbow eucalyptus; and a new variety of banana from Indonesia. Several of the plants still grow at the botanic garden, including the one that burned Fenton's hands.

For the 70th anniversary of the Cheng Ho expedition this year, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden director Carl Lewis visited Fenton to listen to stories about the trip. He had studied the expedition since he was a boy and remains fascinated by it.

"It's an important story to me and an important story to the garden," he said. "It was a part of the world that hadn't been studied in a century, and some of those places haven't been visited by a botanist since."

The garden posted photographs and voyage journal entries online at chengho.fairchildgarden.org.

Fenton is the last living member of the expedition. Years ago, his 21-year-old son died in a diving accident. Fenton's wife of 35 years, Leigh, passed away, and Fenton has survived a stroke. Yet he remains upbeat, wearing an orange shirt with white sailboats and flashing a smile to everyone he meets.

"He's the most interesting resident we've had at Palm Garden," said Susan Hyypio, assistant activity director for Palm Garden of Pinellas, a nursing home.

After the expedition, Fenton became a master sea captain and for 20 years steered ships into Japan's Port of Naha on the island of Okinawa. He also built his own Chinese junk, and when he left Okinawa, gave it to a Japanese man who worked for him.

"I was a Merchant Marine and during World War II, was on an ammo ship at Midway," he said. "The sea was my first love, but when I sailed on the Cheng Ho, everything I saw amazed me."

Fast facts

Fruits of a journey

For more information on Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, call (305) 667-1651 or go to fairchildgarden.org.

Senior recalls 1939 sailing adventure with botanist, heiress 10/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 1:25pm]

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