AS a summer cloudburst drums the deck of their wooden junk, a dozen Hainanese fishermen huddle under a tarpaulin enjoying the rainy lull.
Hainan Island fishermen are free today from the entangling net of state controls.
The flourishing of the ancient trade follows a period of virtual stagnation under Mao Zedong's commune system. In the 1960s and '70s, Maoist cadres forced the fishing brigades to sell all they caught to the state at low, fixed prices.
"We gave all the fish to the government, and they gave us a wage," says Zhong Zanmian, the wiry, tanned captain of the junk. The brigades also faced high duties and shortages of supplies like diesel oil and rolled steel.
Despite the abundance of sea life, few wanted to fish. The irony was highlighted by a 1979 article by the state-run New China News Agency entitled: "Why do Hainan residents have no fish to eat?"
Now it is only the gales in the Gulf of Tonkin that force the fleet of graceful, flat-bottomed vessels to shore.
"It's blowing hard, so we're anchoring here," says Mr. Zhong, as the junk seeks shelter in Haikou's muddy harbor.
Squalls, night watches, and the lonely solace of the sea are part of a timeless tradition handed down to young men like Zhong. He and his shipmates trace their ancestry to the Dan people, aborigines who have lived as pearl-divers and fishermen on Hainan Island since the early Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). Hainan was once named the "Shore of Pearls."
Home port for the crew is a small village in Danzhou County on the island's west coast, where the Dan people settled centuries ago. There, villagers still use ancient methods to weave nets and craft boats, and the hardy spirit of fishing folk lives on.
"We like to be self-reliant," says Zhong, who sails the South China Sea and Tonkin Gulf for about eight months a year.
Plying some of China's richest fishing grounds, the crew nets up to 2,000 pounds of grouper, "red clover," and other fish each day. Selling their catch on the island's free markets, crewmen can earn as much as $2,000 each a year, making them wealthy by Chinese standards.
Nowadays, the biggest dangers lie in the high seas: violent late summer typhoons and Vietnamese naval patrols.
Zhong's junk and three others were sailing in the Tonkin Gulf when a Vietnamese patrol boat seized them three years ago. Armed Vietnamese officers confiscated all valuables on board. The fishermen spent two months building roads in Vietnam before their release.
On the whole, though, the seafaring life "isn't too hard," Zhong says.
Most days begin at sunrise for the close-knit crew - all males from the same village who range from grandfathers in their 50s to grandsons of seven or eight. As the rain shower subsides, restless boys begin to dart and play among the rigging. The smell of brine, fish, and damp wood mingles with the scent of smoke from the galley stove.