But today, a Le Mars man is sailing across the Pacific Ocean in Chinese ship built from 600-year-old plans.
Hugh Morrow, a 1998 Le Mars Community School graduate, is on board with a Chinese crew to prove that maybe, just maybe, the Chinese landed on the western shores of the Americas decades before Christopher Columbus was born.
Chinese junks, a fierce fleet in the 1400s, have now become almost extinct, according to the findings of Chinese sailer Nelson Liu.
Liu decided he wanted to restore some of the junk's former glory. His plan: build a junk using plans from the 15th century and make a round trip to America.
Hugh was living in China, exporting glass and tile, but he didn't become part of the mission until he chanced upon the already-built ship, the Princess Tai Ping, one day at the port.
"He walked by it and fell in love," said Wendy Morrow, of Le Mars, one of Hugh's three sisters. "They were recruiting crew members so he quit his job and joined."
His decision didn't surprise Wendy.
"He was always an adventurer, always building forts and dreaming big," she said. "He always wanted to make history in some way."
Hugh is well on his way to doing just that.
If the Princess Tai Ping makes it back to China, it will be the first Chinese non-powered sail junk to ever make the round trip in recorded history.
That would make Morrow, the only U.S. member of the eight-person crew, the first American to sail across the Pacific Ocean and back in a Chinese junk. That's good enough for the Guinness Book of World Records, Wendy said.
The crew uses a GPS (Global Positioning System) for guidance, along with maps of the tradewinds, but otherwise, the crew uses 15th Century technology for the voyage.
Good news: they've made it halfway.
In early October, after 69 days at sea, the Princess Tai Ping pulled into the coast of northern California.
Getting there meant surviving a few near death experiences, according to Wendy, who got to visit Hugh and the crew while the Princess Tai Ping was in California.
"Once they hit 30-foot waves," she said.
In one stormy gale, the Princess Tai Ping capsized, and the crew scrambled to plug the port holes with their bedding to stop water from pouring in. Finally, the ship righted herself.
If weather gets bad, crew on the Princes Tai Ping can tie themselves to cables to stay aboard in rough waves.
Sailing can be slow going with a peak speed of about 14 knots, around 16 mph.
"There were five days that there was no wind, so they just sat there," Wendy said.
The boat is equipped with a tiny motor, but it's only used for moving in and out of harbors.
And ship living is just as rough as it was in the 1400s.
Wendy confirmed that.
"I slept on the boat a couple of nights. It was pretty primitive," she said. "The place for each person to sleep is about the size of a pool air mattress."
The cabin is too low to stand up in. Especially for Hugh, who is about a head taller than most his Chinese crewmates.
"They had to cut a special spot in the boat so he could stretch his legs out and sleep," Wendy laughed.
Living on the Princess Tai Ping not only means being cramped, it also means being damp.
"It's constantly wet in there. They lined the cabin with plastic," Wendy said.
The crew eats the same food every day: fish and rice.
"They eat a lot of canned eel, canned tuna and rice," Wendy said. "They tried to spear fish, but that didn't really work, so now they're using fishing poles. Flying fish fly onto the boat, but they're not good to eat, so they use them as bait."
The crew stores eggs below deck rubbed in vaseline then packed in salt.
"They didn't have refrigeration 600 years ago," Wendy said.
Building the 54-foot-long Princess Tai Ping took about as long as it will be at sea -- more than half a year.
The cotton sails are coated in tree bark-based liquid to protect them from the sun's ultraviolet waves, fungi and mildew.
"Unlike the flat sail, these sails are a bunch of diamonds, so you can get a hole in one and still sail," Wendy said. "And to find a guy to build the boat was a task."
The ship boards were caulked with a mixture of crushed tree sap and sea shells.
Finding the log for the main mast, about 15 yards long, took about three months. Finally, the log was found on a Chinese mountain and carried out with the help for more than 10 people for three days.
After the stop in California, the ship and it's crew are now on their way to Hawaii. They hope to reach the shores by Dec. 28, and they'll stay for two months before continuing westward toward Taiwan and eventually China.
Their aim is to make it there by April 2009.
"The voyage back is the most important -- the trip back has never been done (in recorded history)," Wendy said.
But Hugh told her that going back is actually the easy part.
"They'll be in tropical, warmer water," Wendy recounted.
They're staying in Hawaii two months to wait for good sailing conditions.
"It's all about the trade winds," Wendy said.
Wendy's three-day visit to California to see her brother was actually a gift from someone Wendy doesn't know.
"Someone Hugh met in San Francisco had an extra plane ticket, so he gave it to Hugh so I could come see him," Wendy said.
She and the crew enjoyed each other's antics.
"They all ate with chopsticks -- they only had a few pieces of silverware," Wendy recalled.
One day, they asked Wendy to try chopsticks.
"Then they were cracking up, watching me," she laughed.
Although the crew was recruiting members for the return trip to China -- a few crew members decided they'd sailed enough -- Wendy decided it wasn't her time to sign on for such an adventure.
"But it was inspiring," she said. "Life is too short to just sit here."
Hugh is the only American on board, but he can speak Chinese and is very close to the other crew members.
On a video Wendy took to bring home to family in Iowa, the lone woman crew member explained their bond with Hugh: "He's not just a friend, he's family."
"Six months at sea... you better bond," she said.