Mah Jong was originally built in 1957 by Cheoy Lee Shipyard in Hong Kong. She was designed by Sparkman & Stephens of Newport, RI.

"The design decided on was a deep draught ocean racing yawl with a tall rig, large and strong enough to stand both the heavy Oriental building materials and any conditions of weather likely to be encountered."

She was originally built from Teak, with such woods as Ipol and Yacal used for frames and keels. The mast was sourced from Canada. The equipment was brought on from the U.S., including a Mercedes Benz diesel engine. 

She made her shakedown cruise from Japan to Newport, RI crewed by a Hawaiian schoolteacher, a former uranium miner, a Yale architect, and the Freemans. Joan Freeman, the ships appointed Barber, and Mike Freeman, the appointed Navigator and Skipper. 

Navigation was done celestially for the most part, although she was equipped with an electronic fathometer and radio direction finder. 

Mah Jong was named by Mr. Freeman after the Cantonese game of chance, because "since our whole adventure is a big gamble, we felt it appropriate."