Steinbeck’s famous boat
hopes to sail again
The Western Flyer spent decades in SE; nearly sank here
By DAVE KIFFER
September 05, 2015
Ketchikan, Alaska - One of the most famous fishing boats is American history is currently sitting on dry land in Port Townsend waiting for yet another attempt to preserve it to begin.
“The Western Flyer” was immortalized by Nobel Winning author John Steinbeck in his non-fiction classic “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”
Long after Steinbeck sailed on the 75-foot seine boat in 1940, it earned a living for several decades in Southeast Alaska and was nearly destroyed when it ran aground near Thorne Bay in the early 1970s.
Seventy five years ago, Steinbeck spent six weeks traveling on “The Western Flyer” in the Sea of Cortez with his good friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts.
Western Flyer Renovation Underway
Photo courtesy Port of Port Townsend (http://portofpt.com)
The plan was to spend the time collecting specimens that Ricketts could sell to marine institutions but the trip was also a necessary get away for Steinbeck who was overwhelmed by the publicity storm that had arrived with the publication of Steinbeck’s most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939, the year before.
Ricketts had been Steinbeck’s best friend for more than a decade and is widely credited with spurring Steinbeck to add environmental elements in many of his novels. Most notably, Steinbeck immortalized Ricketts as the character “Doc” in “Cannery Row.”
Although “The Sea of Cortez” had a variety of themes, most important of which was how the work of man was affecting natural environments such as the Sea which was fed by the Colorado River and was located between Baja California and the rest of Mexico, the book also paid tribute to working boats like “The Western Flyer.”
“Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her,” Steinbeck wrote in his second version of the book in 1951. “This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul. His spirit and the tendrils of his feeling are so deep in a boat that the identification is complete.”
Steinbeck made an early attempt to publish the story of the trip in 1941, but was unsuccessful, primarily because the book was released the same week the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and World War II began.
After the war, Steinbeck decided to rework the book and re-released it in 1951. It immediately became a classic in both environmental and travel literature. By 1951, Ricketts had died in a car/train accident in Monterrey, which cut short a proposed voyage up the British Columbia and Southeast Alaska Coast the two men had been planning as a sequel to the “Sea of Cortez.”
As Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and other vacation spots in Baja California developed in the 1970s and 1980s, credit for some of development was based on the bucolic, relatively unspoiled vision of Baja portrayed by Steinbeck. The modern, tourist dominated areas of Baja would no doubt shock the author, who died in 1968.
By June of 1971, The Western Flyer was no longer the Western Flyer. It had been renamed the Gemini and was working as salmon tender in Southeast Alaska.
It was based at the Whitney Fidalgo Cannery in Ketchikan and was spending most of its time in the waters around Prince of Wales Island, ferrying salmon from the grounds to the Ketchikan cannery several times a week, during the summer season.
It was on just one such trip when the Gemini ran aground near Tolstoi Island in Clarence Strait with a load of approximately 120,000 pounds of salmon. According to Seattle author and biologist Kevin Bailey, in his 2015 book “The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s boat, the Sea of Cortez and the saga of the Pacific Fisheries,” the skipper at the time was Rudolph Young and the boat hit the reef hard enough to knock the crewmembers off their feet. The Coast Guard quickly responded and the crew was taken off the ship.
Damage to the keel of the Gemini was extensive and, in its report later that summer, the Coast Guard considered the boat, a total loss.
“A diver was sent down to put a plywood patch over the hull, and the boat was refloated,” Bailey wrote. “The catch was salvaged and the boat was sent to Ketchikan for repairs where they reinforced the inside of the hull. The Western Flyer was bandaged but her days working on the open ocean were over. She was now relegated to work in the more sheltered waters of Puget Sound.”
After leaving Southeast Alaska, the Gemini did spend most of the next three decades working in the Puget Sound fishing industry. It passed through a variety of owners and was frequently left tied up at various docks in the region. Eventually, in the late 1980s, it began to gain some notoriety as a whole new generation of readers discovered Steinbeck’s book. This mirrored a new appreciation for Steinbeck himself, who’s reputation had been on the wane when he died. Most notably because of his hawkish support for the Vietnam War before he died.
The creation of Steinbeck related museums and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas also spurred interest in restoring The Western Flyer and making it an attraction in Monterrey.
Several attempts were made, none successful, to purchase and restore the boat.
But the current proposal by Geologist John Gregg seems to be moving forward, even as The Western Flyer sits forlornly on the beach in Port Townsend, after two sinkings in the past decade in the harbor of Anacortes.
According to a story in the March 18, 2015 Seattle Weekly News, Gregg purchased the boat from its most recent owner for approximately $1 million. Gregg estimates it could cost up to $2 million to renovate it, but he hopes the final number will be lower.
When the boat – which will be restored by a group of wooden boat aficionados in Port Townsend – is once again ship-shape, Gregg plans to return it to Monterrey. But not as part of a museum.
“My fear is that some of these boats end up doing sunset cruises and whale-watches, and haulin’ dead people’s ashes around.” Gregg told the Seattle Weekly. “I don’t want to whore it out like that. I want kids to pull plankton nets, and there’ll be a lab in the hold and microscopes over there. If you put a hundred kids on this boat, two of them will get into marine science by the time they’re in college. That’s the hope.”
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