2015 – Rebuilding of John Steinbeck’s FV Western Flyer

1937 Fishboat Made Immortal by Steinbeck–by P.Marsh

The issue of derelict vessels in the Pacific NW is not going away, but one very special boat has been saved from an ignominious fate. It’s the California sardine boat that became an American literary icon–the 76-foot wooden purse seiner Western Flyer. this is the boat that carried John Steinbeck and his friend Ed “Doc” Ricketts on a six-week biological collecting expedition on the Sea of Cortez, Baja Mexico. It had fallen to a sorry state,  sank in the Swinomish Channel in 2012, was raised, sank again and was raised again. Onshore in the Port Townsend Boat Haven since 2013, it seemed likely to end its days as a derelict  with no practical value whatsoever– except for its literary value!

The Western Flyer was launched in Tacoma as part of a company fleet, all named "Western ........"

The Western Flyer was launched in Tacoma as part of a company fleet, all named “Western ……..”

It was built in Tacoma in 1937 and participated in one poorly managed fishery after another. Sardines off California, perch off Washington, and finally king crab off Kodiak. The last active years were spent as a salmon tender in Puget Sound. Legendary skippers ruled the Western Flyer’s wheelhouse over the years, and she was manned by colorful  deck hands, but it was the brief interlude as a research vessel that made the boat famous.

For six weeks in the spring of 1940, John Steinbeck—an accomplished naturalist in his own right—and Ed Ricketts–a pioneering scientist and the model for “Doc” in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–chartered the Western Flyer for an expedition to the Sea of Cortez. The boat itself became a central character in Steinbeck’s 1951 book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” and was described as lovingly as the critters the crew collected, from crabs, urchins and sponges to tunicates and bivalves.

As Steinbeck wrote, boats have a unique ability to tug human heartstrings. “The sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in [a man’s] chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it.” Steinbeck even wrote stylishly about their battles with their outboard motor, which he called  the “Hansen Sea-Cow”,and used as a humorous thread throughout the journal.

“Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing…. [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed… when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death… It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.”

The fishing vessel once used by Steinbeck and Ricketts has become a derelict.

The fishing vessel once used by Steinbeck and Ricketts has become a derelict.

The boat was in the news  in 2014-15 as the object of  a three-way tussle between the registered owner, Gerry Kehoe, a developer who planned to dismantle the boat and exhibit the parts in his Salinas hotel; the non-profit Western Flyer Boat Project, a group based in Monterey that wanted to restore the boat for educational cruises; and the Port of Port Townsend who say they are owed money in past due fees. It was covered with barnacles, probably full of mud, and would cost a small fortune before it could be considered seaworthy. The brief encounter with the great writer appears to be all there is going for it.

Eventually,  John Gregg, 54, a geologist and businessman from of Moss Landing, California, bought the boat for $1 million, in a statement of love that he said he knew from the beginning bordered on folly. The boat had extensive rot from stem to stern and it will need another $2 million to become a science and education vessel.

Gregg spent his elementary school years in Puyallup, Washington, and lived many places with his family, since his father was a government employee. He is the owner of several companies including Gregg Drilling & Testing and Gregg Marine, Inc., in the Monterey area. Gregg Marine is one of the world’s leading experts in marine drilling and geo-technical investigation. His companies own work boats.

Gregg knew there would be interest in his plans for the boat, yet has been pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction. “I’ve had many requests to re-enact the voyage” to Mexico from biologists who were inspired by the author. “It’s like a Who’s Who of the marine biology world.” He does not intend the boat to be used for sunset cruises or whale watches. A realistic businessman, he also does not expect the boat to turn a profit.

“I never looked at this as any kind of money-making opportunity; it’ll cost and cost and cost,” Gregg said. “The boat arguably is worth nothing and yet it’s priceless,” Gregg said. “It’s one of those things. It’s like a piece of art. You don’t really own it, you take care of it for awhile. You can’t really own something like this.”

The refitted boat that Mr. Gregg envisions will emerge from the PT Shipwright’s Co-op building will have a remote-controlled research submarine on deck, a science lab where the reeking fish hold once stood, and an electric motor system with batteries and backup diesel generators that weigh half as much as the old propulsion system. When it is re-launched in 2017, the hull  will be about 75 percent new……..

“Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing…. [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed… when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death… It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.”

As a piece of tangible history and a specific individual of the purse-seining species, the Western Flyer is irresistible to Steinbeck fans, marine biologists and environmentalists, as well as those interested in wooden boat history.

Career of John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

American novelist, short story writer, and journalist, Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902 and attended Stanford University intermittently from 1919-1925. Author of more than thirty books, Steinbeck achieved his first popular and critical successes with two short novels, Tortilla Flats (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937). A dramatized version of Of Mice and Men (1937) was immensely popular and was followed by a United Artists film production in 1939. With The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Steinbeck arrived at international renown. Based on his visits to Depression-era migrant labor camps in California’s Central Valley, Grapes of Wrath was also made into a major motion picture in 1940, the second of ten of his books to be filmed. Steinbeck’s work in the early 1940s was highly varied but less well-received, including The Forgotten Village (1941) and The Moon is Down (1942). When the war broke out in Europe, he went to North Africa and Italy as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, out of which came several journalistic books. Critical acclaim returned to Steinbeck with two postwar novels set in his native California, Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952). He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

 

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3 Responses to 2015 – Rebuilding of John Steinbeck’s FV Western Flyer

  1. Love your pictures of the boats. Hope the Western Flyer can be saved.

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