The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat Flying Through Time

In Port Townsend—a charming, sleepy, coastal town nestled in the northeastern end of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula—a piece of history is being remastered and preserved. The Western Flyer, a 77-foot fishing boat built in 1937, sits docked at Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op as she undergoes restoration.

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In 1940, author John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden) set sail on The Western Flyer on a six-week trip on the Sea of Cortez to Cabos San Lucas with friend and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Steinbeck had just written The Grapes of Wrath and, presumably needing to blow off some melancholy and dust after that heavy work, set off with his wife Carol, Ricketts, and a small number of crewmen for this leisurely voyage. This trip directly resulted in Steinbeck’s famous book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a combination of the expedition’s journals and Ricketts’ species catalogue.412udKFUzCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Because of this voyage and its following publication, The Western Flyer is referred to as “the most famous fishing vessel ever to have sailed.” The Log from the Sea of Cortez is regarded as one of Steinbeck’s most important non-fiction works primarily due to Ricketts’ influence. Ricketts had helped shape Steinbeck’s thinking, subsequently providing a prototype for many of Steinbeck’s pivotal characters in his fiction writing—and ultimately some of the most important characters in literature.

The boat is now embarking on a three-year restoration project overseen by the Co-op. She was acquired by John Gregg, a man from Southern California whose life was changed by picking up Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (the predecessor of The Log) in a bookmobile in 1970 at the age of ten. Gregg, now a geologist, hopes to restore The Flyer to her original glory on the outside, complete with modern updates and a high-tech learning environment for students on the inside.

With our Seattle eNotes HQ located just 2.5 hours from Port Townsend, I was lucky enough to set up a tour of the boat (on the eve of Steinbeck’s birthday no less!) to learn more about the project. I met with Chris Chase, overseer of the restoration. It was immediately apparent that the boat represents not just a famous fishing or sailing voyage, but a voyage through time itself—from her birth in 1937 in Tacoma, WA to her educational, purposeful renaissance in 2016.

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“The boat has become a victim of our changing world,” Chris said somberly as he explained the continuing struggle of finding proper materials for a full restoration. Finding wood has been the hardest aspect of the project; because of the U.S.’s astronomical prices and scarce supply, they’re forced to import wood from France for the appropriate fit (at the right price). Back in 1937 when she was built, all of her components were acquired locally thanks to the abundance of the necessary raw materials. Luckily, Chris and his team of experts are still able to nimbly and economically source what they need, but, he added, “everything that made this boat, it’s hard to replicate now. It’s now an art, not a skill—it’s been lost.”

Resources and specialty craftsmanship aren’t the only thing The Flyer has seen come and go; she’s also witnessed the depletion of marine life and clean water sources since her birth almost 80 years ago.

While the world that The Flyer lives in now may seem a bit bleaker than that of her youth, she remains steadfastly resilient. “This boat has a spirit that lives on,” Chris said, smiling, and proceeded to tell me about how she’d sunk four(!) times—three of them reaching the bottom of the sea. Chuckling, he added, “she’s just kind of shrugged it off.” As they work to restore her, they’re careful to “do justice to her” and her tangible spirit.

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This spirit was indeed captured by Steinbeck; Steinbeck had a kinship with boats, and thus wrote of The Flyer as an actual “character” in his writings. His affinity for boats extended into his other works, like in the following excerpt from The Pearl: “This was an evil beyond thinking. The killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat. For a boat does not have sons, and a boat cannot protect itself, and a wounded boat does not heal.”

As with a character in a novel, we observe The Western Flyer’s character arc: one of resiliency, survival, and renewal. The initial end goal of her restoration journey will be to re-tread the path of the Sea of Cortez and to admirably complete a voyage not taken by Steinbeck and Ricketts due to Ricketts’ untimely death.

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She will then be a learning destination, a sort of “floating classroom,” for marine biology and ecology students with (what are planned to be) impressive learning tools. Students and scientists will be able to get up close and personal with the marine life of the Pacific Northwest aboard a gorgeous, historic vessel. Perhaps, the very answers we seek to the environmental obstacles we face will be solved right in the The Western Flyer’s belly? We shall see.

In the meantime, we’ll await the next few years as Chris and his team work vigorously and passionately on this exciting adventure. “It’s a pretty amazing project,” Chris told me at the end of my tour.

I agree, and I think Ricketts and Steinbeck would, too.

“The compass simply represents the ideal, present but unachievable, and sight-steering a compromise with perfection which allows your boat to exist at all.”
The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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