The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat Flying Through Time

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

In Port Townsend—a charming, coastal town nestled in the northeastern end of the Olympic Peninsula—a piece of literary and biological 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 it undergoes restoration.

In 1940, author John Steinbeck set sail on The Western Flyer for a six-week trip on the Sea of Cortez with, friend and famous marine biologist, Ed Ricketts. Steinbeck had just finished writing The Grapes of Wrath and (presumably needing to blow off some dusty melancholy) departed with Ricketts, a small number of crewmen, and his wife, Carol, for a leisurely voyage.

412udKFUzCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This trip resulted in Steinbeck’s acclaimed book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a combination of their shared expedition’s journals and Ricketts’ species catalog. Because of this voyage, The Western Flyer is referred to as “the most famous fishing vessel ever to have sailed.”

The Log is also regarded as one of Steinbeck’s most important non-fiction works due to Ricketts’ influence. Ricketts helped shape Steinbeck’s thinking, providing a prototype for many of Steinbeck’s pivotal literary characters and, thus, some of the most important characters in American literature.

The Flyer is now embarking on a three-year restoration project overseen by the Port Townsend Co-op. It’s commissioned by John Gregg, a scientist from Southern California, whose life was changed when he picked up Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (the predecessor of The Log) in a bookmobile at age ten. Gregg hopes to restore The Flyer to its original glory—complete with modern updates and a high-tech learning environment for students.

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, and, after our chat, it became apparent that the boat represents not just a famous fishing or sailing voyage, but a voyage through time itself.

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“The boat has become a victim of our changing world,” Chris said as he explained the ongoing struggle of obtaining proper materials for restoration. Finding lumber 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 (and right price).

Back in 1937, when The Flyer was first built, all of the boat’s components were acquired locally thanks to the Pacific Northwest’s abundance of the necessary raw materials. Chris and his team of experts are still able to economically source what they need, but he admits, “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 things The Flyer has seen come and go. Since its birth 80 years ago, the boat has witnessed firsthand the depletion of marine life and clean-water sources. And though the world that The Flyer lives in now may seem a bit bleaker than that of its youth, it remains steadfastly resilient.

“The Flyer has a spirit that lives on,” Chris said, smiling. He then told me about how it’d sunk four(!) times—three of them reaching the bottom of the sea. “She’s just kind of shrugged it off,” he said. As they work to restore The Flyer, they’re careful to “do her justice” and pay homage to “her tangible spirit.”

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This spirit was indeed captured by Steinbeck; he had a kinship with boats and wrote of The Flyer as an actual character in his writings. His affinity for boats extended into his other works, shown in this 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 Flyer’s character arc—an arc of resiliency, survival, and renewal. While the initial restoration’s goal will be to re-tread the path of the Sea of Cortez, The Flyer’s ultimate destination will then be a sort of floating classroom: a place for marine biology and ecology students with, what are planned to be, impressive learning tools. Students and scientists alike will be able to get up close and personal with the marine life of the Pacific Northwest aboard this historic vessel.

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Perhaps the very answers we seek to the environmental obstacles we face will be solved right in The Western Flyer’s belly. In the meantime, we’ll await the next few years as Chris and his team works vigorously 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.

Follow The Western Flyer’s progress at the Western Flyer Foundation’s website.

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