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Lost and found: John Steinbeck’s Western Flyer

Finding a boat with historical literary significance these days is no easy task. Many boats that writers once owned have disappeared, lost to time or misfortune. Maybe that’s due to the chaotic and tentative nature of a writer’s life. Maybe that’s just boat ownership. Either way, few sailed by famed authors remain today. 

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The two authors most associated with boats are Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. London is connected to four boats: a 14-foot sloop named Razzle-Dazzle, which he used to pirate oysters; a 35-foot sloop he converted into a yawl named Iris; the 30-foot sloop Spray, which he bought with proceeds from The Call of the Wild and aboard which he wrote much of The Sea-Wolf; and Snark, a 43-foot ketch. All four boats are believed to be gone. All that remains of any of them is the bell from Snark, which was reportedly spotted on a coconut plantation in New Caledonia in 1971.

Hemingway, of course, is best known for Pilar, his 38-foot fishing boat, a 1934 Wheeler Playmate built in Brooklyn, New York. Hemingway left Cuba in 1960 and was unable to return after the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. When Hemingway died in July of that year, his widow gave Pilar to its captain, Gregorio Fuentes, who eventually gave the boat to the Cuban government. She fell into disrepair but eventually was restored and is now maintained by the Cuban government at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former estate in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, which is now a museum. We got lucky on that one.

We also got lucky with Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White’s 18-foot daysailer Fern, built and designed by K. Aage Nielsen in Denmark, which turned up in 2015 and was sold back into the White family fold. The boat, found in Maine, where White lived and sailed, had been lovingly maintained throughout its life.

But these instances are rare. It is not often that these boats, lost to time or neglect or sold into obscurity, resurface. One such new case is the $2 million restoration of Western Flyer. The 76-foot fishing boat was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez, a book about the author’s six-week, 6,000-mile voyage collecting sea specimens from California to Mexico with his wife, Carol, marine biologist Ed Ricketts and a crew of four in 1940, just after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath.

It was an adventure, says Kevin Bailey, a former NOAA scientist and the author of The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries, released in March. “Steinbeck and Ricketts were first planning to do a survey of San Francisco Bay, not the Sea of Cortez,” says Bailey, who lives in Seattle. “But they were both having such personal problems that they wanted to get away. Then they planned a road trip, but the logistics got difficult. So they leased a boat, stocked it with Carta Blanca [beer] and brandy, and said let’s get the hell out of here and go to Mexico.” 

Western Flyer’s latest owner, John Gregg, is having the boat restored as a research and education vessel that will tour the West Coast.

Published in 1951, 11 years after the trip, The Log From the Sea of Cortez was part voyage log, part marine biology study, and it detailed the trip from Monterey, California, around the Baja Peninsula, to the Sea of Cortez. It’s required reading for marine biologists, who regard it with borderline worshipful status. To boaters and Steinbeck fans, it speaks a direct truth about boating. Chapter 2 has long been celebrated as one of the most striking descriptions of man’s deep emotional and primal connection to boats.

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. 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.

Like Pilar, Western Flyer took a beating over the years, suffering a string of indignities. Steinbeck chartered her for his famed trip, after which she quietly returned to work as a fishing boat in the Northwest. By most accounts, Western Flyer was fished hard for sardines, salmon, ocean perch, crabs and tuna. She wrecked in Alaska and sank three times. At one point, California businessman Gerry Kehoe owned Western Flyer and wanted to disassemble the boat and turn her into a restaurant and tourist attraction down the road from Steinbeck’s grave in Salinas, California. The Steinbeck family was horrified at the idea.

Washington geologist and longtime Steinbeck fan John Gregg had been looking for Western Flyer for 10 years. In February 2015 he finally located the boat, which had been renamed Gemini, and paid $1 million for it. It was sitting on blocks at a Port Townsend, Washington, boatyard. She was encrusted in salt and mud, according to a Seattle Weekly report. The Honduran mahogany interior was caked and gray, the brass furnishings corroded. “To simply say that the boat is covered in barnacles and mud does not do the degradation justice. Instead, imagine that a boat originally built of barnacles and mud now has a minor infestation of wood and metal,” wrote Patrick Hutchison in Seattle Weekly.

Hemingway’s 38- foot Wheeler, Pilar was rigged for serious fishing. It has been restored and can be seen at Finca Vigia in Cuba.

Allen Petrich — whose grandfather Martin Petrich, of the Western Boat Co. in Tacoma, Washington, built Western Flyer in 1937 — was consulted on the restoration. “I’d hear about the Flyer when I was a kid,” Petrich says. “We knew it was on a voyage being used by Steinbeck. And he was famous at the time. It’s a typical fishing vessel, a purse seiner, of that era. But it’s famous now because of the journey. It was a pretty big deal to people.”

When Petrich next saw the boat, decades after the Steinbeck voyage, he was amazed at its condition. Everything above the waterline was in good shape, considering the years of neglect. “For a boat that had not been used, it was in terrific shape,” he says. “They pretty staunchly built boats, and the wood used in those days was very good. You wouldn’t find it today at Home Depot.” That was before it was sunk twice while docked, the second time for almost six months. When the boat was raised, it sat exposed to the rainy Northwest weather until it was sold to Gregg.

That’s when the work started. Gregg’s idea is to rebuild Western Flyer as a research and education vessel, an updated, state-of-the-art version of Steinbeck’s boat. Something modern, while respecting the soul of the original boat.

Port Townsend Boatyard shipwright Chris Chase, a local wooden-boat builder, is heading the rebuild with help from the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington. 

The boat’s interior has not been changed, which is rare for working vessels that often fall prey to sloppy modifications for creature comforts. “I think the people who have owned this boat over the years knew it was special,” Gregg says. “The first thing fishermen would do in the 1970s was cut a whole in the galley to put in a microwave or replace the Honduran mahogany with Formica. People were aware of the pedigree of the boat and took care of it.”

The original twin diesels will be replaced with a pair of hybrid electric engines. The wood restoration is pretty straightforward, Gregg says.

Jack London and his wife aboard their 43-foot ketch, Snark. Only her bell has survived.

He estimates the project will cost $2 million, a budget he admits was pulled from thin air. The work should be completed in 2017 for a 2018 launch.

Working with Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station, the marine laboratory of Stanford University, Gregg plans to pilot Western Flyer up and down the West Coast, making stops to educate children about marine science.

“It’s a long process with a lot of moving parts, but I think we are about on schedule,” he says.

As Gregg’s crew of shipwrights grinds away at Western Flyer, slowly bringing her back to life, the ship has become a draw for Steinbeck fans on a literary pilgrimage. People leave notes and dog-eared copies of his books. Students visit. The boat has an almost cultish draw. On a recent visit to the boat, Bailey noticed something. “Someone had pinned a picture of Steinbeck to the hull,” he says. “Like it was his casket in an Irish wake.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.