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Controversy surrounds rehab of John Steinbeck vessel

Salvaging a wooden fishing boat that John Steinbeck chartered in 1940 and made famous in “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” has come with controversy.

One vision of creating a boutique hotel attraction has butted against the idea of rehabilitating the vessel for an educational environmental mission honoring the Cortez trip.

Western Flyer, which Steinbeck chartered with a biologist friend and later wrote about, sits in decaying splendor in a boatyard two hours northwest of Seattle.

A final chapter for the Western Flyer might be about to unfold. And there are fierce disagreements about how — and where — its tale of fleeting celebrity and ignominious decay should end, according to The New York Times.

The boat’s owner, Gerry Kehoe, a California businessman, told the paper he planned to collect his property within the next couple of months. The 76-foot-long vessel, he said, will be cut into two or three pieces and trucked to Salinas, Calif., where Steinbeck was born, then reassembled and installed as the centerpiece — with real water and a dock — in the lobby of a boutique hotel Kehoe is developing.

The hotel, with two restaurants surrounding the boat and glass panels telling the story of the voyage, will open in the summer of 2015 with Western Flyer in the name, he said in a telephone interview.

But the nephew of the Western Flyer’s skipper in 1940 has been ferociously critical of Kehoe’s plan. He said the boat belongs in Monterey, where it worked in Steinbeck’s day as a sardine fisher, and deserves better in retirement.

“He talks a good game, but he really doesn’t know what he’s doing — he doesn’t have a clue,” Robert Enea told the paper. Enea’s uncle, Tony Berry, piloted the voyage by Steinbeck and the biologist, E.F. Ricketts.

Enea, a retired physical education teacher, led a nonprofit group called the Western Flyer Project that he said had raised $10,000 and was trying to buy the boat in 2010 for $45,000 when Kehoe got it instead. The group, Enea said, envisioned a mission of environmental education in Monterey Bay, echoing and honoring the Cortez trip.

Kehoe said the Flyer Project lacked resources to save or restore anything — not least a boat built in 1937 that would take “well into the seven figures” to be made seaworthy. And, he added, striking a note that Steinbeck himself might have savored as a champion of the underdog, the economically struggling town of Salinas simply deserves the Western Flyer more than wealthy, flourishing Monterey.