|The Western Flyer - John Steinbeck's escape into environmental science|
The shipyard next to Boat Haven Marina in Port Townsend is a
health and fitness clinic for big boats. The Hawaiian Chieftan sits on drydock.
Rumor has it that Pete Townsend’s yacht comes in for check-ups. Big cabin
cruisers, a shiny
sky-blue 80 foot
sailing yacht, a ginormous rusty metal fishing boat all scatter the boatyard.
The star of the show these days, however, is the Western Flyer.
This eighty foot wooden former sardine fishing vessel,
originally named the Gemini, was the home of authorJohn Steinbeck and biologist
Ed Rickerts back in 1940 when they embarked on their 4-month long journey
documented in the book Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel
and Research. The
boat itself is an historic artifact—a symbol of adventure, freedom,
camaraderie, or perhaps even refuge for John Steinbeck, who was at the time
under public attack for his novel Grapes of Wrath and it’s depiction of America
during the depression.
Rickerts hired Anton "Tony" Berry
and his fishing
vessel. Once in the
Sea of Cortez, habitat to an unmatched collection of sea flora and fauna, Steinbeck’s
attention was fastened to what he saw. He documented the unqualified
inter-dependence of sea-life, unwittingly writing the first supplementary
textbook for the study of ecology. The book documents the scientific findings
and tells the story through Steinbeck’s narrative.
Built in 1937 as a purse seiner, the Western Flyer, first fished
for sardines out of Monterey Bay. After the epic journey documented in the book
it returned to Monterey and continued sardine fishing until the early 50’s when
it went to Alaska as a fishing vessel. In the 60’s it fished in northwest waters, then caught
crabs in the 70’s. It changed hands several times during the next few decades
ending up in Anacortes where it hauled salmon to canneries.
In 2013 it was salvaged from the dregs of Puget Sound where
it had sunk twice during the previous winter. Several entrepreneurs made plans
to revive it for moneymaking purposes. Finally in 2015 it was purchased by a
geologist, John Gregg, with the dream to restore the vessel exactly as it had
been when it made the historic voyage that became the birth of today’s science
It’s an awesome sight to see the work being done by Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op
the boat to its original state. Remnants of the original hull are stacked near
the warehouse. The skilled boat builders work long hours, steaming wooden
planks to shape the boat’s hull. Countless school field traipse through the shipyard
learning about the history of the boat and it’s role in exposing our planetary
interdependence. The owners expect the ship to be finished in 2020 and hope to
use it as a floating classroom for the study of marine biology. If you get a
chance to visit Port Townsend check it out. The site is open to the public and