2013 – John Steinbeck Link Keeps FV Western Flyer Alive

1937 Fishboat is No Ordinary Derelict–by Peter Marsh

The issue of derelict vessels in the Pacific NW is not going away: another casualty is the California sardine boat that became an American literary icon–the 76-foot wooden purse seiner Western Flyer. this is the boat that carried John Steinbeck and his friend Ed “Doc” Ricketts on a six-week biological collecting expedition on the Sea of Cortez, Baja Mexico. Sadly, it has fallen to a sorry state as a derelict onshore in the Port Townsend Boat Haven since 2013 with no practical value whatsoever. It would be scrapped by now except for its literary value.

The Western Flyer was launched in Tacoma as part of a company fleet, all  named "Western ........"

The Western Flyer was launched in Tacoma as part of a company fleet, all named “Western ……..”

It was built in Tacoma in 1937 and was fated to participate in one poorly managed fishery after another. Sardines off California, perch off Washington, and finally king crab off Kodiak. The last active years were spent as a salmon tender in Puget Sound.Legendary skippers ruled the Western Flyer’s wheelhouse over the years, plus and she was manned by a colorful array of deck hands, but it was the brief interludes as a research vessel that made the Western Flyer famous.

For six weeks in the spring of 1940, John Steinbeck—an accomplished naturalist in his own right—and Ed Ricketts–a pioneering scientist and the model for “Doc” in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–chartered the Western Flyer for an expedition to the Sea of Cortez. The boat itself became a central character in Steinbeck’s 1951 book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,”

The fishing vessel once used by Steinbeck and Ricketts has become a derelict.

The fishing vessel once used by Steinbeck and Ricketts has become a derelict.

Now the boat has made its last stand, and taken center stage in a three-way tussle between the registered owner, Gerry Kehoe, a developer who plans to install the boat in Salinas, ten miles inland from its home port of Monterey; the non-profit Western Flyer Boat Project, a group based in Monterey that wants to restore the boat for educational cruises; and the Port of Port Townsend who say they are owed about $7,900 in past due fees since the boat was hauled out on June 5.

Kehoe had to put up $25,000 as insurance to comply with the Port’s policy regarding derelict vessels, but is questioning a monthly storage fee of about $2,225 . The boat sank in the Swinomish Channel in 2012, was raised, sank again and was raised again, so doubtless has already cost someone a pretty penny! It is covered with barnacles, probably full of mud, and would cost a small fortune before it could be considered seaworthy. The brief encounter with the great writer appears to be all there is going for it right now.

As Steinbeck wrote in the book: “The sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in [a man’s] chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it.” He even wrote stylishly about their battles with their outboard motor, referred to as the “Hansen Sea-Cow”, which would feature as a humorous thread throughout the journal.

“Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing…. [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed… when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death… It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.”


In the summer of 2015, the Western Flyer was still hanging on in the PT Boat Haven, and still looking like it has spent a long time underwater—and the movie is still a script looking for a backer: SARDINE BOAT PICTURES LLC is proud to have the exclusive world-wide rights to recreate the sea voyage described in John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Our film will revisit the land and waters where Steinbeck and friends took specimens from the relatively untouched littoral. This time, we will take only images, leave awe and respect in our wake.

Career of John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

American novelist, short story writer, and journalist, Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902 and attended Stanford University intermittently from 1919-1925. Author of more than thirty books, Steinbeck achieved his first popular and critical successes with two short novels, Tortilla Flats (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937). A dramatized version of Of Mice and Men (1937) was immensely popular and was followed by a United Artists film production in 1939. With The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Steinbeck arrived at international renown. Based on his visits to Depression-era migrant labor camps in California’s Central Valley, Grapes of Wrath was also made into a major motion picture in 1940, the second of ten of his books to be filmed. Steinbeck’s work in the early 1940s was highly varied but less well-received, including The Forgotten Village (1941) and The Moon is Down (1942). When the war broke out in Europe, he went to North Africa and Italy as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, out of which came several journalistic books. Critical acclaim returned to Steinbeck with two postwar novels set in his native California, Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952). He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Nautical History, work boats and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 2013 – John Steinbeck Link Keeps FV Western Flyer Alive

  1. Love your pictures of the boats. Hope the Western Flyer can be saved.


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