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Former Steinbeck Boat Waits In Port Townsend Dry-Dock Limbo

Anne Shaffer
Coastal Watershed Institute

The Port of Port Townsend, Wash., is providing a temporary home to a piece of literary history. But the dry-docked sardine fishing boat once chartered by the writer John Steinbeck faces an uncertain fate. 

The 76-foot boat's original name was the Western Flyer. In 1940, John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts (who later inspired the character Doc in "Cannery Row") chartered the wood vessel for a cruise around Baja California.

That journey resulted in a book still widely read, "The Log From the Sea of Cortez."

The boat, on the other hand, has not aged so well. It sank twice recently at a moorage in north Puget Sound and had to be raised twice.

Retired fisheries scientist Kevin Bailey of Seattle went to the scene to research a forthcoming book about the Western Flyer and its historical context. He says the vessel, a purse seiner, is by all accounts unseaworthy now.

"It's covered in mud," Bailey says. "There's evidence of rot and rust on it. It looks like something unearthly."

A California real estate developer wants to move the Western Flyer to Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas and make the old tub the centerpiece of a hotel-and-restaurant complex. But that's an expensive proposition -- so expensive that author Bailey predicts the historic boat will be carved up into pieces.

The director of the Coastal Watershed Institute, Anne Shaffer, says even in its sorry state the Steinbeck boat has drawn a steady parade of admirers.

It's currently propped up on blocks in a dry storage lot at the Port of Port Townsend.

"Really too bad that the boat that has finally landed somewhere she can be appreciated is now going to be taken apart. So many better uses for such a famous vessel," Shaffer wrote in an email.

Web extra:

NOAA write-up of first sinking:

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.