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Steinbeck Vessel To Be Refloated By New Owner And Northwest Shipwrights

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
The Western Flyer currently rests in dry storage at the Port of Port Townsend as seen in this 2013 photo.

New ownership is giving new hope to a decrepit, unseaworthy fishing boat with a notable literary pedigree.

Northwest shipwrights will be hired to restore the Western Flyer, a vessel made famous by the author John Steinbeck.

In 1940, Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts -- who later inspired the character Doc in "Cannery Row” -- chartered the Western Flyer for a Mexican cruise, which Steinbeck immortalized in the non-fiction classic, "The Log From the Sea of Cortez."

The 76-foot wooden boat passed through many hands since then. It sunk twice in Puget Sound in recent years. The historic vessel is currently propped up on blocks in dry storage at the Port of Port Townsend, Washington.

The new owner, John Gregg, 53, is a Steinbeck fan and businessman from southern California. He said he changed his mind about barging the mud-caked boat to California for restoration after visiting it in Port Townsend.

"Guys were working with hand tools and caulking boats," Gregg observed at the boatyard. "There is just a lot of local knowledge there that I don't think is duplicated anywhere else on the West Coast. So I realized right away that that boat had to stay there."

The new owner estimated it will cost $2 million and take at least two years to fully restore the old vessel.

"I have enough boats that you would think I would know better than to get another one that doesn't like to float," he joked in an interview. Gregg is president of a geotechnical sampling and testing company, which operates steel work boats for marine drilling and surveys, among other things.

"I read (Steinbeck's) stories as a young guy and I always was inspired by that sort of thing," Gregg explained. "I identified with the adventure and science."

Gregg said he eventually intends for the Western Flyer to return to Monterey Bay to do hands-on science and education voyages.

Gregg officially purchased the Western Flyer from California real estate developer Gerry Kehoe last week. Kehoe once planned to cut the boat into pieces and display restored portions in the lobby of a boutique hotel that Kehoe has not managed to open in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas.

At different points in time, the vessel was used as a sardine fishing boat out of Monterey, a tuna boat, a crab boat in Alaska and a research platform.

The Western Flyer was launched as a purse seiner by Western Boat Building Company of Tacoma in 1937. Descendants of the shipyard's founder have long wanted to see this boat find a credible savior.

"This is definitely the happier outcome we had been hoping for," wrote Joe Petrich of Tacoma in an email. "I am frankly ecstatic that the boat will be saved for posterity." Petrich's grandfather, Martin Petrich, founded Western Boat Building and was a co-owner of the Western Flyer during its early years.

“The boat means a lot to me and the rest of the Petrich family both as a touchstone to our past and as a significant part of the Steinbeck-Ricketts story,” Petrich added.

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.