Reporter Eric Wilkinson has the full story on KING 5 at 7.
PORT TOWNSEND -- It is a piece of literary history that has been called both worthless and priceless. The Western Flyer, a boat popularized in John Steinbeck’s “Log from the Sea of Cortez” has its own story to tell. The latest chapter is being written in Port Townsend, right now.
The Western Flyer was built in Tacoma in 1937. In 1940, Steinbeck chartered the boat with a biologist friend and a few others for a six week trip to Mexico. That trip inspired the book.
After the Mexico expedition, the 77-foot seiner fished the West Coast for decades, eventually ending up in Anacortes where it sank twice. The owner planned to have it cut up and the parts turned into a hotel restaurant, but Andy Gregg and his brother John loved the story so much they stepped in and saved the ship.
“We don't want to see it parked at a dock with a penny machine people buy as a token,” said Andy. “We have no interest in that.”
The hulking beast of a boat has now been stripped down to its most basic elements and is in the midst of an estimated $2 million renovation. The bunks where Steinbeck slept and the desk at which he likely wrote, are still intact.
There is another character in this story, however, whose influence isn’t as widely known.
That "biologist friend" Steinbeck brought on board was Ed Ricketts,
“John Steinbeck wrote about him, but he is the star of the story,” said Chris Chase, who is leading the restoration project.
Ricketts was a legendary grandfather of modern ecology who used the Mexico trip to further his study of the interconnectedness of Earth's ecosystems. Ricketts is where this story comes full circle.
The plan for the boat that inspired not just Steinbeck, but Ricketts, is to turn it into a state of the art, $2 million floating classroom that will allow students all along the west coast to study marine biology.
“We want to take it to ports from California to Alaska,” said Andy. “If we can inspire a few kids to get into science we will be doing our job.”
Everyone from elementary school students to post-graduates would benefit. Organizers hope to have the ship seaworthy by the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in 2018.
“I think the mission for the boat, going forward, is to inspire another generation,” said Chase.
The public is invited to take a look at the Western Flyer this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday tours will begin in May.
For more information contact the Northwest Maritime Center at 360-385-3628.
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