Western Flyer: The Vessel of John Steinbeck

view of starboard bow of white ship

On the morning of Monday, March 11, 1940, writer John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts boarded the sardine seiner Western Flyer at a wharf in Monterey, California. Both men were moving slowly because a fiesta to celebrate the end of fishing season had gone on late into the night after a boat parade, a barbecue, and seine skiff races. Steinbeck and Ricketts were well-known on the waterfront—and elsewhere—so their departure on a six-week expedition drew a raucous crowd. They didn’t get away until that afternoon, and as the Flyer eased from her berth, Steinbeck noticed that the whiskey they’d loaded for medicinal purposes was gone. “Good,” he thought. “A lot of people I know won’t be getting sick for awhile if the booze does its job.”

Finally, after weeks of haggling to charter a boat and provisioning for the voyage, Steinbeck and Ricketts were where they wanted to be, at sea, heading south to the Gulf of California. Their plan was to collect animals from tide pools in one of the richest marine environments on earth, to talk to each other about what they found, about the world, about the connections and dependencies they knew were at the core of living on earth. Both of them were also delighted to be shedding the constraints and complications of their lives ashore. Steinbeck’s best-selling novels Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath had both won prizes and been made into movies. Seemingly overnight, and after an energetic but not terribly profitable career as a writer, he had become rich and famous. He wasn’t sure what he thought of either transformation and wanted some time to think about it all. Ricketts had also just published a book, Between Pacific Tides, with another biologist, Jack Calvin. It was “An account of the habits and habitats of some five hundred of the common, conspicuous sea-shore invertebrates of the Pacific Coast between Sitka, Alaska, and northern Mexico,” still regarded as one of the definitive works in marine biology. Ricketts was an acknowledged master in his field, but he, too, looked forward to getting away from his lab and out of town. He had been having an affair with a married woman he thought was the love of his life and its failure had cast him into a dark hole of depression even as his star rose as a biologist.

black and white image of boats anchored in a harbor. Small double deck fishing vessel named

Steinbeck paid the cost of chartering the Western Flyer, which included the services of its captain, an engineer, and two deckhands. Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, was the seventh member of the crew. Steinbeck and Ricketts agreed to split what they made selling the animals they collected to defray the costs of the trip, but commercial potential was the last thing on their minds. They had been friends for ten years, bound by the single, vital impulse of endless curiosity about the beauty and mystery of existence. Steinbeck was the younger man by five years, thirty-seven to Ricketts’s forty-two that day on the Western Flyer. Each saw in the other something that might be called wisdom or truth, and they simply liked each other’s company. In his novel Cannery Row, Steinbeck describes the character of Doc, who was based on Ricketts, as “half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.” Steinbeck dreamed of being a biologist and Ricketts was a willing, inspiring guide into that world for the writer. They caroused, drank, laughed, splashed in the tide pools that were Ed’s natural habitat, and, over the years, they helped each other through hard times. Both of them loved the ocean and boats.

“Call it her spirit or whatever you think
a boat has that gives it a life force,
but she didn’t want to die there in the mud.”

The Western Flyer was a young boat as she sailed from Monterey Bay that afternoon, unaware, of course, that she and that voyage would inspire future millions of people to love and explore the sea. The Flyer had begun her life only three years earlier at the Western Boat Building Company in Tacoma, Washington, where shipyard owner Martin Petrich specialized in sardine seiners for a fishery that was booming on the West Coast. He built his sturdy boats of Douglas fir, at the time an abundant source of tight-grained, rot-resistant wood. He used a single, sixty-four-foot-long piece of fir milled from a single tree for the keel of the Western Flyer. Her ribs were oak because it bends well to create the complex curves of a seiner’s hull, while her planks were tight-fitted fir caulked with cotton. Finished, she was seventy-seven-foot long with a twenty-foot beam, painted bright white with black trim, her hull an elegant, flowing shape that seemed to welcome the water flowing around her. She had accommodation for the captain in a berth in the wheelhouse, nine crew in bunks in the main cabin, a galley, fish hold, bait hold, and engine room for the direct-reverse Atlas diesel. Her captain, Tony Berry, who worked at the Tacoma shipyard when he wasn’t fishing, took command of the Western Flyer in July, 1937, and spent the next three years fishing for salmon on the Columbia River and for sardines in Monterey Bay.

black and white image of white fishing vessel named

An ordinary working seine boat was an unlikely candidate to become the icon of an awakening in the human relationship with the oceans, but as Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed south to Mexico, both men sensed that something a bit out of the ordinary was afoot in the Flyer. Perhaps it was the way she handled the following sea on that first afternoon, perhaps it was the sound of her rigging, perhaps just the steady, heart-beat thrum of her engine, but they both bonded with their boat.

“Some have said they felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cried when she beached and the surf poured into her,” Steinbeck wrote later. “This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul. His spirit and the tendrils of his feeling are so deep in a boat that the identification is complete.”

The Western Flyer put into San Diego for fuel, then into the sleepy port of Cabo San Lucas for a supply of Carta Blanca beer before rounding the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula in stormy spring weather that tested the boat and its crew. Once into the calmer Gulf of California between the peninsula and mainland Mexico, they reveled in long days of collecting, nights ashore and at anchor drinking beer and brandy, story telling, and speculating about the wildly abundant marine life all around them.

“Nights at anchor in the Gulf are quiet and strange,” Steinbeck wrote. “The water is smooth, almost solid, and the dew is so heavy that the decks are soaked. The little waves rasp on the shell beaches with a hissing sound, and all about in the darkness the fishes jump and splash.”

large wooden boat being built at a dry dock workshop facility

On their 4,000-mile, six-week voyage to the Sea of Cortez, as Steinbeck and Ricketts (and now most of us) more lyrically refer to the Gulf of California, they collected samples of more than 500 species of marine animals, thirty-five of which were new to science. A year later, they published the first edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which included a narrative and extensive descriptions of the animals they collected, based on logs kept by Ricketts and Captain Tony Berry. The 600-page book, and its later, shorter edition with which most readers are familiar, transformed the voyage from a practical collecting and pleasure excursion into a seminal moment in the human relationship with the sea and its creatures. In their fertile conversations aboard the Western Flyer, Ricketts convinced Steinbeck that the way groups of animals interact, cooperate, flourish, and die off is the key to understanding life. In short, the holistic rhythms of ecology are at the heart of meaningful natural science. Ricketts also championed what he called “non-teleological thinking,” or the acceptance of the natural world as it is rather than as a function of its interactions with humanity. These powerful insights dominate The Log from the Sea of Cortez and catapulted their expedition, and the Western Flyer herself, into a future imbued with the enlightened spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts.

After the Western Flyer’s voyage to the Sea of Cortez and her central role in creating a new awareness about the sea and its creatures, she spent forty years at work on the North Pacific. Millions of pounds of fish and crab crossed her decks in fisheries that eventually collapsed from overfishing, sounding a deep, troubling note of irony in her life. Under a new owner after Tony Berry sold her, she trawled off Washington and British Columbia for Pacific Ocean perch, also called red rockfish, an especially vulnerable, long-lived species, until they all but disappeared. The Western Flyer then went north to fish for Alaskan red king crab for yet another owner who renamed her Gemini after the NASA space program of the same name. That fishery lasted a decade and a half before catches fell to near zero, at which point the Gemini, nee Western Flyer, became a tender in Southeast Alaska, hauling salmon from the grounds to the fish plants ashore.

Most boats don’t live forever. They rust, they rot, they hit rocks and sink, they vanish without a trace, and they are scrapped for whatever is useful in otherwise useless hulks. Gemini hit a rock near Ketchikan in 1970 and sank, but she was refloated, repaired, and went back to work. Finally, though, her life apparently ended when her last owner tied her to a dock in a tidal slough near the town of La Conner, Washington, and pretty much forgot about her. He knew that Gemini was really Western Flyer and had dreams of restoring her to a seaworthy condition, but they never worked out. A few years later, he sold her to a developer who had the idea of incorporating the deckhouse into a restaurant in Salinas, California, Steinbeck’s home town. As weeks turned into months, and months to years, the Flyer remained at the dock in the slough until, almost as if she said, “Enough, already,” she ruptured a plank and sank into the mud. The owner refloated her, but six months later she was again on the bottom.

“Call it her spirit or whatever you think a boat has that gives it a life force, but she didn’t want to die there in the mud,” said Chris Chase, a former shipwright and the head of the Western Flyer Foundation. “Her entire starboard side was rotten but when she went down that last time she settled on her port side. If she hadn’t, the hull would have caved in and there would have been no saving her. It could have been just luck, but there is something in this boat that isn’t just luck.”

After she sank that last time, her owner with the restaurant plan had her raised, the holes patched, and towed her to Port Townsend, the home of the greatest concentration of wooden boat craftspeople in the United States. The boat was a wreck, barely able to sustain her own weight on the hardstand, where she remained for almost a year. During that time, the news spread that the Western Flyer, Steinbeck’s boat, Ricketts’ boat, was still alive. Pilgrimages to see and touch her began, poignant reminders that she wasn’t just a broken old work boat. To those who came, pinned notes to her hull, took photographs, or simply stood in awe, the Flyer was a member of a pantheon of sea craft that kindled a fascination and understanding of the world’s oceans and their inhabitants. The mythical Argo. Darwin’s Beagle. The first ocean research ship HMS Challenger. Cousteau’s Calypso. Steinbeck and Ricketts’ Western Flyer.

“Some people say the keel of a boat is its soul.
We have big ceremonies when keels are laid,
the keel holds the boat together”

Among those whose reverence for the Flyer is a profound life force is John Gregg, himself an ocean pioneer in the technology of sea-floor exploration, where he made enough money to follow a dream. Gregg spent decades looking for the Western Flyer after being smitten by Steinbeck’s books and the mystique of Monterey Bay when he was growing up in Georgia, of all places. Finally, in 2011, he found out she had morphed into Gemini and more detective work led him to her current owner, who was starting to weaken in his enthusiasm for the Flyer as a roadside attraction. Gregg made an offer the man couldn’t refuse, and is now rebuilding her with a few modern refinements to perform meaningful scientific research and serve as an inspirational ambassador for ocean awareness.

John Gregg paid a million dollars for the rotting hulk of the Western Flyer and brought her to Port Townsend’s Shipwrights Co-op for restoration under Chris Chase’s direction. A crew of men and women, for whom working on the Flyer will be an indelible memory, lifted off the deckhouse and painstakingly removed all the tired wood of the hull, leaving only the original interior keel, that sixty-four-foot piece of old-growth Douglas fir, and a few other timbers. Port Townsend is a mecca for shipwrights, particularly those who want to work on wooden boats, so plenty of skilled craftsmen and women are there to do the job. Chase’s biggest challenge has been finding the wood he needed to rebuild the boat.

“When Petrich built the Western Flyer, he used straight-grained, old growth Douglas fir that was still plentiful in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. In just the span of a single human lifetime, that kind of wood is just about gone. There aren’t ten trees between here and Portland that I’d put in a boat like the Flyer,” Chase said. He found the fir and yellow cedar he needed in Canada, and went all the way to a horse-logging forest preserve in Kentucky for the oak to bend the ribs, and to South America for sustainably-produced mahogany and purple heart for the stem, stern, and deck.

Finger pointing at white spots on a wooden surface

“I’ll never forget the day we took the last planks off the starboard bow,” Chase said. “I thought to myself, ‘We’re replacing ninety or ninety-five percent of the original hull, maybe forty percent of the deckhouse. Is this boat still the Western Flyer?’ Some people say the keel of a boat is its soul. We have big ceremonies when keels are laid, the keel holds the boat together. But even though the Flyer’s original interior keel is intact, I think the soul of this boat is created by the people who sail in her, and who will sail in her again. John and I and everybody who loves the Western Flyer see her as a way to connect us to the past to create a meaningful, hopeful future for the ocean.”

Ed Ricketts died in April, 1948, when a train hit his stalled car at a railroad crossing. His life and work inspired not only several of Steinbeck’s later novels but generations of marine biologists, many of whom refer to themselves as “Ed Heads.” John Steinbeck authored thirty-three books and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. He died in 1968. The Western Flyer is still alive and will leave Port Townsend for her home port of Monterey in 2021. She will sail on scientific and educational expeditions for the foreseeable future.

Brad Matsen is an Ed Head, former editor of National Fisherman and the author of many books, magazine articles, and films about the sea and its inhabitants.