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Former Steinbeck Boat in Limbo in Dry Storage in Port Townsend

Anne Shaffer

The Port of Port Townsend 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 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 went to the scene to research a forthcoming book about the Western Flyer and its historical context. He says the purse seiner is by all accounts unseaworthy now.

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

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/restaurant complex. But that's an expensive proposition—so expensive author Bailey predicts the historic boat will be carved up into pieces.

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. 

The boat's current owner, developer Gerry Kehoe, could not be reached Friday to elaborate on his transport and restoration plans.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.