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Steinbeck Vessel To Be Refloated By New Owner And Northwest Shipwrights

Tom Banse
File image - The Western Flyer currently rests in dry storage at the Port of Port Townsend, Wash.

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, the 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 new owner is a Steinbeck fan and businessman from southern California. John Gregg says he changed his mind about barging the mud-caked boat to California for restoration after visiting it in Port Townsend, Washington. The historic vessel is currently propped up on blocks in dry storage at the Port of Port Townsend. 

"Guys were working with hand tools and caulking boats," observed Gregg 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." 

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

The new owner estimates 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," explained Gregg. "I identified with the adventure and science." 

Gregg, 53, 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 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 an original owner of the Western Flyer before it became a literary icon. 

“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 wrote.

Editor's Note: A prior version of this story said Kehoe once planned to cut the boat into pieces and display restored portions in a nautical-themed restaurant instead of the lobby of a boutique hotel. It has been corrected.

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.