Work begins again on Western Flyer; boat once used by author John Steinbeck eyed for education
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The restoration of the Western Flyer has begun, with Mike York of Seattle, hired by the boat’s new owner, inspecting the project Tuesday. — Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — After 18 months of inactivity, rehabilitation of a derelict boat once used by author John Steinbeck has resumed.

The work on the Western Flyer at the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven has been started by John Gregg of California.

He expects to close the purchase of the Western Flyer from Gerry Kehoe next month.

Kehoe, a Salinas, Calif., businessman, had planned to disassemble the boat and ship it to his hometown, Steinbeck’s birthplace, where he would reassemble it as a dry land restaurant.

Gregg, a geologist who owns a drilling company, plans to restore the boat to be seaworthy.

Once it is completed, Gregg expects the vessel to be sailed to Monterey Bay in California for use as an educational center.

“I don’t want to use this for harbor cruises and whale watching and . . . for the tourist trade,” Gregg said.

“I want to keep it more as an educational vessel, maybe part of an ambassador program where it visits harbors and ports all along the west coast.”

Gregg said he expects to spend about $2 million of his own money for the purchase and renovation of the boat. He declined to say how much of that was the purchase price.

He doesn’t have a firm schedule or timeline but expects it could be two years before repairs are finished and the boat is moved to Monterey.

“We don’t have a lot of firm plans,” Gregg said.

“Once we get there, I hope we are connected with someone who has the infrastructure to support this.”

Initially, Gregg had planned to have the boat repaired at a Monterey boat yard, but he changed his mind after visiting Port Townsend.

“I saw people with chisels and hand tools and loads of knowledge, and it was clear to me that Port Townsend was the right place to do this,” he said.

Gregg has hired Mark Stout of Scow Bay Boats of Port Townsend, saying he will draw from the local talent pool to conduct the repairs.

Stout, who has repaired wooden boats for 30 years, perceives this as just another job.

“It’s what goes on around here all the time,” Stout said.

He compared the work to that done to the tall ship Adventuress, which is based in Port Townsend. Sound Experience, which owns the Adventuress, refurbished the ship for its centennial.

The difference is only that “we are starting from scratch, where they worked it as a long-term project,” Stout said.

He said the repair plan “is just starting to unfold.”

Gregg said the vessel will be restored to as close to its origins as possible, although with modern navigation equipment and a hybrid diesel-electric engine added.

He said the interior of the boat isn’t as dilapidated as the outside suggests.

The 72-foot vessel was built by Tacoma’s Western Boat Building Co. in 1937.

In 1940, it was chartered by Steinbeck and a friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, for a six-week expedition to Mexico’s Gulf of California.

That trip provided the blueprint for Steinbeck’s 1951 book The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Ricketts became the model for the character of Doc in Steinbeck’s 1945 Cannery Row.

Steinbeck, who died in 1968, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. His novel The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Kehoe purchased the Western Flyer for an undisclosed price in 2010 when it was moored in Skagit County.

It sank twice and had to be refloated before it was brought to Port Townsend for repairs in July 2013.

While the boat sat in the yard, Kehoe paid nearly $50,000 in rent to the port and paid a $25,000 derelict-boat deposit, according to Jim Pivarnik, port deputy director.

The deposit will be returned to Kehoe as part of the sale, said Gregg, who will then pay his own deposit.

When the Western Flyer was moved into the Boat Haven in 2013, Kevin Bailey, a Seattle author working on a book about the boat, said estimates of repair and restoration fell between $700,000 and $1 million, with an additional maintenance cost of $100,000 per year.

“There are a lot of people who want to restore the boat, but they are all kind of dreamers,” Bailey said.

“They see this old boat, they see its value and want to do something, but they don’t realize the cost of the maintenance and the tremendous amount of energy that it will take to accomplish this.”

Pivarnik said he’s pleased Gregg has stepped in.

“This is like having someone who could fix the Kalakala but with money,” he said, referring to the vintage ferry that was scrapped last month,

“He’s not a dreamer. He has a vision, and it’s really exciting.”

Peter Quinn, co-owner of The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, said Steinbeck’s writing is an important historical resource and the Western Flyer’s connection to him has value.

“There are two books that started creating ecological awareness in this country: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck,” Quinn said.

“[Cortez] was a really important piece that got to a lot of people.

“To know that you are on the same deck as Steinbeck, as Doc Ricketts, adds to the poetry of the situation.”


Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or

Last modified: February 24. 2015 7:42PM
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