Boat associated with John Steinbeck getting $2 million renovation in Port Townsend
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The Western Flyer, associated with the acclaimed late author John Steinbeck (inset), is now under renovation indoors at the Shipwrights Co-op in Port Townsend and is viewable when the doors are open. —Main photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — The Western Flyer is about to be uncloaked.

Three months after the beginning of a $2 million renovation to transform the battered hulk of a boat once used by author John Steinbeck into a floating science center, those working on the project are lifting the shroud of secrecy and allowing the public to look but not touch.

“There have been no surprises on this project so far,” said Shipwrights Co-op member Chris Chase, who with Tim Lee is overseeing renovation expected to take 2½ years.

“The biggest surprise is the level of public interest,” he said.

“Ten to 12 people a day come here asking questions about the boat and wanting to take a tour.”

The 72-foot vessel sat in the Boat Yard for more than two years, where it drew curiosity seekers and national media attention before the renovation project began and it was moved inside behind closed doors.

The curiosity continues and is now to be satisfied by an increased public profile.

As the work progresses, the doors of the shop at 919 Haines Place will remain open, with onlookers allowed to peek in and take pictures, although “behind a velvet rope,” Chase said.

The access will increase during the Wooden Boat Festival, scheduled Sept. 11-13, when visitors can wander through the shop, ask questions and see demonstrations, although they will not be allowed on board.

Throughout the expected duration of the project, Chase hopes to accommodate curiosity-seekers and Steinbeck fans.

The vessel, built by Tacoma’s Western Boat Building Co. in 1937, went through several owners — serving for a while as a fishing boat on the Bering Sea — and sank twice before California entrepreneur Gerry Kehoe purchased it, hoping to turn it into a tourist attraction in Salinas, Calif.

At the time of the purchase, the vessel was submerged near Anacortes and had to be raised twice before repairs were considered, Kehoe said.

Kehoe moved the boat into the Boat Haven in 2013 and spent an estimated $50,000 in rent before selling the vessel earlier this year to John Gregg, who launched the renovation.

In the spring, it was moved into the Shipwrights Co-op building, where preparation for the restoration took place.

The actual process began two weeks ago.

Chase said his crew has spent the past few months measuring all of the thicknesses and widths of the rotted planking to find replacements for the wood used in the original vessel.

Construction began by replacing the most-rotted sections of the hull, with plans to “take this apart and put it back together,” Chase said.

The project will employ about 15 people full time and “is a great economic punch for the community,” Chase said.

When the finished boat is launched into the water and heads toward its expected Monterey Bay destination, it will be about 75 percent new, Chase said, with materials matched to those in the original construction.

“All of the materials used will be the same as in 1940,” Chase said.

“We will still have Douglas fir planks on an oak frame, and we will restore the house to its original state.”

The pilot house, Chase said, is well-preserved “and looks like they just walked away from it a month ago, even though it was underwater for two years.”

While maintaining the authentic appearance, the operational aspect will be modern, installing state-of-the-art navigational equipment along with an electric propulsion system and a diesel generator to replace the original diesel engines.

Chase said the expectation for the vessel is for it to become “a working educational science platform” that will take eight-hour day trips from Monterey Bay that will carry about 32 people.

The house can sleep about nine people and will be restored to its original layout, but there probably won’t be a lot of overnight trips, Chase said.

Even so, it will provide historical perspective.

“This is where Carol Steinbeck slept,” Chase said, pointing to the front sleeping cabin, then to the one adjacent.

“Steinbeck slept in here because they were mad at each other during the trip.”

Chase is referring to a 1940 voyage when the vessel 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 novel Cannery Row.

Chase said the enthusiasm for the vessel originates from Steinbeck, although Ricketts’ marine biology work draws its share of onlookers.

Chase said he appreciates Steinbeck’s writing but that his reward comes from a different place.

“I am a Steinbeck enthusiast, but I’m also a wooden boat enthusiast,” Chase said.

“The thrill for me is that I get to build a big boat pretty much from scratch.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 25. 2015 6:05PM
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