Despite pandemic, work continues on Western Flyer | Working Waterfront

Nick Twietmeyer ntwietmeyer@ptleader.com
Posted 8/29/20

The boat upon which a tale is set often serves as much a role in the story as the other more-animated cast of characters.

Melville’s ill-fated Pequod, Stephen Crane’s SS Commodore in …

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Despite pandemic, work continues on Western Flyer | Working Waterfront

Tim Lee and Pete Rust survey the work below deck aboard the Western Flyer at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op.
Tim Lee and Pete Rust survey the work below deck aboard the Western Flyer at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op.
Leader photo by Nick Twietmeyer
Posted

The boat upon which a tale is set often serves as much a role in the story as the other more-animated cast of characters.

Melville’s ill-fated Pequod, Stephen Crane’s SS Commodore in “The Open Boat,” and the rowboat commandeered by Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson during the 1970 America’s Cup race, just to name a few.

But what happens when the story ends? What becomes of the boats of nonfiction after the ink has dried? In the case of the Western Flyer, the conclusion of the expedition featured in John Steinbeck’s “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” was only the beginning of this storied vessel’s life, death and hopefully rebirth.

When Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts tapped the Western Flyer and her crew to be their primary transport for an expedition down the Gulf of California, the mighty 77-foot fishing vessel was still just in its infancy. Constructed in 1937 by the Tacoma-based Western Boat Building Company, the Western Flyer was designed as a fishing vessel, and fish it most certainly would.

Captained by Tony Berry, the Flyer faithfully carried Steinbeck, Ricketts and their crew some 4,000 miles on the journey from Monterey, CA down along the gulf of California as the pair collected specimens along the way, before returning home to San Diego in April 1940.

After returning from the expedition, the Flyer returned to its previous duty as a fishing vessel, falling into an obscurity of sorts after it changed hands from the original captain. It wasn’t until 1986 that it was rediscovered, operating in Anacortes as a commercial fishing boat.

Unfortunately in 2012 the Flyer sprung a leak and sank and needed to be refloated. The boat sank again in 2013 before being brought to Port Townsend to undergo some much needed repairs. In 2015 the boat was acquired by marine geologist John Gregg and shortly thereafter, Gregg founded the Western Flyer Foundation, for which he serves as president. 

Steinbeck’s writings on his journey aboard the Western Flyer are often credited with galvanizing the early disciplines of ecology and environmental stewardship, laying a foundation for generations of scientists to come. It is with this impact on the scientific community at heart that the Western Flyer Foundation intends to breathe new life into the boat, that it may once again carry its crew in the pursuit of knowledge.

Charged with leading the restoration efforts of the Western Flyer are Tim Lee and Pete Rust of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op. Between the two are some 56 years of hands-on experience repairing, constructing, renovating and maintaining wooden boats.

“This time last year, we were framing. There had been some structural work, some of the deck beams were put in, some of the longitudinal stringers, and some of the prep work for what was going to happen when we reframed, had been already done,” Lee said.

According to the shipwrights, they and their crew have been working steadily since January 2019. Work had been done prior to that, though spotty funding at the outset caused initial progress to be intermittent.

“It would be very intermittent and with a really small crew,” Rust said of the early work. “Their startup money was really slow coming in.”

Once the group had removed the cabin from the boat in order to get access to the decking beneath, the crew at the co-op really began to sink their teeth into the project. That is, until a pandemic threw a wrench into the works.

Progress on the Western Flyer was chugging right along, Lee said, with consistent crews of eight to 10 staff working at any given time, now the project has been forced to drop down to about half its previous staffing.   

“With coronavirus we’re down to a crew of four, just to keep the expenditures down until we see if we’re into the Great Depression or not,” Lee said before lamenting the fact that because of the pandemic, the project also couldn’t open its doors to visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the historic boat, something he said he hoped would change as restrictions begin to loosen.

As is often the case in any wooden boat restoration, shipwrights working to repair one thing will find new problems in a different area of the boat.

The Western Flyer was no exception, after having sunk twice and being left to sit in a slough for several months, the boat was in dire need of some love.

“It was challenging in the beginning to kind of work around so much dirty old rotten boat; getting the old wood out without the boat falling apart.” Rust said of the endeavor.

According to Lee and Rust, the initial plan was to preserve as much of the original wood as possible, but it soon became apparent that their focus on a historical preservation of the Western Flyer was becoming an increasingly tall order. After a decision was made by the foundation to return the boat to a serviceable condition, the shipwrights instead began to focus on replacing the rotten frames, planking, beams and other critical pieces necessary to guarantee the vessel would once again be sufficiently seaworthy for sailing in open waters.    

“The boat had to be safe,” Lee said. “That trumped trying to save these old beams. You’re taking people out onto the ocean.”

As for the question of how long it may be before the Western Flyer can launch again, Lee said too many variables are currently in the way to accurately forecast a completion date.

However, Lee noted, the work never truly ends with a wooden boat.    

“[John Gregg] told me that he hopes we work on it until we retire,” Lee chuckled. “Because as soon as it goes into the water, it starts needing maintenance.”

The Western Flyer Foundation is a 501 c3 nonprofit established with the goal of restoring the boat in hopes of offering outreach and education to under-served communities along the West Coast. To learn more or donate to the Western Flyer Foundation, visit westernflyer.org

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