Port Townsend bids farewell to Western Flyer

Posted 7/8/22

Croatian lavender, 20 million-year-old shark teeth, and the “Western Flyer.”

All three went into the water last Wednesday as a crowd of more than 200 gathered at Boat Haven to see …

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Port Townsend bids farewell to Western Flyer


Croatian lavender, 20 million-year-old shark teeth, and the “Western Flyer.”

All three went into the water last Wednesday as a crowd of more than
200 gathered at Boat Haven to see the fishing boat — made famous by literary great John Steinbeck — was reunited with the sea after a nine-year restoration effort at the Port Townsend boatyard.

The appreciative crowd at Boat Haven swelled from a few dozen as the 76-foot purse seiner, originally built in 1937 by the Western Boat Building Company, was rolled out from the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op’s boat shop on 10 large steel rollers, pulled by a bulldozer inch-by-inch to where the Port of Port Townsend’s 300-ton Marine Travelift could reach it.

With three horn blasts, the Travelift slowly began to creep toward the water with the Western Flyer as the crowd cheered.

“Welcome to this unbelievable day,” Chris Chase, the project director for the restoration effort, told the large group of shipwrights, boatyard workers, gathered by the boat launch. Also in the audience, dozens of members of the Petrich family; grandchildren, nieces, nephews of Martin Petrich, founder of the Western Boat Building Company where the Western Flyer was built in Tacoma in 1937.

Chase thanked the craftsmen and cast of hundreds of locals who brought the fishing boat back to life, from the Shiprights Co-op to the guys milling wood at Edensaw.

“This is once in a lifetime to the men and women who have worked on it. It is incredible,” Chase said.

Chase was present when the vessel was brought ashore in Port Townsend in July 2013, covered in barnacles inside and out. 

Purchased by John Gregg for about $1 million, the Western Flyer earned fame as the fishing vessel chartered by Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts in 1940 for a six-week expedition to collect sea life in the Gulf of California. It was a journey that led to the nonfiction book “Sea of Cortez” by the pair in 1941 and “The Log from the Cortez” by Steinbeck in 1951.

Chase recounted the Western Flyer’s life in and out of the water, going back to when a new owner purchased the boat and stripped its notable name from the hull.

“It had its name changed to the ‘Gemini’ in the 1960s. And that’s when all its trouble really happened. It sank three times as the Gemini,” Chase said, adding that the boat  would finally return to the sea with its original name.

The Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op took over the restoration effort in June 2015, and the boat will eventually be used as a state-of-the-art marine research vessel with at-sea experiential learning programs for school children.

Chase told the crowd that tradition dictated changing the boat’s name and a blessing must happen before the Western Flyer touched the water.

“Once Neptune gets its hands on the boat, it’s Neptune’s boat. We don’t want any mishap,” he said.

Before that, Chase repeatedly thanked the shipwrights and others involved in the restoration project.

The boat was brought to Port Townsend, Washington, on July 4, 2013, Chase recalled, and hauled out the next day.

“I mean, nine years in Port Townsend, Washington,” Chase said. “It’s an 85-year-old boat. That’s like 12 percent of its life has been in Port Townsend. This boat will always, always — a chapter of this story — will always be Port Townsend.”

“Of course, Steinbeck. Ricketts. Monterey. Fishing. Alaska,” he added. “But Port Townsend will always be a chapter in the story of this boat.”

Bringing what’s been billed as the most famous fishing boat in the world back to its former glory came with a cost; earlier estimates put the cost at roughly $2 million.

The restoration has been a community project, Chase said, noting that donors have come from far and wide, from up and down the West Coast.

Chase recalled how Gregg, founder of the Western Flyer Foundation, decided to purchase the boat.

That was after it’s life as a salmon tender in Alaska in the 1970s, a purchase by a California real estate developer who wanted to use the boat as a decoration for a cafe that would be part of a new hotel, and the following year, it sank twice near Anacortes in 2012. It was raised the following year and brought to Port Townsend.

Two years later, Gregg bought the boat.

“He got a wild idea; he had been inspired by this story, ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez,’” Chase recalled. “And he bought this boat, a little bit of a whim, a little bit of a crazy idea. He might wonder what he was doing at the time.

“But he had a vision to turn it into an educational research platform built on the backbone of a historically significant vessel. And that is what is here today.

You are looking at an awful lot of new wood. But there are some real original bones deep inside this boat,” Chase said.

Gregg “has been a true champion of this boat from Day 1,” Chase added.

Members of the Petrich family then stepped forward for the renaming ceremony.

One quoted Steinbeck from “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”: “A man builds the best of himself into a boat — builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors.”

Joe Petrich, a boatbuilder and the grandson of Martin Petrich, took on the role of Poseidon for the renaming ceremony, prompting laughter from the crowd as he approached the bow of the Western Flyer holding a plastic trident.

“I well remember the day the Western Flyer first touched my waters at Western Boat Building Company. She was a sound, yar vessel,” he said. 

“Well-suited to life at sea. She fished the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Later she changed hands and was renamed the Gemini. And fished in Alaska and Puget Sound.”

“I didn’t like that name much, so, thus the three sinkings,” Petrich said, referencing its mishaps near Anacortes and earlier, when it hit a reef in Alaska in the early 1970s.

“I was sad to see her wallowing in the mud of the Swinomish Slough, covered with barnacles, bullwarks sagging, slowly dying. Today you are all here today to celebrate the work you have done to return her to my kingdom, the kingdom of the sea,” Petrich continued, speaking as Poseidon.

“So I ask you, speak out and answer me now, have you purged all traces of her old name, Gemini?”

The crowd responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“What do you propose to return her to?”

“Western Flyer!” they shouted.

Nora Petrich of Port Townsend then led the well-wishers in a call to the rulers of the four winds, and wine was splashed on the hull of the boat.

The Rev. Perry Petrich, a Jesuit priest and the great-grandson of Martin Petrich, then led a blessing of the Western Flyer.

The ceremony was temporary interrupted by a fawnequin great Dane that walked out from the crowd. The dog wandered up to the front of the boat launch, stood next to Petrich, and started drinking from an open plastic container holding the Holy Water.

“That is the holiest dog!” Petrich said as onlookers erupted in laughs.

Prayers were shared and and Croatian lavender, from shipwrights who had helped restore the boat, was tossed into the water.

In another nod to superstitions of the sea, Gregg encouraged everyone to grab a small fossilized shark tooth from a small cloth bag to toss into the water around the Western Flyer. The vessel was then slowly lowered into the water as cheers erupted.

The boat was towed from Port Townsend Thursday to Seattle by the tugboat Red Bluff, where the Western Flyer will be fitted with an engine and have other work done before it is taken to its eventual home in California.