Sitting in the pilot house of the Western Flyer, the fishing boat that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took down to the Sea of Cortez, shipwright Pete Rust is surrounded by history.
He also is surrounded by a quandary.
“The difficult thing I’m doing right now is trying to figure out how to remove the house from the boat without damaging it and without losing the original shape,” said Rust, a member of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, which is restoring the historic boat.
The goal is to take the house off the boat and frame it on the floor to rebuild and restore it. But Rust has to figure out how to do that without the structure collapsing in on itself.
As he works to remove parts of the boat that were added after it was built, sawdust floats in the air, illuminated by streams of light coming in through holes in the wooden boat.
“The main hull structure is pretty deteriorated, so we’re forced to rebuild that stuff for strength reasons,” Rust said. “The boat needs to function on the water. This house, on the other hand, is more about historical preservation, trying to save as much of the original character in here as possible.”
It is in that house that literary giant Steinbeck and world-renowned marine biologist Ricketts once lived, breathed and penned their famous book, “Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.”
The Western Flyer Foundation, headed by boat owner John Gregg, aims to have the Western Flyer on the water by 2020 and making trips along the west coast by 2021. After it received a federal maritime heritage grant, the 2-year-old foundation has strengthened its organization and picked up the pace on restoration. The long-term vision is to create free at-sea learning experiences for school children from Alaska to Mexico.
“Driving a lot of the project is what the board is asking the boat to do,” said Chris Chase, a shipwright and member of the Western Flyer Foundation. “If we were going to idly sit at the dock, it would be one set of restoration parameters. But since we’re asking it to go up and down the west coast, traveling open ocean, it’s really driving a deeper look at the structure of the boat, the integrity, but balancing that with saving the original DNA.”
Built in Tacoma in 1937, the Western Flyer was used to fish for sardines out of Monterey, California. That’s where it encountered Steinbeck and Ricketts. In 1940, the pair took the boat for a six-week tour of the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), between Baja California and the Mexican mainland.
After that trip, the boat was passed from owner to owner, and then left to sink in the Swinomish Channel near La Conner. Hauled out and brought to Port Townsend in 2013, every inch was covered in barnacles.
“Sinking didn’t do the boat any good,” Chase said. “It’s made everything so fragile.”
But with the barnacles scraped off, new deck beams being painted bright white, and the beginning stages of rebuilding the stern and keel in process, the boat looks on its way to becoming a historical yet fully functional masterpiece.
“This boat is probably the first one I’ve worked on that’s had the association with a famous author and a famous marine biologist,” Rust said. “We’ve worked on a lot of boats that had been fishing for many years, but that aspect is quite unique to this project alone.”
Not only is the association with Steinbeck and Ricketts exciting, but for boatbuilders like Rust and Chase, the appreciation for the craft of wooden boat building is one they share with Steinbeck, who wrote about it in “The Sea of Cortez.”
“I think for what Pete and I do for a living, and what all these other guys do, those first three chapters of the log speak really deeply to us,” Chase said. “It’s all about the beauty of the wooden boat, the beauty of human creation.”