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Steinbeck’s Boat the “Western Flyer” Will Voyage Again for Science

The $1 million boat will see the water once again as an updated research vessel

John Steinbeck (Bettmann/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Geologist and Californian businessman John Gregg bought a boat this year for $1 million, even though he says the vessel "is arguably worth nothing," reports Kirk Johnson for The New York Times. But many disagree. 

Gregg's new boat is the Western Flyer, the sardine fishing boat that John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts sailed from California to Mexico in 1940. Their journey was recounted in the part travelog, part scientific catalog, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, making the boat part of literary history.

Now, 75 years after this voyage, the Western Flyer is getting a second life. The vessel shows its age and rough ventures—sinking at least three times and running aground in Alaska in 1971—and was in dry dock when Gregg bought it. He plans to put an estimated additional $2 million to refit the vessel so it can contribute once again to science and education, writes Johnson.

The original voyage was born of necessity of both author and biologist—they needed a change of pace. Steinbeck was dealing with controversy following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, while Ricketts was grappling with relationship difficulties, reports Patrick Hutchinson for Seattle Weekly

The pair hired a crew and set out to collect marine specimens for Ricketts, who owned a Monterey lab that sold such prizes to schools. They started in Monterey and traveled down the coast, around the peninsula of Baja California to the bay also known as the Sea of Cortez. There, they collected brittle stars, sea urchins, fish and more amid tide pools. They visited with locals and worked on the Western Flyer, battling her ever-troublesome engine.

Steinbeck's book was published in 1951, more than 10 years after the voyage and the publication of the duo's original and largely unsuccessful account of the venture. Rickett's and Steinbeck's original version included a catalog of the marine creatures, making it a boon to students of marine science. The books even inspired a more recent voyage to compare the more current fauna with the teeming pools of Steinbeck's time.

Gregg hopes to keep many of the historical details of the ship, including the deck's 1937-era head (or bathroom). The new additions will include a modern bathroom below deck, a remote-controlled research submarine, a science lab and an electric motor system with batteries and backup generators. Since the new propulsion system will weigh significantly less than the original, the refit requires addition of tons of weight to the vessel to keep it balanced in the water. 

The boat has touched many lives in its long history. After hearing of the restoration, Alaskan Jim Herbert volunteered a piece of steering gear he held on to because of the boat’s connection to Steinbeck. Other people came forward with memories and photos of their own time spent with the Flyer. 

As a fishing boat, the Western Flyer may be worthless. But its past and now its future as a research boat prove that the vessel is full of value.

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