From sardine seiner to fisheries research, the Western Flyer continues to contribute to the industry

The average commercial fishing vessel in the U.S. North Pacific fleet is over 40 years old, and most have been repowered. Launched in 1937, the 77-foot Western Flyer is older than most, and while no longer actively fishing, the former sardine seiner is still in the game as a fisheries research vessel.

“I’ve been living with the Western flyer for the past eight years,” says Chris Chase, who has overseen the conversion for the Western Flyer Foundation, established by successful engineer and geologist, John Gregg. The heavy work began with rebuilding the hull at the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-op, in Port Townsend, Washington. Towed across Puget Sound in 2022, the Western Flyer is now in the repowering stage at Snow & Company in Everett, Wash.

“It originally had 160-hp, six-cylinder Atlas, that was replaced with a Cat around 1951,” says Chase. “We took a Detroit 12-71 out and from what we know, that was one of four 12-71s that had been in the boat since the 1960s.”

In late November of 2022, the crew at Snow & Co. was still preparing the engine rool to receive the John Deere main engine, hybrid system and genset. Paul Molyneaux photo.

Chase does not have the details on the Cat, but the original Atlas was a popular engine in its time. “We don’t have a picture of the original, but Eric Rasmussen, who is the most hands-on person on the repower project has a 4-cylinder Atlas in his boat.”

Brett Snow, president of Snow & Company, notes that the Atlas engines were manufactured in Oakland, Calif., in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and were shipped all over the world. “They were slow turning, low horsepower engines,” says Snow. “They were efficient for those times.”

The Atlas engines of that era had no gear or clutch and ran straight off the engine. In order to put them into reverse, the engineer would slow the engine enough to engage a lever that shifted the camshaft to a new set of lobes designed to run the engine backwards, and then restart the engine in reverse.

The new engine is a John Deere 6135 AFM85, turbo charged in-line 6 delivering 425-hp,with a hybrid electric system.

The Western Flyer was built as a fishing vessel, but gained fame when American author John Steinbeck, and marine biologist Ed Ricketts, chartered it in 1940 for a research trip to Mexico that is chronicled in Steinbeck’s “Logbook of the Sea of Cortez”

“We can look at the fisheries over time,” says Chase, regarding the Western Flyer’s future research. “Steinbeck and Ricketts drew a line in the sand back in 1940, regarding the health of some of these fisheries. We can look that, and then look these same fisheries now, and see the change.” Chase notes that the vessel was also chartered for a West Coast halibut survey in 1965.

For the first time it’s history of being repowered, the Western Flyer is being converted into a diesel-electric hybrid. “They’re dropping a Transfluid gear in between the engine and the 5:1 Twin Disc gear,” says Chase. “It’s about 5-feet high, by 30-inches by 35-inches. The gear itself is 27 inches between the engine and the gear. The John Deere will drive power through the Transfluid gear to the Twin Disc, but the same clutch can grab the shaft and run off the two 50kW electric motors.”

Lowering the Transfluid gear into the engine room where Eric Rasmussen will bolt it to the main on one end, then connect the Twin Disc gear and shaft on the other. PTOs will run the hydraulics on both the Transfluid and Twin Disc gears. Chris Chase photo.

Chase notes that the motors are also generators. “When the engine is running, you can run the motors as generators and charge the batteries.”

The batteries, according to Transfluid outside sale representative, Josh Welborn, are Transfluid’s own lithium, iron, phosphate modules. “There will be six of them,” says Welborn. “Together they weigh 1380 kilos (3,000 pounds) and each one is  955 by 699 by 352-millimeters (38.2 x 28 x 14.1- inches).”

While the gear itself, and the controls, were air freighted to Washington, the batteries are coming by ship. “You can’t put lithium batteries on a plane,” was Welborn. “Even if we could the weight would be cost prohibitive.” The ship will offload the batteries in Savannah, Ga., and from there they will be trucked to Everett.

The Transfluid gear fits between the engine and Twin Disc gear, enabling the Western Flyer to run on diesel or electric. When running on diesel, the electric motors run backwards as generators and charge the batteries. Chris Chase photo.

Welborn notes that the Transfluid system is large enough to cover the low end of the power demands of the vessel. “It will extend the life of the diesel,” he says. “At the same time we will harness the mid-range of the engine, when it’s making excess power, to recharge the batteries so you won’t have range  anxiety, or be dependent on getting back to the dock to recharge from the grid.”

The gear and motors are more than ample for the Western Flyer’s engine horsepower. “We’re installing our HM-3350 system,” says Welborn. “That number represents the maximum throughput torque on the gear. The peak torque on the engine is well below the peak torque on the gear, so that will never come close to hurting anything and it will extend the life of the bearings.”

“We wanted station keeping capacity,” says Chase. “If we’re doing research and we want to stay in place and silent we can do that for about five hours, depending.”

Chase notes that another key goal of having a high-end system is to demonstrate it’s effectiveness. “We want to show fishermen and others that this works,” he says. “You have to look at engine maintenance and replacement cost over time. A $200,000 investment now, and it reduces wear and tear on your engine so you’re not replacing it every six year.”

Getting all the pieces lined up, the main engine, a 425-hp, V-6, John Deere 6135 AFM85 on its bed, and the Twin Disc, 5:1 gear await the Transfluid gear that will link them together. Chris Chase photo.

Chase notes that because of the generator capacity of the Transfluid motors, they were able to reduce the size of the genset from 99 to 28kW. “So we’re able to run it at 80 percent efficiency instead of 20 (percent),” he says.

“It’s an old wooden boat combined with modern equipment,” says Brett Snow.  “The hybrid system, for example. We had to wait a long time for it, but having a hybrid drive train makes this boat different”

In addition, Snow notes that the conversion on the Western Flyer includes an extensive hydraulics system driven in part off the Twin Disc and in part off the Transfluid gear.

“That will run the bow thruster, which is new, as well as all the deck equipment,” he says, noting that with hydraulics running off the Transfluid gear and the Twin Disc the vessel can be fully operational on electric power. “They have a reel for the a submersible, and a rig and couple of 5-ton winches for lifting that aboard. It’s all more complicated than it used to be.”

There are little things too, like a dripless stuffing box. “We didn’t do that,” says Snow. “All the shafting was done in Port Townsend.”

Snow expects the Western Flyer to head to Moss Landing, California, in May under it’s own power. The vessel will have its scientific equipment installed in Moss Landing, and at this point is expected to be ready for service in late 2023. “We’re very proud to have been a part of this,” says Snow. 

Ready to go as soon as it can leave Snow & Co. in Everett, Washington under its own power the 77-foot Western Flyer, has its nose pointed handsome out to sea. Paul Molyneaux photo.

A table comparing the Western Flyer's original Atlas main engine to its latest John Deere upgrade.

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Paul Molyneaux is the Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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