It’s been a long journey for the apparently indomitable Western Flyer, but the old seiner from Tacoma, Wash., is back in action.
After a massive rebuild at Port Townsend Shipwrights Cooperative, Wash., a repowering at Snow & Company, Everett, Wash., and a rough passage from Everett to Moss Landing, Calif., Captain Paul Tate finally docked the 86-year-old Western Flyer in her old port of Monterey on November 4 amid much fanfare and celebration.
John Gregg, owner of a successful geotechnical sampling business, bought the neglected 77-foot seiner for $1 million in 2015 with the idea of using the vessel for education and research. Although at the time the boat was in a state of disrepair and had sunk several times, Gregg was buying more than rotten wood and corroded fastenings. Having been inspired as a young boy reading about the vessel’s storied past, Gregg bought the boat for its significance as a symbol of citizen science and its role in the history of environmental conservation.
In 2015, the Western Flyer could have fairly been called a hulk – any other boat like it would have been left to rot in some tidal creek. But this one had a rich story. In 1940, American author John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, chartered the vessel for a landmark six-week journey to the Gulf of California to study the coastal environment there. The two men collected thousands of marine specimens and together wrote Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, published by Viking Press in 1941, and considered to be one of the first accounts of the region’s rich marine environment. Steinbeck later immortalized the expedition in his narrative, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, published in 1951 after the death of Ricketts. The books became widely known for raising public awareness of conservation in the region.
The Western Flyer had been chartered for other research, but the Western Boat Company in Tacoma built the vessel in 1937 to fish. After its foray to Mexico, the Western Flyer returned to the sardine fishery in Monterey, Calif. It was later converted for trawling in fisheries from Oregon to British Columbia, and for crabbing as far north as Alaska. In need of major repairs, the vessel was lying idle in Anacortes, Wash. for a number of years until Gregg bought the boat and founded the Western Flyer Foundation, which garnered support for the eight-year restoration project.
Rebuilt as a research vessel, the new mission of the Western Flyer is to excite curiosity and to once again blend art and science, including fisheries science. The foundation has its headquarters in Moss Landing, Calif.