The 85-year-old sardine seiner, Western Flyer, is re-launched after a massive rebuild

After a seven-year rebuild at the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-op, the Western Flyer, splashed again on June 29 of this year. Originally built in Tacoma and launched in 1937 as a state-of-the-art purse seiner for the Monterey sardine fishery, the 77-foot Western Flyer quickly became a highliner.

“It’s probably the most famous fishing boat in the world,” says the Co-op’s Tim Lee. “But for lots of different reasons.”

For many people the Western Flyer is an almost mythological boat, not because of its success landing sardines, but because in the summer of 1940, writer John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Rickets chartered the boat for a six-week cruise to Mexico that became the basis for Steinbeck’s book, Log of the Sea of Cortez.

With funding from John Gregg’s Western Flyer Foundation, Lee, Pete Rust and the team at the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-op took the boat apart piece by piece and painstakingly rebuilt it.

“The wheelhouse was incredibly intact,” says Lee. “But of the original hull, there are 17 pieces left, including the keelson, which is 70 feet long. We were joking that all that remained of the original was the shape, and we had to work on that because the boat was all twisted.”

Working with a small team at first and down to a skeleton crew of four during the covid pandemic, Lee and Rust slowly brought the boat back to life.

“Then this spring they got some grant money to do a lot of the finish work down in California, and they want to have the boat down in Mexico in March 2023 for the anniversary of the Sea of Cortez trip, so in the last two months we kept putting people on until we had 23 people working on it for the last pay period.”

According to Lee, the massive project entailed steaming oak ribs into place, re-planking the entire hull, and caulking with nearly 200 pounds of cotton and oakum. They then repainted the hull an off-white with a red bottom and slid her into the water at Port Townsend. Afloat again, the boat was towed across Puget Sound to Snow & Company Boatbuilding to have the power train installed.

“We put in all the through-hulls and the tail shaft,” says Lee. “And we hung the propeller and rudder because they can’t haul it out at Snow’s right now. They have to do all the work in the water.”

While many venerable old fishing boats end up as worm food or artificial reefs, the Western Flyer looks ready for another 80-plus years on the water.

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

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