The Western Flyer is a 77-foot long purse seiner built by the Western Boat Building Co. in 1937 at their yard near 11th and D Streets in Tacoma. The company was founded by Martin Petrich and operated from 1916 to 1982.
In 1940, the Western Flyer was the only boat in the Monterey fishing fleet that John Steinbeck could charter for his trip with Ed Ricketts to Baja California. After publishing “The Grapes of Wrath” the year before, Steinbeck was viewed with suspicion by the community as a possible Communist. But the Flyer’s captain, Tony Berry, one of the few non-Sicilian sardine fishermen in the fleet, was also an outsider and proved sympathetic.
After being made famous by the voyage, the vessel seemed to disappear into oblivion.
But in 1983, a man stepped out of the crowd during a Cannery Row Foundation street festival organized by Michael Hemp and asked him, “How’d you like to get your hands on the Western Flyer?” The man was Bob Enea, a nephew of Tony Berry and Sparky Enea, another of the original crew who also appear in Steinbeck’s book.
The boat fished up and down the West Coast and Alaska for decades. The name had been changed to Gemini, but Enea tracked it down through its original call sign (WB 4404), which stays with the vessel for life.
“He knew where it was,” Hemp said. “We spent 30 years trying to get it and never could. Nobody came up with a check when it was in good condition, and it wound up there under the bridges in Anacortes from around ’86 on, rotting.”
The vessel was eventually purchased by a Salinas, California developer who planned to truck it back down the coast and turn it into a motif inside one of his buildings. But the boat never moved.
“It sunk twice on his watch and NOAA or somebody finally told him to fix it or they were going to bulldoze it on the levy there like they do all the other old boats,” Hemp said.
The Western Flyer was towed to Port Townsend in 2013 where it sat neglected in a boat yard for two years.
“In the meantime, John Gregg had been keeping an eye on it and making offers for maybe a year or two, and finally got it,” Hemp said.
John Gregg is a marine geologist with his own fleet of deep-sea survey vessels. “John became interested in the marine sciences at about age 11 due to ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez’ and ‘Between Pacific Tides,’” Hemp said. “He didn’t know he was going to pay a million bucks for it—a boat that wouldn’t float—but John said at the time, ‘It was worthless, but it was priceless.’”
The Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op is restoring the vessel and converting it into a seagoing lab and classroom with a target completion date of 2020.
“The Monterey Bay Aquarium will certainly be part of it,” said Hemp, who consulted at the outset of the restoration effort but is no longer working on it. “It’s not going to be just a static display to walk aboard; it will be a learning laboratory for kids to learn about the ocean environment,” he said.
“I think a good shakedown cruise would be a definitive tour of the entire Puget Sound,” Hemp said. “Every dock, every little backwater that you could get to, where there are kids who’d otherwise never get a chance to spend a day doing stuff that could change their whole life.
“How could you have a better mission than to inspire kids to get into the ocean sciences?” he said.
For further information, go to the Western Flyer Foundation at westernflyer.org.