Photography by Jonathan Cooper
Not So Quiet on the Western Front
A team of shipwrights resurrects a purse seiner with a Nobel connection for a noble cause.
I descended the amidships ladder into darkness, the sunlight filtering through apertures in the desiccated white oak rib cage. I had boarded from her stern, walked along a temporary deck and passed a strange sight: several steel oilers stood on their heads, their spouts thrust into the horn timber. A concoction of linseed oil, turpentine and pine tar was being injected into the old, gently curved wood to return moisture to the weary frame.
Once belowdecks, I used the massive, Douglas fir keel as a runway, walking from the original sardine hold to the forward machine room, its timbers scarred by decades of oil and diesel fuel. A shipwright diligently prepped what remained of the original wood, and through the disassembled bow I watched another wright start to shape a new gripe from deep red—almost purple—Sapele. Beyond him, through the open door of the shed, a composite 100-foot sailboat dominated my view, in stark contrast to the work of the men and women of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op. I went back up the ladder and observed a vessel that somehow made it to this Pacific Northwest yard for a daunting yet momentous restoration.
Six years back, her future looked bleak. On a brisk January morning in 2013, the F/V Gemini descended to the bottom of Washington’s Swinomish Channel for the second time in less than five months. She had recently been refloated after her hull planks ruptured. This time, she would remain in the mud for months.
For the residents and seafarers of nearby Anacortes, the Gemini was a relic, a retired professional from a bygone era—she was built of wood, for God’s sake—that stood idly on the sidelines as modern steel and fiberglass fishing vessels made their way from nearby Skagit Bay into Puget Sound, off to fish the deep offshore canyons of the Pacific Ocean. A few graybeards had known her when she was a working boat chasing her quarry of sardines, ocean perch, Pacific cod and other species from Oregon to Alaska. For others, she was only a passing acquaintance: equal parts channel marker and Loran beacon, sitting neglected under the Twin Bridges that span the Swinomish Channel.
About 1,000 miles south as the crow files in Monterey, California, the attitude toward Gemini was markedly different—she was well-known by her former name and revered. A hotelier named Gerry Kehoe had bought the boat with the idea to use her as décor in a sprawling seaside café. Before Kehoe inked his deal, a local non-profit group—the Cannery Row Foundation—failed to raise the funds to buy her outright. They saw a more magnanimous vocation for the old vessel: as the centerpiece of the historical, literary and ecological resurgence of Cannery Row. They were on the right track.
Monterey was her home port when she was called the Western Flyer. A purse seiner built to fish for sardines, she was hired in 1940 along with biologist Edward Ricketts by a titan of American letters, John Steinbeck, for a 4,000-mile voyage from central California to the Sea of Cortez. With the rumblings of a second world conflict erupting in Europe, the men and crew left to “collect marine animals in a remote place,” Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, co-written with Ricketts and released just a few years after the Nobel laureate’s most famous novel The Grapes of Wrath. Their six-week voyage made the Flyer an icon of American adventure long before Kerouac and company went on the road in search of meaning.
Gallery: A second life for a storied ship
The Log has been called a pioneering work of intertidal ecology and via Ricketts’ contributions, credited as a precursor of the modern push toward environmental awareness. “The book was a life-changer that spurred the environmental movement... It changed the trajectory of a lot of people’s lives,” Western Flyer Foundation (WFF) project Director Chris Chase told me. Chase was among the most senior members of the Co-Op who left to oversee the multi-year, multi-million-dollar restoration of the Western Flyer soon after she was refloated, bought by WFF founder John Gregg and towed to Port Townsend, a mud and seaweed sarcophagus engulfing the leviathan.
The goal of the restoration is to transform the purse seiner into a modern research and teaching vessel that looks as she did when she splashed in Tacoma in 1937. “[We] use history to look at our future,” said Chase. The sardine hold will become a laboratory. A submersible will be launched from a mast and boom—a davit would sully her original lines. The former machine room will be crew accommodations and she’ll be propelled via an electric propulsion system, with battery banks backed up by diesel gensets.
On the day I visited the Co-Op’s sprawling Port Townsend location, the yard was buzzing. A team of about 40 employees were splitting duties on both commercial and recreational projects, from restoring interior joinery to rigging and spars. “There’s a big talent pool [here] in a small space,” owner and partner Tim Lee told me as we toured the grounds. “We have a pretty deep bench.”
The boat arrived in very poor condition. One of the first things the team did was reconstruct the stringers to solidify the frame. The starboard side was in worse shape than her port side, so they worked carefully there. The goal was to “get her back to a shape that’s stable and give the boat some integrity,” Lee said. “There are a lot of choices you have to make.” After they felt the Flyer was stable, they lifted off her deckhouse, which now sat just off her stern.
After I spoke with Lee and Chase, it was hard not to get caught up in the sheer excitement and scope of the project. Chase had just returned from Kentucky, where he sourced the white oak that will be steam bent into frames. After months of fruitless searching and dozens of phone calls, he connected with Barea College, which supplied the Co-Op with the approximately 20-foot, 8,000-pound logs they’ll need for the frames. “[We] used a team of four Suffolk Punch draft horses to pull logs out 30 inches in diameter,” Chase told me, still energized from the experience. He had the wood milled in Kentucky and put in a shipping container, but not before coating the precious cargo in wax to seal moisture inside the wood.
Chase had also just accepted delivery of 14,000 board feet of Sipo, an FSC-certified tropical hardwood that will become the hull planking (it was originally planked in Douglas fir). Sourcing materials has been a challenge, a sad reminder of what’s changed since the Flyer was built by shipwrights from materials that were found in local forests to chase the Pacific’s vast schools of sardines. “In a human lifespan, that’s all gone,” lamented Chase. “The sardines, wood and shipwrights are all victims of environmental change.”
Once launched, the boat’s mission will be to address environmental issues from Puget Sound to the Sea of Cortez. A team of scientists will create a curriculum, using the Flyer to identify the human impact on these fragile ecosystems, teaching students how overfishing and plastic pollutants are effecting oceans not just locally but the world over.
Work on the Western Flyer moves steadily forward, with a team that’s organically grown to 11 people “all at the top of their game,” said Chase. Lee believes that they’ve been successful due to the nature of the cause. “People want to donate to projects, not capital projects,” he said from the deckhouse. I restrained myself from messing with the fasteners on one of the ports that still held its original glass.
I can see why Chase feels that the rebirth of the Flyer is much deeper than another restoration. He referred to the vessel as “the embodiment of a moment in time” when Steinbeck and Ricketts met at the beautiful intersection of art and science. If all goes well after the boat splashes and systems and sea trials get the proper wring-out, the team will be celebrating at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in 2021.
This will be followed by a trip back to the Sea of Cortez in March, 2022—81 years to the date of her first voyage. Perhaps I’ll be along, squinting off into the middle distance and pretending I’m Steinbeck for a moment, before once again descending into the old sardine hold. This time, it’ll be to alert the crew of something interesting I’ve just seen off our starboard bow.