Kevin M. Bailey
Writer, Man & Sea Institute
When I visited the Western Flyer in drydock at Port Townsend back in August 2012, there had been a constant stream of visitors ever since the boat had arrived. A picture of John Steinbeck was pinned to its hull as if the vessel was the casket at his wake. For many readers of Steinbeck and Ricketts’ Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research the Western Flyer represents a deeply personal symbol—adventure, freedom, camaraderie, or perhaps even refuge. John Steinbeck planted a vision of the boat in our minds and it took root in the primal subconsciousness, like a familiar rhythm, smell, or sound—something Steinbeck called “a sea-memory.”
“And now the wind grew stronger and the windows of houses along the shore flashed in the declining sun. The forward guy-wire of our mast began to sing under the wind, a deep and yet penetrating tone like the lowest string of an incredible bull-fiddle. We rose on each swell and skidded on it until it passed and dropped us in the trough. And from the galley ventilator came the odor of boiling coffee, a smell that never left the boat again while we were on it.” –JS & ER
Since that remarkable six-week voyage to the Sea of Cortez, the Western Flyer become an icon of American literature. Some say that it is, perhaps, the best-known fishing boat in history. This fame didn’t happen overnight. Sea of Cortez wasn’t a bestseller. Word of the book spread from person to person among those who’d been touched by the story and resonated with it. It’s not a book that people forget easily. As time has passed, the collective memory of the book has grown, along with the legend of the boat.
But what of the boat’s eighty-year history outside of its voyage with Steinbeck and Ricketts? This knowledge is changing as people hear that the boat is still viable, and they step forward with their own stories about the Western Flyer. History, after all,is made of different versions of events. It is never quite true. Like Napoleon Bonaparte said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” That view of history differs little from legend.
The Western Flyer was built in 1937 in Tacoma Washington as a state-of-the-art purse seiner to fish for sardines out of Monterey. The builder was Martin Petrich, Sr., owner of the Western Boat Building Company. Petrich would co-own the boat with fisherman Frank Berry (aka Bertopeli) and his son Tony, who was to become the boat’s skipper. The Petrichs and the Berrys were Croatians from the island of Hvar with a strong fishing tradition.
“Apparently the builder of a boat acts under a compulsion greater than himself. Ribs are strong by definition and feeling. Keels are sound, planking truly chosen and set. A man builds the best of himself into a boat—builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors.” –JS & ER
Martin Petrich was a builder of fine boats. The boat wrights laid a fir keel. They sawed and shaped the stem and stern, and bolted the pieces together. The rib cage was made of white oak. Fir planks for the hull were steamed, fitted, and spiked into place. Fir decking was nailed to the stringers, and the deck house was fastened. The boat was launched in July 1937.
Tony Berry fished for sardines on the Western Flyer out of Monterey until the fishery collapsed in 1946-47. Berry said that he sold the boat in 1948, although as early as 1945,the U.S Coast Guard listed Western Boat Building as the sole owner. After Western sold the boat, it was registered to Armstrong Fisheries out of Ketchikan Alaska from 1951-52.
In 1952, a Seattle fisherman named Dan Luketa, bought the Western Flyer. Luketa was also of Croatian descent. He was a hard working, innovative, and skilled fisherman. Luketa converted the boat to a trawler and fished the deep waters off the coast from Oregon to British Columbia for Pacific ocean perch, Petrale sole, black cod, and Pacific cod.
In 1960 the Soviets and Japanese started fishing for Pacific ocean perch in Alaska, and were working their way down the coast as the northern populations crumbled under the intense fishing pressure.
Luketa, had already seen the writing on the wall. In 1963-64 he chartered the Western Flyer to the International Pacific Halibut Commission to conduct an extensive trawl survey of the west coast; He observed the large amounts of king crab that were coming up in his nets along the Alaska Peninsula. Some crabbers fishing out of Kodiak were making a lot of money. By time the perch fishery collapsed, Luketa had converted the Western Flyer for crab fishing,changed the name of the boat to the Gemini, and headed north to the Aleutian Islands. When the king crab stock in the Aleutians started declining in abundance, Luketa decided that he needed a bigger boat to fish offshore, and he sold the Gemini in 1970.
At this point, the story of the Western Flyer gets a little murky. But here is a sketch of the situation. The Gemini was registered under the ownership of Whitney Fidalgo Seafoods from 1971 to 1974. The boat worked as a salmon tender. In 1971, the boat grounded on a reef in SE Alaska and was nearly lost. In 1974, the Japanese fishing company Kyokuyo bought Whitney Fidalgo. About the same time, the Flyer’s ownership was transferred to Citicorp Leasing Company for ten dollars. Citicorp apparently leased the boat back to Whitney Fidalgo. Whitney Fidalgo often entered into partnerships with fishermen; in 1976, skipper Clarence Fry bought the boat, although Citicorp was still registered as the owner. He tendered for Whitney Fidalgo, and fished for crab and shrimp. In 1985 Kyokuyo sold its ownership of Whitney Fidalgo to Farwest Fisheries. The Flyer was bought at auction in 1986 by Ole Knudson and his father.
In 1990, Knudson reported that the boat was in pretty bad shape, but he intended to restore it. The boat was a salmon tender that bought fish at sea and delivered them to the cannery. Bob Enea, nephew of Tony Berry, had been searching for the boat. In 1986, he located it in Anacortes through the boat’s call sign WB4044. Along with Michael Hemp of the Cannery Row Foundation, they attempted to buy the boat from Knudson, but they were rebuffed. Finally, Knudson offered to sell (by now the boat had retired and served as a channel marker and Loran Beacon), but their finances fell short, and the boat was purchased by Gerry Kehoe in January 2011. Kehoe, a real estate developer, was involved in renovating some buildings in Salinas. He announced that he would restore the Flyer and install the boat in a hotel he was planning, using the boat—floating in a moat—to accessorize a café in the lobby.
“Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.” –JS & ER
The Western Flyer, still named the Gemini, was moored under the Twin Bridges near Anacortes. In January 2011, it was a sorry-looking sight: the boat was streaked with rust and the deck was covered with blue tarps. Then in September 2012 a plank in the hull ruptured and the Flyer sank. Two weeks later, and worse for wear, it was refloated. In January 2013, it sank once again. This time the boat remained submerged for six months. Finally, in June 2013 she was raised from the bottom and towed to dry dock in Port Townsend. The Flyer looked like a ghost ship, caked with mud, and bearing sun-bleached wisps of hairy filamentous seaweed.
“The Western Flyer hunched into the great waves toward Cedros Island, the wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.” –JS & ER
In February 2015, a marine geologist named John Gregg, who has had a life-long interest in Steinbeck and Ricketts, bought the Western Flyer. Gregg,employing the talents of shipwright Chris Chase, is currently in the process of restoring the Flyer.
Perhaps it is Steinbeck’s “sea-memory” that proponents of the Western Flyer look for in their own dreams. The mind has grown boat-shaped. They want for the sun on their faces, the rhythm of the swell, and a stiff ocean breeze to hear the Flyer hum its deep note to the wind once again.
WESTERN FLYER FOUNDATION . 2726 Walnut Ave., Signal Hill, CA 90755. Tel: 949-903-6873 Info@WesternFlyer.org