By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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Gerry Kehoe, a businessman and developer in the prolific late author's old stomping ground of Salinas, Calif., purchased the 72-foot Western Flyer in 2010 with the intention of using it as a tourist attraction in the downtown area that is already anchored by the National Steinbeck Center.
“It was a wreck when we bought it, but it is part of literary history, and we wanted to give it a home,” Kehoe said, speaking from Salinas.
At the time of the purchase, the vessel was submerged near Anacortes and had to be raised twice before repairs were considered, Kehoe said.
Kehoe had the boat towed to Port Townsend.
“We got bids from people in Port Townsend and Seattle to tow the boat in for repairs, and the Seattle people wanted twice as much as Port Townsend,” he said.
“The planks on the hull are very brittle, so on the way over, we had a crew bailing water so it would stay afloat,” Kehoe said.
The vessel, built in Tacoma in 1937, was pressed into service as a sardine fishing boat.
During that time, it was chartered by Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who became the model for the character “Doc” in Steinbeck's Cannery Row, published in 1945.
Steinbeck, who lived from 1902 to 1968, was born in Salinas. His novel The Grapes of Wrath — about the migration of a family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California — won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and a National Book Award. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
The Western Flyer went through several owners, was renamed Gemini and became a fishing boat on the Bering Sea.
It sank twice before Kehoe bought it.
Kehoe plans to come to Port Townsend in August “to go over the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb” to determine what repairs are practical.
He would like to restore it to its original condition with one exception: Kehoe said the boat isn't seaworthy and will need to be transported to California on land, perhaps in pieces.
Kevin Bailey, a Seattle author working on a book about the boat, said estimates of repair and restoration fall between $700,000 and $1 million, with an additional maintenance cost of $100,000 per year.
“There are a lot of people who want to restore the boat, but they are all kind of dreamers,” Bailey said.
“They see this old boat, they see its value and want to do something, but they don't realize the cost of the maintenance and the tremendous amount of energy that it will take to accomplish this.”
Bailey said he has “seen a lot of people come and go” in efforts to restore the vessel.
Jim Pivarnik, deputy director of the Port of Port Townsend, said the port collected a $25,000 deposit from Kehoe to cover the cost of disposal if needed.
“If they stick us with the boat, we have enough money to cut it up and put it in the landfill, but so far, they have acted in good faith,” Pivarnik said.
Kehoe would not disclose how much he paid for the Western Flyer but said he would make the cost of the purchase and restoration public in the future.
Kehoe said final decisions about the future of the boat will be deferred until after his on-site evaluation.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.