PORT TOWNSEND — Scientists, educators, shipwrights and artists gathered at the Shipwrights Co-Op in Port Townsend to see the partial restoration of the Western Flyer and to discuss what the future holds for the historic ship.
The ship, built originally in 1937 at the Western Boat Building Corporation in Tacoma, has been undergoing a full restoration in Port Townsend with the help of local craftsmen since 2015.
“I don’t think there’s another place in the world better for this boat,” said John Gregg, the current owner of the Western Flyer. “These guys are so skillful with wooden boats.”
The ship’s fame started when it was chartered in 1940 by author John Steinbeck, who with marine biologist Ed Ricketts would take it on a six-week expedition to Mexico’s Gulf of California.
That trip provided the blueprint for Steinbeck’s 1951 book The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
At the Shipwrights Co-Op, workers have been toiling to restore the boat to its former glory — keeping as much of the original wood frame and hull as intact as possible.
“We’ve really interrogated every board and left those that are structurally sound,” Gregg said.
However, the boat will get some upgrades. Matt Mortensen of Revision Marine in Port Townsend is one of the people responsible for the new electric propulsion motors to power the ship.
Mortensen said they hope to give the boat eight hours of electric power, which should cover the day-to-day use of the boat as an educational vessel. On longer trips the ship will switch to a diesel motor.
“The biggest challenge with this boat is its shear size,” Mortensen said. “We have to have a 70-foot boat we made fully electric that we’ll be taking people out on as sort of our proof of concept.”
The cost of the overhaul currently in progress was not immediately available.
According to Gregg, the Western Flyer will function as a classroom and educational experience for students on the West Coast of the U.S.
Gregg said he worked with educators to figure out what students he could focus on and the two age groups were fourth- through seventh-graders and college sophomores and juniors.
“Sophomore or juniors at junior colleges mostly,” Gregg said. “Those kids are in an experience where they don’t get a lot of benefits. There’s no money for them to get an experience like this.”
Gregg said he also plans for the Western Flyer to serve as an educational tool for smaller communities along the West Coast.
“We’re looking for underserved locations,” Gregg said.
The ship, which is smaller than most research vessels, can visit smaller port cities and give students in smaller schools an immersive educational experience they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.
Gregg said the tentative plan is to have the boat be seaworthy by next year. Then it will be moored in Monterey, Calif., for 20 weeks out of the year. The ship will spend the rest of the year sailing the West Coast, alternating between sailing north or south.
Gregg said they plan to sail the ship as far north as Sitka, Alaska, and as far south as the Sea of Cortez, where the ship was made famous by Steinbeck.
While the ship will primarily function as a scientific research vessel, Gregg said he plans to add some history and literature components into the boat’s educational mission.
“We’re trying to mix art and science,” Gregg said. “The art component is super important, even important to the science component.”
Gregg said they hope to fund the boat’s educational efforts through grants and donations, but for now, the Western Flyer will remain in Port Townsend until it can return to the sea, hopefully in 2018.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at [email protected].