John Steinbeck couldn’t find a boat and he needed one desperately. His marriage was in trouble. People in his hometown were vilifying him as a communist rabble-rouser. He figured a sea expedition with his wife, Carol, and marine biologist buddy Ed Ricketts would be just the thing.
They chartered a 76-foot sardine boat called the Western Flyer. Over six weeks in 1940, they and a four-man crew chugged from Monterey, Calif., to the Mexican coast, where they caroused in waterfront bars, poked through tide pools, identified dozens of new species of sea life and collaborated on “Sea of Cortez,” a pioneering work of ecology still read by budding ocean researchers.
Time has been less kind to the Western Flyer. The battered old tub, which has been called one of the most famous boats in American nonfiction, has sunk twice in the past six months and was still underwater off a dock in Anacortes as of two weeks ago. Even worse, to some Steinbeck fans, its owner wants to hoist it up, truck it nearly 1,000 miles and make it the centerpiece of a boutique hotel he’s planning in downtown Salinas, Calif.
Gerry Kehoe, a developer who speaks with the lilting brogue of his native Ireland, says the boat would be a crucial attraction in a sluggish downtown already anchored by the National Steinbeck Center. The Western Flyer would float on an indoor moat, surrounded by an envisioned extension to Kehoe’s vintage brick building. Couples would dine at tables on deck.
“It’s anticipated that people would walk the couple of blocks from the museum to come see the boat, free of charge,” he said, adding that tourists drawn to the Western Flyer would spend $15 million yearly at local businesses.
“It’s an American treasure,” he said. “It’s Steinbeck’s hometown. It’s appropriate.”
Kehoe’s critics say it’s crazy. Some cast the boat’s misfortunes as only a little less tragic than those of Steinbeck’s Okies.
About 10 years ago, Kehoe planned three 14-story towers in downtown Salinas that would have included a hotel and 500 condominiums. It went nowhere, he said, because banks were reluctant to finance upscale development in a “tertiary market.”
“We gallantly failed,” he said. “We make no bones about it.”
Whether the long-retired Western Flyer will fare any better is an open question.
Years ago, it was renamed Gemini and cruised for salmon in the immense swells of the Bering Sea. Now some experts wonder whether it can face the rigors of a road trip.
“Moving it by truck could put stresses on it that it might not be able to take,” said Allen Petrich, a maritime historian whose grandfather owned the Washington shipyard that built the Western Flyer in 1937.
In 1940, nobody in Monterey’s then-vast fishing fleet wanted to rent Steinbeck or Ricketts a boat. Ricketts was an eccentric who predicted — correctly — that overfishing would kill the sardine business. Steinbeck was famous, but books such as “The Grapes of Wrath” were banned in Salinas.
“He was kind of at war with the class structure there,” said Kevin Bailey, a retired fisheries biologist in Seattle who grew up in Salinas and is writing a book about the Western Flyer. “I remember my parents accusing him of every bad thing you can think of.”
While Monterey’s seafront and Cannery Row today are all-Steinbeck-all-the-time, the tight-knit sardine community didn’t know what to make of him or Ricketts in 1940.
“They didn’t even listen to us,” Steinbeck later wrote, “because they couldn’t quite believe we existed. We were obviously ridiculous.”
At 600-odd pages, “Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research” didn’t make much of a stir when it was published. Some reviews appeared on Dec. 7, 1941, a day when Americans weren’t focused on marine invertebrates. It was Steinbeck’s favorite among his nonfiction works and is in many ways a tribute to the scientist he wished he was. (In 1951, Steinbeck republished the narrative portion of “Sea of Cortez” as “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”)
“We sat on a crate of oranges,” he wrote, “and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world — temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy.”
Ricketts, the model for Doc in Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday,” died in 1948 after his car collided with a train.
Steinbeck and Carol split up shortly after their trip. In 1968, he died of a heart attack in New York City.
If he were alive today, the prospect of the Western Flyer bobbing in the lobby of a hotel 10 miles from the sea probably would not be a source of outrage, said Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.
“He wasn’t opposed to change,” she said. “It would probably amuse him.”