Western Flyer: Back from the Brink

western flyer

by Scott Sadil

For many of us, it begins at the tide line.  

Of the myriad ways would-be anglers become attracted to the medium of their sport, none seems more germane to my own initiation than a childhood spent fooling around in that dynamic interface between land and sea.  

And if you were a child of, say, a scientific or even literary bent, you eventually got your hands on a copy of Ed Ricketts’s Between Pacific Tides, that seminal work that introduced us to the notion that all parts of the intertidal story are integrated and entwined, elements of a single unified ecology as complex and, at times, mysterious, as the vast dark forests of the mind.

Ricketts, of course, was John Steinbeck’s muse and mentor and, famously, drinking buddy, as well as co-author of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the iconic report of the two men’s six-week quasi-scientific 1940 expedition through the Gulf of California. 

If Ricketts’s introduction to the concepts of ecology, told through the vibrant life exposed to us through the rise and fall of tides, helped many of us get started interpreting our own firsthand observations, with either surfboard or rod and reel in tow, The Log from the Sea of Cortez spurred us to expand the range of our loosely scripted research – often at the expense of livelihoods and relationships cobbled together as fragile micro-environments north of the border.

Steinbeck and Ricketts, most readers know, carried out their Baja research from aboard the Western Flyer, a purse-seiner built in 1937 in Tacoma, Washington, for the sardine fishery off Monterey, California. Constructed out of old-growth fir, she was, wrote Steinbeck, “seventy-six feet long with a twenty-five-foot beam; her engine, a hundred and sixty-five horsepower direct reversible Diesel, drove her at ten knots.” 

Following publication of the Steinbeck-Ricketts log, the Western Flyer became known as “the most famous fishing vessel ever to have sailed” – the Pequod, perhaps, notwithstanding.

Her house — removed for rebuild on shop floor.

Even fame, however, doesn’t keep a wooden boat afloat forever.  Old and neglected, the Western Flyer sank twice at the dock – or maybe three times, depending on your source.  The stories of old boats, especially fishing boats, are often sketchy. 

Eventually she was retrieved from Anacortes, Washington, and following a convoluted course of sales and purchases, she ended up in the care and restorative hands of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op.

The setting seems fitting.  The community of boats and boatbuilders that exists in and around Port Townsend suggests a kind of delicate ecology that both Ricketts and Steinbeck would have recognized and appreciated.  Where else can you find so many highly skilled craftspeople, working in centuries-old trades, able to make a genuine, if modest, living with their hands?

western flyer
Western Flyer’s all new stem.

My connection is tentative at best. Yet, lo and behold, there comes a morning even I need to meet with the sailmaker, order cast bronze hardware from the foundry, and pick out a 27-foot stick of ten-quarter tight-grain fir to trailer home for a mains’l mast. 

A brilliant spring day, I wander over to the shipyard, admiring boats, on the hard, that seem as remarkable and otherworldly to me as the spectacular life forms I investigated as a youngster in tidepools up and down the shores of the eastern Pacific. And then, what do you know, today, despite the Covid pandemic, the doors to one of the Co-Op buildings stand open to the sun – and there she is, that’s her all right, the Western Flyer, well on her way to all her restored glory.

That’s something.

Enough, by God, to feel her story connected to mine.


Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil has begun to wonder if books and magazines, like wooden boats, are soon to become part of a cottage industry supported by those who love objects that make no economic sense in the modern world.