Last weekend the fabled Western Flyer came home to Monterey for a brief visit. For anyone who doesn’t recognize the name, the Western Flyer is the boat that Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck took to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. At the time of the trip she was just another purse seiner in Monterey, and after the collapse of the sardine fishery she passed through several owners’ hands and was outfitted first as a deep water trawler and then as a crab boat. Several decades passed, and in 2012 the boat, now named the Gemini, sank near Anacortes, WA. She was refloated and sank again in early 2013. This time she was left on the bottom for several months. In June 2013 she was refloated again and taken to dry dock in Port Townsend, WA, where she sat for a couple of years until she was purchased and the long journey towards restoration began. The Western Flyer Foundation has more about the acquisition, restoration, and new purpose of this boat.
Fast forward to 2023, and it was time for the Western Flyer (somewhere along the way she was rechristened to her original name) to return to California. The majority of the work to restore her (woodwork, mechanical engine stuff, etc.) was done up in Washington, which was fitting because she was originally built in Tacoma. She had to come down to California, however, to be kitted out to do science. And she will live here and work out of Monterey.
On Saturday 4 November 2023, the public was invited to welcome the Western Flyer to Monterey. It was a big event, with a boat parade, a decorated boat contest, and much speechifying. The plan was for boats to gather outside the Monterey harbor and wait until the Flyer arrived from Moss Landing with her escort, wait until she was berthed in her temporary spot in the marina, and then parade past her and wherever the judges were. I never did quite figure out where that was. We trailered our friend Murray’s boat, Scherzo, down to Monterey to see the Flyer and tootle along in the boat parade. Scherzo has her own stories to tell, as she was built in Murray’s backyard over a period of several years. Murray was unable to join us, so it was just Alex and me in the boat parade aboard Scherzo.
It was hard to count the boats out on the bay waiting for the Flyer, but there were about 40. We were in the middle of the pack. Most of the boats were sailboats but there were a few motorboats and one research vessel along for the ride. Scherzo was definitely the only little boat!
Given our position in the middle of the boat scrum, we didn’t get a very good view of the Flyer when she arrived. But once she got into the harbor, the fireboat escort made it easier to see where she was.
We were instructed to wait outside the harbor until the Flyer was docked, and then position ourselves into single queue. Being quite ignorant about how these things are done, I imagined that getting ~40 vessels of various sizes and propulsion systems, all bobbing around in Monterey Bay, into a single-file line would be like herding cats, but it was very well organized. Clearly these boat captains know what they’re doing.
And how was I doing with my infamous seasickness, you ask? I was hopped up on Dramamine, the only drug that works for me. And I was fine while on the water. After that, though, the sleepiness took hold and I had to take a nap on a park bench.
The Flyer was docked at about noon, and the speechifying began. Tours of the boat would start at 13:00 and end at 16:00. We left to get some lunch, hoping to beat the crowd, and came back at around 14:00 to find that there were still hordes of people waiting to go aboard. So we took Scherzo out for another tootle, first cruising around the harbor to get some nice shots of the Flyer.
We still had time to kill, so we left the harbor and went down the coast as far as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, stopping to look at sea otters and murres. Then we looked at the time and saw that it was about 15:30, so we turned around and high-tailed it back to the harbor. We got Scherzo out of the water and ran over to the Flyer. By my watch it was 15:58, so I convinced the volunteer to let us get in line.
Even at the end of the public access period, it took about 45 minutes for us to get onto the boat. Once aboard, we could wander around and take pictures of pretty much everything. My eye, as usual, was drawn to the less obvious things.
This gentleman wearing the colors of the Italian flag, was explaining how purse seiners work. This display was on the rear deck, directly above what was originally the fish hold.
We were not allowed to go below decks into the fish hold, because that’s the part of the boat that isn’t finished yet. The aft section of the hold will be the science lab and will eventually be kitted out with microscopes and a small library. I imagine there will be computers, too.
One of my favorite bits of the boat was this wooden turtle inlaid on the aft deck. It wasn’t until we got home that I remembered this passage from Sea of Cortez:
They hung the turtle to a stay where it waved its flippers helplessly and stretched its old wrinkled neck and gnashed its parrot beak. The small dark eyes had a quizzical pained look and a quantity of blood emerged from the pierced shell. . . . And now a strange and terrible bit of knowledge came to Tiny; turtles are very hard to kill. Cutting off the head seems to have little immediate effect. This turtle was as lively as it had been, and a large quantity of very red blood poured from the trunk of the neck. The flippers waived frantically and there was none of the constricting motion of a decapitated animal.Steinbeck, John, and Edward Flanders Ricketts. Sea of Cortez, The Viking Press, New York, 1941.
I didn’t think at the time to ask, but I bet this inlaid turtle marks the spot where the hawksbill turtle came to its unfortunate end.
Inside the cabin we could see just how crowded things were, for a total of seven people on a 6-week expedition. There were three pairs of narrow bunks for scientists and crew, and a separate room for the captain behind the wheelhouse. There would be no privacy.
The galley, on the other hand, felt rather spacious. The modern Western Flyer has a nifty modern fridge unit and seems well arranged to maximize usable space. The coolest part was the stove, which is the same model (although not the same exact unit) as in the original Flyer. It runs on diesel fuel and would have done a great job of heating the cabin area.
The near future
The Western Flyer was in Monterey for another day (Sunday), so visitors could come and take pictures of her, but no additional tours were allowed. Then on Monday she went back up to Moss Landing. She will be there for about six months, for the installation of the science lab. After that, the Western Flyer goes back to school. She will take students on cruises, to study oceanography and marine biology, combined with the arts and humanities, with the goal of fostering curiosity about the natural world. The Western Flyer Foundation offers these educational programs free of charge. If you would like to contribute to this endeavor, please consider donating to the Western Flyer Foundation.