Lost and Found: The Western Flyer’s Journey from Steinbeck to Surfboards

A Legendary Fishing Vessel Returning to Monterey Bay as a Beacon of Education and Conservation.

By David Dennis
August 2, 2023
Western Flyer boat in Moss Landing Harbor

In the realms of literature and seafaring, one vessel stands out: the Western Flyer. This 77-foot fishing boat gained legendary status with its voyage to the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico in 1940, chartered by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts. 

Immortalized in Steinbeck’s book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the Western Flyer is now being restored as a state-of-the-art research vessel, set to educate students about the oceans, art, and conservation.

Beyond its literary fame, the Western Flyer boasts a rich history spanning over eight decades. Recently, the Western Flyer Foundation has undertaken the monumental task of restoring this iconic boat. My personal connection to the boat’s restoration began when I read about it in a New York Times article and later met the boat’s owner, John Gregg, at the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. 

Gregg has generously provided salvaged wood from the Western Flyer for use in our hollow wooden surfboards at the company I co-founded, Ventana Surfboards & Supplies. Over the years, we have breathed new life into this storied wood, creating hollow wooden surfboards, bookmarks, art pieces, surfboard fins, and more.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez book and a bookmark

Built in 1937 by the Western Boat Building Company in Tacoma, Washington, the Western Flyer was a state-of-the-art 77-foot purse seiner designed specifically for the Monterey Bay sardine fishery. It had the capability to venture to Alaska for salmon, as well. In 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered the boat, leading a crew to survey the marine life of the Sea of Cortez. Their groundbreaking work became the inspiration for numerous marine biologists and ocean scientists, including Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the best-selling book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. 

“I carried The Log from the Sea of Cortez with me all over Baja through my grad student years. I had a copy in my back pocket to open anytime and find a gem. I used it as a type of travel guide. A lot of the places Ricketts and Steinbeck visited were my research sites. I’d always pull out The Log to look for changes in the ecology and marine life from the time of their trip,” Nichols said.

After the collapse of the sardine fishery in 1946-47, the Western Flyer changed owners and underwent various transformations, transitioning from a trawler to a crab fishing vessel under the ownership of Dan Luketa. The Western Flyer’s story took several tumultuous turns before finding its way to restoration. 

In 1983, Bob Enea, a nephew of two crew members from Steinbeck’s voyage, set out to locate the Western Flyer, now named Gemini. After three years of searching, Enea finally found the boat using its original call letters. The boat’s subsequent journey involved leaks, sinking incidents, and a failed theme restaurant project. Eventually, in 2015, John Gregg, deeply influenced by Steinbeck’s book, having first read it at 10 years of age, acquired the boat and established the Western Flyer Foundation. He enlisted renowned boat builder Chris Chase and the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op to lead the restoration. The process involved employing modern technology and some of the original tools used to build the boat in 1937.

On June 29, 2022, the Western Flyer was relaunched in Seattle after its restoration in Port Townsend. It has a new hybrid engine and is undergoing final outfitting before returning to Monterey. The exact return date is still uncertain, but the boat has garnered immense excitement from people eagerly awaiting its arrival. 

Sherry Flumerfelt, executive director of the Western Flyer Foundation said, “People have been trying for many years to get the boat back to Monterey, and we’re now in the final home stretch. It’s an exciting time. We’re planning a big Homecoming Party in Monterey this fall and plan to announce the date very soon.”

The Western Flyer’s connection to the ocean extends beyond its fishing and research history. Martijn Stiphout, a surfer and marine biologist, embarked on a kayaking trip around the Sea of Cortez in 2010, where he read Steinbeck’s book. Inspired by this journey, Stiphout founded Ventana Surfboards & Supplies in Santa Cruz, focusing on environmentally responsible practices. 

Martijn and I connected through a photo exhibit I shot to support the Surfrider Foundation Santa Cruz Chapter. With his dedication to artisanship and sustainability, the workshop photos I took of Martijn captivated me. We’ve spent almost a decade building our business, gaining recognition for our unique hollow wooden surfboards made from historic and exotic wood, including wood sourced from the Western Flyer. Currently, Stiphout is constructing a sailboat using salvaged wood from the Flyer. The plan is to sail along the same path as Steinbeck and Ricketts Sea of Cortez expedition, retracing their adventure.

Western Flyer ship in the water

The restoration of the Western Flyer has been a labor of love, aiming to preserve its historical integrity while transforming it into a state-of-the-art ocean research vessel. Once fully restored, the Western Flyer will embark on research and educational journeys along the West coast of the United States and Mexico, offering unique learning opportunities to students and scientists alike.

The convergence of Steinbeck’s literary legacy, Ricketts’ marine biology, the Western Flyer’s seafaring history, and the creation of surfboards from its wood honor the past while embracing the future. As the Western Flyer sets sail once again, its legacy will continue to inspire adventurers, ocean lovers, students, conservationists, and surfers for decades to come.


About Ventana Surfboards & Supplies

Ventana has the highest bars for artisanship and environmental responsibility. They create hollow-framed, reclaimed wood surfboards, bodysurfing handplanes, eco surf apparel, and sustainable surf supplies that are loved by adventurers and collectors everywhere. The Ventana team lives and works in Santa Cruz, California where they test their products on some of the most challenging waves on the planet. Ventana donates at least 5% of profits to ocean conservation including to the Ventana Ocean Conservation Scholarship.

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About the Western Flyer Foundation

The Western Flyer Foundation’s mission is to “stir curiosity” by connecting art and science in the spirit of John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and their journey on the Western Flyer.  The organization aims to inspire deeper appreciation of marine environments; see the world through the lenses of both science and art; and understand our community’s place in a larger world. The Foundation’s educational programs provide creative outreach opportunities both on land and aboard the Western Flyer.

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