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A piece of western Washington literary history heads back to sea

The Western Flyer was built in Tacoma and chartered by John Steinbeck when he wrote 'The Log from the Sea of Cortez.'

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash — A piece of literary history is once again setting sail in the waters of western Washington.

The boat John Steinbeck was on while writing The Log from the Sea of Cortez is embarking on a new chapter.

The Western Flyer has been being refurbished in Port Townsend for the past nine years. Now, the 85-year-old boat is launching into Puget Sound once again.

The painstaking voyage back to the sea begins with a bulldozer noisily hauling the 77-foot seiner out of drydock, inch by inch. It’s part of a journey Rom Welborn has been on since he first learned about the boat when writing a high school paper.

"It changed my life and it still feels like it's changing my life," he said.

The Western Flyer was built in Tacoma in 1937.

Three years later, John Steinbeck chartered it with legendary biologist Ed Rickets. Rickets is considered the grandfather of modern ecology.

That trip turned into the book The Log From The Sea of Cortez.

The book instilled a philosophy that inspired Walborn – then an adrift college student – to change schools, majors and become a biologist himself.

"It taught me that all things are one, from the tide pools to the stars," said Walborn.

Getting the boat to this point has been an odyssey unto itself. The Western Flyer worked the West Coast as a fishing vessel for decades. It sank three times prior to its resurrection.

At one point, a previous owner pondered cutting it up and using the parts for a restaurant. 

The boat eventually settled under water near the Swinomish reservation in Skagit County. 

"It was a ghost of a ship," said Project Director Chris Chase. "It had barnacles on every surface, mud in the cabinets. It's really astonishing that it made it to where it is today."

Most of the boat's interior remains in tact, including the desk were Steinbeck wrote.

John Gregg is at the helm of this endeavor. He was inspired by Steinbeck's work, and the way it combined art and science.

He plans to bring the boat to California where it will be used as an environmental research vessel studying ocean acidification, among other things – in keeping with the theme of Steinbeck’s book and Ricketts’ work.

"They were not sentimental types," Gregg said. "They were forward-thinking guys. They wouldn’t want something to just sit in a museum. They’d want something that could earn its keep."

On Wednesday, family of the original boat builder were on hand at the Port of Port Townsend to bless the boat with red wine and lavender.

For the first time in nearly a decade it touched the water, and Rom Welborn expressed his hope that the Western Flyer will continue to change lives.

"It’s a big-picture thing that makes you feel connected to the whole world."

The Western Flyer will soon be towed to a Ballard shipyard where it will undergo mechanical work.

It then heads to Monterey, California where it will begin conducting scientific research next spring.

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