What Steinbeck's boat still floats

"We have a book to write about the Gulf of California. We could do one of several things about its design. But we have decided to let it form itself; its boundaries a boat and a sea; its duration a six weeks' charter time; its subject everything we could see and think and even imagine; its limits our own - without reservation."

- John Steinbeck, from the introduction in his classic book Log from the Sea of Cortez.  

In 1995, I read Steinbeck's book while cruising the Sea of Cortez on Tethys. I was on my third major ocean voyage and had no inkling that this trip would extend to become the biggest - a circumnavigation of the world - or that a decade later I would become a writer. On off days in a hammock at anchor or at night off watch in my bunk, I reveled in Steinbeck's style, his observations, the relationship between him, the boat, the crew and nature. It resonated with and inspired me. After decades, the book remains firmly among my top 100.  

Imagine my surprise when, almost twenty years and 60,000 sea miles later, Steinbeck's boat crossed my path in Port Townsend, Washington. It took me a day to figure it out. At first, something about the boat hooked my attention.  The whole encounter was fishy, literally. It stunk!

It was June 2013. With the window down, I was driving slowly along the waterfront through the Boat Haven Shipyard. Pax was moored nearby and I was going there to write. The detour through boats under repair and restoration had become a ritual. As I approached the 300 ton travel lift, the wind was saturated with a putrid smell that filled the cab. In the slings hung a big old fish boat. There was no way I could miss it. The travel lift driver maneuvered over the wash down pad in front of me, partially blocking the street. Saltwater ran from every crack and crevice as I stared up at the hulk. It was covered with oozing slime, gasping barnacles and dying bottom dwellers.  

I got out of the car and took a picture. Who can resist a shipwreck? Or, a boat raised from the bottom if not yet raised from the dead? Not I!  But the smell was awful.  As the yard crew powered up the pressure wash, I went back to my own business, to clean air and to work on Pax.

Two hours later, curiosity broke my concentration. I set aside my computer and cruised back through the boatyard looking for the boat. The name. I wanted to find its name. There had to be a story.  What happened? Who was trying to save it and why?  By the time I found the boat in a remote, rarely used part of the boatyard, the Port haul out crew was moving giant blocks beneath the keel with a fork lift. Patiently, I watched, snapping a few pictures, holding my nose on the downwind side and squinting to pick out anything that might identify the boat. Old tires drooped over the broken and damaged rails. I looked in vain for a life ring and surveyed the forward bulwarks where even a single letter might help identify her. The hot sun was quickly bleaching the deep green ooze to soft sage. I checked both sides for hints. Nothing.

The transom of the boat, was completely inaccessible. The Port crew had parked the boat right up next to chain link fence that guarded a long term storage section of the boatyard. Were they hiding something? While the blocking was underway, it wasn't safe for anyone to go anywhere near her. Since the boat yard manager was personally managing this lift, any temptation to bend the rules was snuffed.  I waited.

A tall man with a khaki vest and a camera approached me from the other side of the boat. "Hello," he said. "Do you know about this boat?" His accent was German, or maybe Dutch.  "No, I don't. Do you?" I asked.  "No," he said. Then he proceeded to explain that he was a journalist from Europe, looking for stories. I told him about a few big restorations and famous yachts in the yard hoping he would leave and watching for a chance to ask the yard manager for information. As a local, I often helped tourists and could sometimes ask them questions on the fly.  

When the yard manager came around to our side of the boat, I caught his attention. "Do you happen to know the name of this boat?" I called. Continuing to adjust blocks and stands, he answered bluntly without eye contact, "Not sure. It's a salvage. A lot of unknowns."  It was odd for him to be so cold. The photographer and I watched a little longer, then parted ways. My curiosity was piqued, but it was obvious I was getting nowhere. 

That evening, when everyone was gone, I went back to look at the transom. Nothing. But the next morning at coffee in the boatyard, the coconut wireless delivered.  It was Western Flyer, the boat John Steinbeck wrote from while exploring the Sea of Cortez. Inspired, I found a copy of the book and skimmed it. A rush of color, smells, sea life and Mexican cruising memories flooded my mind.  Every few weeks, I'd stop by to see if the boat was still there. Occasionally, I google to find the latest news on potential restoration projects.  

Today, I was thrilled to read about the boat in the New York Times.  Though still a neglected mess and still parked in the same remote corner of the Port Townsend boatyard, it appears the owner and others are not giving up hope the boat returns to California. The NYT writer, struck by the opportunity to promote literary tourism in rural Washington (the Twilight series now brings over 100,000 people a year to the little town of Forks) and Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown, traveled to Port Townsend to see for himself. While here, he discovered much more than the boat. He found writers, readers, marine scientists, film makers and entrepreneurs who have, like himself, made the journey to see the boat in person. He also talked with locals who have both the expertise and the passion to be part of a restoration story, who regularly think outside the box on creative ways to engage educators, historians, craftsmen, writers and readers. He followed his own curiosity and found the curious.

Steinbeck was curious and in turn his book fueled my curiosity - about travel, the sea around me, the boat beneath my head.  Where will Steinbeck's voyage lead next? Who will join the voyage? Where will the boat will end up and how it will continue to inspire? Raised after sinking, Steinbeck's voyage is inspiring another generation.  No doubt, the boat itself will continue to be part of the story and like other literary and wooden boat pilgrims, I will keep checking back to watch for progress in Port Townsend or wherever it leads.  

Steinbeck's book still floats my curiosity and now it floats the process of my own book, too.   

“a boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in a man’s mind.... Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.”

- John Steinbeck, Log from the Sea of Cortez, 1939