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Famed literary boat getting $2M makeover in Port Townsend

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- Famous authors can make their boats famous too: Hemingway, Darwin, Cousteau, even Humphrey Bogart. Famous boats often fall into disrepair before a resurrection.

Such is the case in Port Townsend, where they are getting started on a $2 million restoration of "The Western Flyer" on which John Steinbeck wrote "The Log of the Sea of Cortez."

"There she is. You can see she's a little caved in there," said Peter Quinn, Steinbeck fan and owner of Port Townsend's Imprint Bookstore.

There she is, indeed, sitting in the Port of Port Townsend's public boat yard hoisted onto dry land struts. Weathered, aged and nearly a lost hope. She has certainly lost her dignity, covered in mud and barnacles. But, after a year or so underwater in the La Connor Channel, it was hauled to Port Townsend largely because the port has an extremely large crane.

So, the story of "The Western Flyer" is not over. In fact, it faces a magnificent new chapter.

"The Log of the Sea of Cortez" was a 1951 Steinbeck non-fiction book chronicling the sea and nature during a 6,000-mile voyage with scientist friend Doc Ricketts. Steinbeck rented the sardine fishing boat and had it sailed to Mexico. The boat was built in Tacoma in 1937.

Steinbeck also wrote "Cannery Row," "Of Mice and Men," "The Grapes of Wrath" and more.

Quinn, given to spiritual refrains, says "the universe lined things up and brought the boat to Port Townsend," the perfect place because it is a well-known literary town and renowned for its wooden boat craftsmen. Quinn says the town is thrilled that California businessman John Gregg, the new owner, ended the scuffle for ownership.

"The good news is that Mr. Gregg appears to want to keep her whole," he said, "and put her back together again here in Port Townsend where we have some of the best shipwrights in the world."

Work on "The Western Flyer" is just getting started, fixing the ladder Steinbeck climbed, the door he used, even the stem where Steinbeck may have manned the wheel.

Interior photos show why restoration could cost $2 million: it is a mess but structurally intact.

Still, Steinbeck fans are here gawking.

"Interestingly, people have come from other countries say 'We're here to see Steinbeck's boat'," said Quinn.

"The first place I wanted to stop was right here with this vessel," said Dan Jacobs, visiting from Bainbridge island with his wife.

Port Townsend officials are thrilled.

"We'll find people down here obviously Steinbeck fans, putting their hands on the hull channeling Steinbeck," chuckled Larry Crockett, Executive Director of the Port of Port Townsend. "Yea, it's a wonderful story. It really is."

Quinn reads from "The Log from the Sea of Cortez": "The sight steering is a compromise of perfection which allows your boat to exist at all"

He said Steinbeck and the boat are intertwined, and always will be.

"Western Flyer's all clear now," Quinn quotes before closing the book.

It'll take about two years to complete the restoration. Maybe move, given the shape of things. And the folks around Port Townsend fully expect to see an ever increasing Steinbeck tourism boom during the restoration until it sets sail for Monterey.

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