- The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries by Kevin McLean Bailey
by Kevin McLean Bailey
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 146pp. Cloth $22.50
As a Steinbeck scholar, in 2015 I was astonished to learn that the Western Flyer, the boat Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts chartered to take them from Monterey to the Sea of Cortez in the spring of 1940, was built just down the street from my home in Tacoma, Washington. The boat—a purse seiner made of fir planks from the old-growth forests of the Northwest—was built in 1937 by workers at the Western Boat Building Company on the waterway connecting downtown Tacoma to Puget Sound, just beneath the Eleventh Street Bridge I often biked across on my way to work. And a 1937 photo accompanying Patrick Hutchinson’s 2015 article for the Seattle Weekly shows the word Tacoma painted just below Western Flyer on the aft of the boat.
Imagine having read and researched The Log from the Sea of Cortez and most of Steinbeck’s other works, then one day discovering that the name of your city is emblazoned on the back of this iconic craft.
After serving for decades in the Pacific, foundering for several years near Anacortes, Washington, and sinking twice, the Western Flyer has been given a new lease on life—not only by the people currently restoring it in nearby Port Townsend, but also by Kevin M. Bailey’s recent book, The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries. In this tidy work of environmental history, Bailey raises this humble boat once again, telling of its many travels over decades of service to various fishermen—and to at least one Nobel laureate. Furthermore, the book makes The Western Flyer itself [End Page 215] a character in the ongoing, sometimes tragic history of the fishing industry on the Pacific Coast of North America.
Curious readers will be drawn, no doubt, to Bailey’s account of the Western Flyer’s past career and future prospects. The book is short—125 pages, including the prologue—and full of amusing anecdotes, nautical and otherwise, such as the one about the Flyer’s captain in the 1950s, who reportedly ate only carrots at sea. The reason? Because “you fished better if you were hungry” (66). In a footnote, Bailey deadpans that “given the reputations of Steinbeck and Ricketts, it seems appropriate that the WB in the [Western Flyer’s] call sign WB4404 stands for Whiskey Bravo” (119). Bailey also recounts how the boat’s Tacoma address inadvertently saved it from conscription into World War II; at a time when most seiners operating in Monterey were called to duty as minesweepers, Tacoma had already met its quota.
It is the Western Flyer’s supporting role in the larger drama of industrialized fishing in the United States, however, that really propels this book. Just as Steinbeck used the Salinas Valley in his fiction to explore much broader themes, Bailey uses the Western Flyer to tell the story of Pacific Ocean fishery in microcosm. Through personal interviews and archival research, Bailey demonstrates how the Flyer’s various owners responded to drastically fluctuating market forces by retrofitting the sturdy, wooden sardine seiner over and over, first as a trawler for the red rock-fish known as Pacific Ocean perch, then as a crabber along the Alaskan coast, and finally as a salmon boat in its home waters of Puget Sound. One by one, these industries all dried up, in part because of overfishing; and Bailey is quick to point out the Western Flyer’s culpability: “It both explored the sea and exploited it. . . . The windows looked out on a unique perspective of the environmental history of the Pacific coast and witnessed the collapse of several important fisheries” (6).
Steinbeck scholars will be most interested in Bailey’s account of the Flyer’s origins and the chapter on its six-week journey to the Sea of Cortez in 1940, largely...