University of Washington professor Kevin Bailey chronicles the fishing vessel made famous by John Steinbeck in “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” as it has followed the boom and bust cycles of fisheries all around the Pacific.

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‘The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries’

by Kevin M. Bailey

University of Chicago Press, 146 pp., $22.50

Few boats have achieved the fame of the Western Flyer. In 1940, John Steinbeck chartered it for a cruise in the Sea of Cortez. Joined by his good friend, the legendary marine biologist Ed Ricketts, best known as the model for “Doc” in Steinbeck’s novel, “Cannery Row,” Steinbeck set out to document the life of the sea. A decade later he published “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”, which immortalized the region and the Western Flyer. But that was merely the beginning of the boat’s many lives, writes Kevin Bailey in his new book, “The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, The Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries.”

Bailey, an affiliate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Science, first encountered the iconic boat in January 2011, in Anacortes. Barely seaworthy, it was then known as the Gemini, a name it received from one-time owner and Seattle fisherman Dan Luketa.

The Western Flyer had been built 90 miles south in Tacoma as a purse seiner for the sardine industry, which was based out of the famous Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif. Purse seiners caught nearly 800,000 tons of sardines the year the Western Flyer was built in 1937. The catch had been steadily climbing and the industry was one of the few bright spots during the Great Depression. But that would change within a decade as the sardine population crashed. As Ed Ricketts noted about the fish, “They’re in cans.” Although the reason for the decline is still debated, most scientists place the blame on changing ocean temperatures and low productivity, exacerbated by unregulated overfishing.

The death of the sardine industry led to the 1952 sale of the Western Flyer to Luketa, who converted it to a trawler. Operating out of Ballard, Luketa trawled for red rockfish, or Pacific Ocean perch. As happened with the sardine industry, the perch harvest started small, grew quickly, peaked and crashed. Luketa then moved to Alaska to fish for red king crab. Same story, good years followed by great years followed by a crash, so Luketa sold the Western Flyer, or Gemini. It remained in Alaska, where it ferried salmon from fishing boat to cannery. An accident eventually led to the boat’s return to Puget Sound, where it moldered over the decades. At present, the Western Flyer is scheduled to be taken down to John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif., where it will be restored.

Well-researched and written with deep passion and knowledge for the boat and the fish harvested from it, Bailey’s short book is a fine tribute to the Western Flyer, as well as a poignant warning about humanity’s impact on the globe.