John Gillie / The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

TACOMA, Wash. — A 76-year-old Tacoma-built fishing boat with a notable literary and scientific pedigree is at the center of a continuing controversy that involves an ambitious California developer, ardent historic preservationists and the progeny of a world-famed author, a noted marine biologist and a Tacoma shipyard founder.

The boat that is the object of the sometimes heated public discussion is the Western Flyer, by some accounts the world’s most famous fishing vessel. What the USS Missouri is to battleships, what the Cutty Sark is to clipper ships, the humble Western Flyer is to fishing boats.

The boat, covered in mud and barnacles, now sits on dry land in a Port Townsend marina after it sank twice and was raised twice in the Swinomish Channel near Anacortes. The vessel now awaits its fate.

The boat’s owner, Salinas, Calif., developer Gerry Kehoe, wants to make the Western Flyer, or at least part of it, the centerpiece of a new tourist destination in California. The upper portion of the famous boat, restored to its original appearance, would be the focus of a Salinas restaurant where diners could be seated on its deck. Display cases would showcase the boat’s engine, anchor and other pieces.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit group in Salinas, the Western Flyer Project, wants the Flyer restored intact to its original working condition and used for educational voyages on Monterey Bay and elsewhere.

A third group consisting of Puget Sound-based relatives of the boat’s builder and others connected to the boat’s history is standing in the wings watching the developing saga.

Travels with Steinbeck

Why the fuss? It’s the Western Flyer’s connections that have made it famous.

The Western Flyer, built by Tacoma’s Western Boat Building Co. in 1937 on the Tideflats, acquired its literary and scientific patina in 1940 when author John Steinbeck and a friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, chartered the vessel for a six-week expedition to Mexico’s Gulf of California. The gulf is an arm of the Pacific Ocean sandwiched between the Baja peninsula and the mainland of Mexico. The gulf is more lyrically known as the Sea of Cortez.

Ricketts — a pioneer in the study of diverse sea life of the West Coast — Steinbeck and the crew spent those weeks collecting specimens along the margins of the sea.

Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered the Western Flyer after they got the cold shoulder from other fishermen in the families that dominated the sardine fisheries in Monterey, Calif., where Steinbeck and Ricketts lived and worked.

The Western Flyer, then owned by Western Boat founder Martin Petrich, Tacoma fisherman Frank Barry and his son, Tony, were more open-minded about local celebrity Steinbeck than some of the closely knit families, who considered Steinbeck an activist in the labor movement who wanted to unionize their boat crews.

Steinbeck and Ricketts’ account of the journey along with Ricketts’ comprehensive notes on the scientific findings were published as “The Sea of Cortez: A Journal of Travel and Research” and “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”

The books weren’t the literary icons that Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Tortilla Flat,” “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden” became, but still were considered important nonfiction works that helped give birth to ecological awareness on the West Coast.

A sinking ship

After the Flyer’s brief brush with celebrity, it worked for decades as a sardine seiner, a tuna boat, a crab boat in Alaska and a scientific research vessel along the West Coast.

The boat passed through several owners, was renamed the Gemini by a skipper with an interest in space exploration, and ended up tied up beneath the twin bridges over the Swinomish Channel near Anacortes.

Bob Enea, a retired Salinas teacher and a relative of the boat’s original skipper, searched for the vessel for years before finding it in the Northwest. Enea said he was negotiating to buy the boat and return it to Monterey when he was outbid by Kehoe. Enea is head of the nonprofit Western Flyer Project.

While under Kehoe’s ownership, the boat sprang a leak and sank last year at its dock in the Swinomish Channel. The boat was repaired and raised. A few months later, the boat sank again, this time staying on the bottom with its deckhouse exposed to the air in the shallow water for six months.

After the Flyer was raised this summer, it was transported to Port Townsend and hauled out of the water.

Enea contends Kehoe should have kept a closer eye on the historic vessel.

When Enea traveled to Washington state to bid for the boat before it was sold to Kehoe, he had inspected the vessel and found its hull was sound, though it needed cosmetic care and rehabilitation. Now, the damage is extensive because of the long period under water, he said.

Kehoe said he has spent thousands of dollars raising the boat and having it moved to dry land in Port Townsend.

The developer said he offered to sell the boat to Enea’s nonprofit group for an undisclosed amount. All he wanted was to recover his and his family’s investment, but the group didn’t have sufficient funds, according to Kehoe.

Now he’s weary of hearing the nonprofit group’s ill-funded plans. The group so far has raised $10,000.

“The Western Flyer has been for sale from 1999 to 2012 and the ‘preservation groups,’ despite their ‘long-term options’ to buy her, have never invested a single dime in her ‘preservation’ over these 13 years,” said Kehoe in an email to The News Tribune.

Competing visions

Kehoe says a building is being made ready to house the Western Flyer in Salinas.

“The boat with its mast, decks, house, etc. will be restored as much as possible,” the developer said.

Plans call for the boat to be surrounded by water and an “Old Monterey Pier,” he said. “To the rear of the boat, the water will be 8 feet wide with colored fountains. An atrium will be built overhead.”

Tours will be available free with new facilities that will allow the handicapped easy accessibility, said Kehoe. The nonprofit group’s plans call for charging an admission to the boat, he said.

Enea said the boat belongs in Monterey Harbor, a few miles overland from Kehoe’s Salinas development. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, and a major Steinbeck museum is located there. Enea, who formerly was on the museum’s board, said he sought to have that museum buy the boat years ago, but cost overruns on the museum’s construction torpedoed that plan.

He disputed Kehoe’s estimates that the boat will bring $15 million in new tourist income to Salinas.

Amid all of this, the group of interested observers that has ties to Tacoma says it stands ready to raise the $1 million-plus it may take to have Port Townsend shipwrights restore the boat. They’ll work with either Kehoe or Enea if they want to put the boat back on the water.

Allen Petrich, grandson of Western Boat’s founder, said he has gathered a group that could raise money to put the Western Flyer back on the water. In addition to Petrich and his cousin, Tacoma Port Commissioner Clare Petrich, the group includes Steinbeck’s son and his wife and Ricketts’ son.

That group has deliberately tried to remain neutral in the conflict between Enea’s nonprofit group in California and Kehoe, although the Petrich group favors restoration over dismemberment for the boat.

Kehoe said the discussion is over.

“As the building is being readied, the deadline for action has passed,” said Kehoe.

The Western Flyer

Builder: Western Boat Building Co.

Original boat owners: Martin Petrich, 50 percent; Frank Barry, 25 percent, both of Tacoma; Tony Barry, 25 percent, Monterey, Calif.

Present boat owner: Gerry Kehoe, Salinas, Calif.

Length: 72 feet.

Power: Atlas diesel engine, single screw.

Hull and superstructure: Wood.

History: The Western Flyer was among eight fishing vessels Western Boat Building of Tacoma built in 1937. It was part of a series of fishing boats all with the Western name, including Western Fisher, Western Traveler and Western Clipper, all owned in full or in part by the shipyard. It is notable for being chartered by author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts for a six-week expedition to Mexico’s Gulf of California.