The Gemini, which was previously named the Western Flyer, is shown in Anacortes,… (Kevin Bailey )
John Steinbeck couldn't find a boat and he needed one desperately. His marriage was in trouble. People in his hometown were vilifying him as a communist rabble-rouser. He figured a sea expedition with his wife, Carol, and marine biologist buddy Ed Ricketts would be just the thing.
They chartered a 76-foot sardine boat called the Western Flyer. Over six weeks in 1940, they and a four-man crew chugged from Monterey to the Mexican coast, where they caroused in waterfront bars, poked through tide pools, identified dozens of new species of sea life and collaborated on "Sea of Cortez," a pioneering work of ecology still read by budding ocean researchers.
Time has been less kind to the Western Flyer. The battered old tub, which has been called one of the most famous boats in American nonfiction, has sunk twice in the last five months and is still underwater off a dock in Anacortes, Wash. Even worse, to some Steinbeck fans, its owner wants to hoist it up, truck it nearly 1,000 miles and make it the centerpiece of a boutique hotel he's planning in downtown Salinas.
Gerry Kehoe, a developer who speaks with the lilting brogue of his native Ireland, says the boat would be a crucial attraction in a sluggish downtown already anchored by the National Steinbeck Center. The Western Flyer would float on an indoor moat, surrounded by an envisioned extension to Kehoe's vintage brick building. Couples would dine at tables on deck.
"It's anticipated that people would walk the couple of blocks from the museum to come see the boat, free of charge," he said, adding that tourists drawn to the Western Flyer would spend $15 million yearly at local businesses.
"It's an American treasure," he said. "It's Steinbeck's hometown. It's appropriate."
Kehoe's critics say it's crazy. Some cast the boat's misfortunes as only a little less tragic than those of Steinbeck's Okies.
"It's been a disaster ever since Kehoe bought it," said Bob Enea, who led a group that tried to acquire the Western Flyer and set it up as a floating museum in Monterey Bay.
Enea's uncle, Tony Berry, was owner and captain when the Steinbecks and Ricketts climbed aboard. Another uncle, "Sparky" Enea, was first mate and cook.
Kehoe "bought the boat and pretty much destroyed it," said Enea, whose Western Flyer Project raised about $10,000. "The electrical systems and engine are ruined. The salt water has probably eaten away the mahogany in the galley."
Kehoe owns at least three properties in downtown Salinas. For three years, he has been developing a complex of nightclubs and restaurants in a vacant bank building. He said part of it will open in about a month.
About 10 years ago, Kehoe planned three 14-story towers in downtown Salinas that would have included a hotel and 500 condominiums. It went nowhere, he said, because banks were reluctant to finance upscale development in a "tertiary market."
"We gallantly failed," he said. "We make no bones about it."
Whether the long-retired Western Flyer will fare any better is an open question.
Years ago, it was renamed Gemini and cruised for salmon in the immense swells of the Bering Sea. Now some experts wonder whether it can face the rigors of a road trip.
"Moving it by truck could put stresses on it that it might not be able to take," said Allen Petrich, a maritime historian whose grandfather owned the Washington shipyard that built the Western Flyer in 1937.
Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, a retired police detective, said he wanted more evidence before drawing any conclusions.
"It'll be interesting to see how they plan to pull it off," he said. "I'll believe any of this when I see the boat arrive."
Kehoe said he's undeterred. "Sometimes," he said, "city fathers don't understand the value of something like this."
In 1940, nobody in Monterey's then-vast fishing fleet wanted to rent Steinbeck or Ricketts a boat. Ricketts was an eccentric who predicted — correctly — that overfishing would kill the sardine business. Steinbeck was famous, but books such as "The Grapes of Wrath" were banned in Salinas.
"He was kind of at war with the class structure there," said Kevin Bailey, a retired fisheries biologist in Seattle who grew up in Salinas and is writing a book about the Western Flyer. "I remember my parents accusing him of every bad thing you can think of."
While Monterey's seafront and Cannery Row today are all-Steinbeck-all-the-time, the tight-knit sardine community didn't know what to make of him or Ricketts in 1940.
"They didn't even listen to us," Steinbeck later wrote, "because they couldn't quite believe we existed. We were obviously ridiculous."