In 1940 novelist John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, chartered the Western Flyer for a journey to collect specimens in Mexico. They sailed from Monterey, Calif. down the coast and into the Gulf of California, which was previously known as the Sea of Cortez after the famous Spanish explorer.
Their journey was detailed in the book “Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journey of Travel and Research.” Tacoma played a role in the voyage, which is examined in the new exhibit “Voyage of Tacoma’s Western Flyer: John Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez.”
For Steinbeck this was a chance to get away. He was encountering much media coverage and criticism from his novel about the Great Depression, “The Grapes of Wrath,” which had been released the previous year.
Western Boat Building Company was established in Old Town in 1917. One of its co-founders was Martin A. Petrich.
Western Flyer was built in 1937. It was used by fishermen in Alaska before heading south to the join the fishing fleet in Monterrey, where it was skippered by Tacoma native Tony Berry.
Ricketts was living in Monterrey. He was collecting specimens and selling them to high schools and colleges for use in science classes.
Two of the boat builder’s grandchildren, Clare Petrich and Allan Petrich, were instrumental in putting the exhibit together. In January Clare Petrich approached Tom Cashman, executive director of Foss Waterway Seaport, about her interest in an exhibit about the book and boat.
A Pacific Lutheran University student doing an internship at the museum did some of the research for the exhibit. Because the museum is undergoing renovation, the exhibit is being displayed at Tacoma Public Library.
Allan Petrich said once the adventurers decided to go on their journey, they walked the docks of Monterrey looking for the appropriate sailing vessel. When they came across Western Flyer, they were so impressed by how spotless it was they made arrangements to rent it.
There are several glass display cases with items from the boat. One contains a master carpenter certificate for the ship, issued to Martin Petrich. Others hold an anchor light, portside light, brass barometer and a tidal guide.
Information panels, denoted by color, cover various aspects of the story. Orange panels are about the voyage and how the crew was assembled.
Blue panels are about the book. There remains speculation about the roles of Steinbeck the writer, Ricketts the scientist and how much they may have switched roles during the research and writing.
They explain how Steinbeck got ideas for future books, including “The Pearl,” “Cannery Row” and “The Moon is Down,” from things that happened during the journey.
Green panels provide information about the boat.
The boat has had several owners since the book was released. The current owner keeps it is in Port Angeles, although the name has been changed to Gemini.
The exhibit runs through Aug. 25.