The Past-Due Rent of Wrath: Boat Linked to Steinbeck becomes Port of Port Townsend Liability

By Charlie Bermant, September 14,2013, Peninsula Daily News

The disposition of a fishing boat that provided the setting for some of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s books is uncertain, since the owner has not paid any storage fees since the 72-foot derelict vessel was brought into the Boat Haven in July, according to the Port of Port Townsend.

As of Friday, Gerry Kehoe, the owner of the Western Flyer — which was brought into the Boat Haven covered in mud and barnacles earlier this summer — owed the Port of Port Townsend $7,877.73 in fees and has not responded to any communications about the bill, according to port executive assistant Jean French.

“Usually when someone owes us money and can’t pay, they will come in and talk to us and pay us something,” French said.

“But we haven’t heard anything from [Kehoe] since we sent the first bill in July.”

Kehoe, a businessman and developer in Steinbeck’s old stomping ground of Salinas, Calif., purchased the Western Flyer in 2010 with the intention of using it as a tourist attraction.

When he bought it — for an undisclosed price — it was submerged near Anacortes and had to be raised twice before repairs were considered, said Kehoe, who had the boat towed to Port Townsend.

Kehoe, who answered questions through email, said he had paid a $25,000 deposit to the port required before the boat was accepted and that the costs are “way less than $1,000, so the figures and the alarm are both misguided.”

Port Director Larry Crockett said the deposit has nothing to do with the storage fees; it is collected to cover the costs of scrapping the vessel if it is not repaired.

Crockett said state law governs a port’s powers with regard to dealing with a non-paying boat client.

Thirty-day and 60-day notices have been sent to Kehoe. A 90-day notice will go out at the end of this month, Crockett said.

At that time, Kehoe will have another 90 days to come up with the funds.

At the end of that period, he will be given a 10-day notice of the port’s intent to auction the boat, which would be an amount to cover storage costs and expenses.

“We would set a price that would allow us to recover our costs, but we usually lose money at auctions,” Crockett said.

If the auction price covered the port’s cost, the deposit would be returned to Kehoe with interest, Crockett said.

If the auction didn’t cover costs, the deposit would make up the difference.

If the boat did not sell, then the cost of disposal would be deducted from the deposit, Crockett said.

In either case, the unused portion of Kehoe’s deposit would be returned.

The Western Flyer, which was built by Tacoma’s Western Boat Building Co. in 1937, was chartered in 1940 by author Steinbeck and a friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, for a six-week expedition to Mexico’s Gulf of California.

Ricketts became the model for the character Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, published in 1945.

Kehoe intends to restore the vessel to its condition when Steinbeck was aboard and transport it to a Steinbeck museum in inland Salinas, Calif.

An estimate from experts cited by Kehoe states that it would cost $1.15 million to restore the vessel to a seaworthy state so it would need to be taken apart, transported to Salinas and reassembled in order to become part of the museum, Kehoe said.

“She will be moved over land and in the optimum manner that accounts for width and height requirements as required by law,” he wrote in an email.

“The display of items like the Western Flyer in dry dock settings is the optimum manner to preserve the artifact for posterity.”

As examples, Kehoe cites the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; Ernest Hemingway’s boat The Pillar, on display in Havana; and the African Queen, from the movie of the same name, on display in the Florida Keys.

“All of them attract between 100,000 and two million visitors a year,” Kehoe wrote, saying access to the restored boat would be free to the public.

“The Western Flyer will be unique in that not one person will have to spend one cent to view her, photograph her or board her.”

Kehoe has spurned several purchase offers because they were not authentic, he said, adding that now, he would accept any offer that would cover his previous expenses, an amount he did not disclose.

Kehoe has not pursued plans for repair and transportation but said he is preparing the Salinas building to accommodate the vessel’s arrival.

This includes cutting a 1,200-square-foot section of the mezzanine floor and the creation of a 720-square-foot atrium above the boat “to show her to the public in the best light,” he wrote.

Steinbeck, who lived from 1902 to 1968, was born in Salinas. His novel The Grapes of Wrath — about the migration of a family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California — won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and a National Book Award. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

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