John Steinbeck’s Boston Whaler

“Man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.”

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Five years ago I stumbled upon the National John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. We were on a road trip and it happened to be on Steinbeck’s birthday. I wrote a post about that experience.

I’ve always thought of Steinbeck as a California or western writer. Honestly, I don’t know much about his life and was pleasantly surprise to learn that he lived the last 15 years of his life on the Long Island Sound in Sag Harbor.

Last week Laura and I went to Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, CT for a tour of their Watercraft Hall. This is a huge warehouse, home to about 470 boats and many engines.

One of the first boats that the docent talked about was a Boston Whaler. Boston Whalers are ubiquitous here on the Long Island Sound, so my attention wasn’t focused on the boat at hand, it was swirling around all the cool stuff in the immediate vicinity. When I heard the docent say that this Boston Whaler had belonged to John Steinbeck, my eyes snapped to.

Bow of John Steinbeck's Boston Whaler
The bow of Steinbeck’s boat.

I was so surprised by this literary connection and still a bit visually overwhelmed that I didn’t think to ask the question that is now burning within: how did Steinbeck’s boat end up in Mystic?

Starboard side of Steinbeck’s Boston Whaler.

I did a quick online search and didn’t find any connections, but I did come across two tours on YouTube of the Watercraft Hall with Chris Gasiorck, VP of Watercraft Preservation and Programs at Mystic Seaport.

Some of the boats in Watercraft Hall are in rough shape. Gasiorck explains that the intention of their program is not to restore boats, but to be “a library of vessel construction.” The boats in the collection are the first of their kind or one of the last remaining of their kind. A few were involved in historic events. The boats are studied and 3D photos are created to document the design.

Most of the boats in Watercraft Hall are wooden boats. Boston Whalers, however, are fiberglass. They were first produced in 1958. Steinbeck and his third wife, Elaine, purchased their home on Sag Harbor in 1955, so this Boston Whaler is an early model.

You can see some great photos of the Steinbeck’s property here and of the inside of the house here. The property went on the market in February 2021 with an asking price of $16.75 million. The house is adorable and modest, but the land is an amazing location.

Romantics would prefer to think of Steinbeck underway in the Western Flyer, the old wooden fishing boat that he and Ed Ricketts chartered for their exploration of the Sea of Cortez, rather than a slick fiberglass boat.

I would be just such a romantic. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to own a Boston Whaler. It’s just that in my imagination, Steinbeck belongs to an earlier era.

The Western Flyer sunk three times. The third time was the charm, because she was rescued and is now undergoing a complete renovation. The video below is about the Western Flyer and what it means to people who have been deeply impacted by The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

If you want to learn more about the renovation of Western Flyer, check out the Western Flyer Foundation. They also have a YouTube channel where they share the work being done. The last video was posted just 11 days ago, so work is ongoing.

5 comments

  1. Neat that you got to see this, sometime perhaps you can go back and ask how the boat got to Mystic! I haven’t read The Log from the Sea of Cortez but I’d like to read my way through more Steinbeck – I have the Library of America set sitting there waiting for me to crack it open. Maybe this will form my incentive for the next read.

    • If I learn anything more about the boat, I’ll definitely write a follow up post. I also want to read more Steinbeck. My Willa Cather book group is reading our last of her novels in January and after that we’re choosing another author to read for our quarterly gatherings. Steinbeck seems to be in the lead. I want to read The Log and also Travels with Charley.

  2. Hi Chris – I work at Mystic Seaport Museum. Steinbeck’s whaler does not belong to the Museum, it is here on loan for a special exhibit opening at the end of May, 2022. The boat is privately owned.

    • Hi KK, thanks for letting us know more about the whaler. I look forward to the new exhibit. It’s been a couple months since I’ve been able to visit so I’m over-due. Although I imagine every workplace has its challenges, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to work at Mystic Seaport Museum.

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