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At the helm: Master shipwright keeping South Sound maritime tradition afloat

Behind the wheel with skipper Mike Vlahovich

Master boat builder Mike Vlahovich, winner of the National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellowship award, discusses the importance of preserving the culture of commercial fishing families during a recent cruise from Tacoma to Gig Harbor on the h
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Master boat builder Mike Vlahovich, winner of the National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellowship award, discusses the importance of preserving the culture of commercial fishing families during a recent cruise from Tacoma to Gig Harbor on the h

After quick working trips in Maryland, Tacoma and recently Croatia, Mike Vlahovich often finds peace on board the Commencement.

He’s sat at the helm of the 90-year-old fishing boat often.

“Rain or shine, this is the place I’ll be,” the 66-year-old master shipwright said of his favorite place on the boat.

Despite its age, the Commencement is Vlahovich’s baby.

For 70 years, Croatian net fishermen, much like Vlahovich’s Croatian immigrant parents, used the vessel in Washington and Alaska before it was retired and Vlahovich adopted it for rehabilitation in 1996.

He’s worked on keeping it ship shape ever since.

The Commencement is 65 feet of bright white wood that Vlahovich and members of his nonprofit, the Coastal Heritage Alliance, have painted and restored since it became the organization’s flagship in 2003.

It’s usually docked at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma and is big enough to spot from the steps leading to the docks by the Museum of Glass.

 
Mike Vlahovich pilots the purse seiner Commencement down the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma on Thursday, July 21, 2016. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Vlahovich has become well-acquainted with the Commencement, spending the past five or so summers eating and sleeping on deck while working for the alliance in Puget Sound.

In addition to restoring historic wooden boats like the Commencement, Vlahovich works with board members of CHA to revive traditional commercial fishing heritage on the East and West coasts.

Rather than create museums that simply talk about the past, they invite others to experience it.

“I wanted to work with the culture more than the objects that represented the history and (create) alternate tourism venues that actually sustain the traditional culture,” Vlahovich said. “Not just talk about it, not just make signs about it, not just display objects about it.”

Peter Simpson, an alliance board member and a captain himself, said the nonprofit provides a unique opportunity for inexperienced boaters.

“To see people come on the boat who haven’t been on boats before and probably don’t understand the history of wooden boat-building and fishing in this Puget Sound area … that’s what gives me the satisfaction for the organization,” he said.

The group runs “heritage tours” in Puget Sound and on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, teaching people how to fish and navigate boats.

Vlahovich, who occasionally takes on apprentices and teaches them the craft of boating, calls it “both hands and head work combined.”

This year, Vlahovich received a National Endowment for the Arts heritage fellowship award for his work to preserve the “cultural, material and environmental heritage of fisheries of the Northwest and the Chesapeake Bay,” according to the NEA.

This year’s nine fellows received $25,000 and were invited to showcase their crafts at a concert Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C.

Initially, Vlahovich said, he laughed at the idea of a “concert.” Unlike the other fellows who are musicians or dancers, he can’t make a short performance on the craft of wooden boat-building, so he’s opted for a presentation instead.

Vlahovich has lived in this culture for most of his life.

 
Lawyers and staff of Ledger Square Law toast Mike Vlahovich, left, for receiving a National Endowment of the Arts heritage fellowship for his career work as a master boat builder. From left: Vlahovich, Marsha Reidburn, Bryan Johnson, Clay Selby, Jason Whalen and Clemencia Castro-Woolery. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Born in Tacoma to Croatian immigrants, he began fishing commercially when he was 15. He considered other professions in his 20s — even studying for a short time to become a Catholic priest — but was drawn to his roots as a boat builder.

He commits his summers to Tacoma, working primarily on restoring historic wooden boats like the Commencement and leading the alliance’s heritage tours.

He spends the rest of the year in Maryland, where, in addition to restoring maritime-related objects like wooden boats, he’s an instructor for the State Arts Council’s master-apprenticeship program.

He’s worked by Chesapeake Bay since moving there with his family in 2001. The location appealed to him because of its “old-fashioned” and traditional fishing community.

“Fisherman there still wanted and appreciated wooden boats versus changing to fiberglass and aluminum,” he said.

In June, he worked in Croatia for two months after being invited to speak about the best of American maritime practices to interested fisherman there.

He’s passionate about maintaining the maritime heritage of Tacoma and Gig Harbor, a duty that’s especially necessary.

“I saw that the very culture that I grew up in and that other fisherman grew up in was disappearing,” Vlahovich said.

His work in Tacoma goes back to the 1990s.

To see people come on the boat who haven’t been on boats before and probably don’t understand the history of wooden boat building and fishing in this Puget Sound area … that’s what gives me the satisfaction for the organization.

Peter Simpson, alliance board member and boat captain

He and Phyllis Harrison, a folklorist who now works at LeRoy Jewelers, helped launch the Foss Waterway Seaport.

Harrison said she had wanted to create exhibits at the seaport to showcase the city’s maritime heritage, but Vlahovich insisted they show how maritime tools still can be used rather than just displayed.

“I was the one advocating for things to go into museums, and Mike just said, ‘No, no, no, we’ve got to use them. … Don’t shut them up in a museum,’” she said.

This work prompted a past curator of the Harbor History Museum, Victoria Blackwell, to nominate Vlahovich for a NEA heritage fellowship around 2009.

She had worked with Vlahovich in 2006 to restore another wooden boat, the Shenandoah. First built at the Skansie Shipbuilding Co. in 1925, the craft was beginning to deteriorate, Blackwell said.

“The thing about the vessel was that it was pretty good down under the water line,” she said. “It was the above that sits in the rain and the elements (that) needed restoration.”

Vlahovich was part of the team working on the boat’s restoration, but had a particular “passion, not just for the work and restoration, but also for the heritage behind it,” Blackwell said.

She remembers one morning seeing Vlahovich, alone, cleaning out the sludge in the belly of the boat, even though he could have called a volunteer to help.

“He was not afraid to get his hands dirty,” she said.

 
While Mike Vlahovich took a turn behind the wheel, Commencement captain Peter Simpson finds a peaceful spot to enjoy a heritage cruise across Commencement Bay. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Vlahovich had said he “just can’t ask a volunteer to do that” kind of dirty job, and opted to handle this part of the restoration process on his own.

His fellowship nomination sat among the other nominees until being picked up by the NEA this year.

Since the announcement of the fellows, Vlahovich has been on a podcast and invited for a radio interview, something he finds daunting.

“You have feelings of, ‘My god, I don’t deserve it,’ ” Vlahovich said. “They’ve made me out to be someone I’m not.”

However, he’s also pleased his work has been noticed on a national level, and hopes it will further his cause of keeping the heritage of commercial fishing alive.

“I’m a bit of a preacher when it comes to certain things like that,” he said.

As for the $25,000 that comes from being named an NEA fellow, Vlahovich said he doesn’t plan on using the money just for pleasure.

“My intent is to use it not to go lie on the beach someplace … but to try and kind of enhance my own career,” he said.

He plans to return to Croatia in December to continue his maritime heritage education programs and perhaps get more in touch with the roots of his own heritage.

Before all that, in July, Vlahovich began a boat trip along the inside passage from Tacoma to Alaska for a month to design a future college curriculum for Croatian students.

Harrison said such active work has always been an integral part of Vlahovich.

“For him, his heritage is very much a living thing,” Harrison said. “It’s not something that’s a box on a shelf.”

Manola Secaira: 253-597-8876

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