Opinion Columns & Blogs

Will Tacoma’s boatbuilding legacy last a century?

In 1917, Joe M. Martinac joined with my grandfather, Martin A. Petrich, in founding Western Boat Building Co. At year's end, Martinac left as they were making less than their workers. They remained lifelong friends.

It was painful for me to read that the yard Martinac founded in 1924 – the last major original traditional shipyard in Tacoma – is now facing foreclosure.

Martinac was one of the early founding fathers of Tacoma’s boatbuilding industry, along with the other Dalmatian Slav immigrants: Stefano Babare, J.A. Martinolich, the Skansie brothers and Martin Petrich. They were later joined by John J. Petrich, John Breskovich and Mike Kazulin.

They and their Norse counterparts built the industry when the gasoline engine was married to the wooden boat for purse seine fishing for salmon in 1903. Adapted for sardine and tuna, these boats also captured California markets. The Northwest seine boat revolutionized the tuna industry in the Mediterranean and the world. One, named the Tacoma, founded the Australian tuna industry, where it is preserved and honored today.

Tacoma became known as “The Fishing Boat Capital of the World” following World War II. It was a thrill to drive across the 11th Street Bridge in the swarm of cars, trucks and buses into clouds of steam and the shrieks of starting whistles at the yards, plants and mills.

During wartime, what could surpass a military launch? Local, state and federal officials attended, along with Army and Navy brass, and throngs of citizens. Bands played. The boat's female sponsor announced, "I christen thee...” Support blocks were hammered away, welders cut restraining cables, then came a whoosh and cheer as the boat slid into Commencement Bay.

JM Martinac built the finest fishing craft, naval craft, the ultimate purse seiner at 240 feet and the finest of Navy tugs.

Joe S. Martinac Jr. – JM's grandson and current principal – was able to once again step in and save the yard.

When a ship goes down the ways, those who board it are looking ahead to years of fishing, working as crew or military service. But the boat builder looks at the empty ways, wondering when the next job will come.

I believe I can speak for all the shipyard families – Crawford, Reid, Babare, Martinolich, Skansie, Petrich, Dahl, Strom, Peterson, Breskovich, Mojean, Ericson, Kazulin and Cole – in hoping that, somehow, the last boat has not left the ways and that JM Martinac & Sons might yet see its centennial.

Allen Petrich Jr. lives in Olympia.