By Molly Igoe
Elm Staff Writer
In “Stories from the Galley: Commencement,” the second in a three-part lecture series on maritime history sponsored by the Center for Environment and Society, Michael Vlahovich discussed his passion for building and restoring wooden boats as a result of his childhood growing up on the waterfront of Tacoma, Wash.
His family came to the Pacific Northwest from Croatia 100 years ago and began the family tradition of commercial fishing and boat building. In his talk on Nov. 4 in Hynson lounge, he recounted his experiences of commercial fishing when he was a teenager in Puget Sound, Alaska and Baja, Calif.
Vlahovich said, “I’ve been involved in seafaring since I was 15. It’s what I was born into, and because of this I have always been drawn to the sea and maritime culture.”
On these commercial fishing expeditions, he became intrigued with how the wooden timbers fit together on the boats and decided to go to trade school to learn more about wooden boat building.
While pursuing an education in the skills of a shipwright, Vlahovich studied under Joe Trembly, a well-known boat builder and teacher. For many years, he harvested fish as a commercial fisherman while building and restoring wooden boats.
Later on, Vlahovich co-founded the Working Waterfront Museum in Tacoma in 1994 to preserve the waterfront of his hometown, and he is the originator of the Maritime Festival, which celebrates the maritime culture of Tacoma.
In 1999, he received the Washington State Governor’s Art and Heritage award for preserving fishing heritage in the community. Vlahovich spends most of his time now on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and was the director for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where he helped restore the last remaining skipjacks in Maryland.
He is the founding director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, or CHA, based in St. Michaels, Md. and Gig Harbor, Wash., which is a non-profit volunteer-based educational organization focused on preserving and advancing the culture and heritage of commercial fishing. Although he recently stepped down as the director, he still plays a large role in helping run the organization.
During his talk, Vlahovich discussed the meaning behind the name of his first boat, the Commencement. “I named my first boat after commencing on something new, which has proven to be true, as it used to be only for commercial fishing, and now is used to teach about the heritage behind fishing,” he said.
He quoted Mark Twain during the lecture, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why,” to explain why he is so passionate about preserving the fishermen culture.
Vlahovich said, “I worked on my family boat the Victory, and one day the captain found an old newspaper issue below deck in an old pump room. The issue was printed 2 days after my birthday, and on the front page I saw the announcement of my birth. That is when I knew that it was my calling to honor and speak about the fishermen who had perhaps read this exact newspaper and to keep their past traditions alive.”
Today, Vlahovich runs cultural heritage tours on the Commencement for the public to increase awareness of the unique culture of fishermen, which has been continually threatened by environmental degradation and corporate fish farming.
This past summer, he and faculty at Washington College hosted a 15-day trip to Puget Sound, Wash. to learn more about fishing in the Pacific Northwest and the unique stories and culture from this area. He has maintained a close relationship with many of the students who attended this trip and continues to be involved in the College’s Center for the Environment and Society.
Vlahovich summed up his passion for keeping the maritime culture alive when he said, “My people are water people…I wanted to be a gatekeeper to this culture and way of life.”
For more information about the Coastal Heritage Alliance, go to http://www.coastalheritage.org, or email email@example.com. Contact Michael Vlachovich directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next lecture in this series is entitled “Melting Ice, Rising Seas, and Shifting Shores,” and will feature John Englander on Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. in Hynson.