The Batana Project: Building a boat and a connection with Croatian maritime heritage
Image: Michael Vlahovich at work on the batana. Photo by Trevor Nordeen, courtesy of the Gig Harbor BoatShop.
Michael Vlahovich—a master shipwright and third-generation commercial fisherman—has dedicated most of his life to practicing and sharing traditional maritime skills. “When what you know as a master is your greatest treasure, it’s kind of a matter of your inheritance,” Mike says. “Who are you going to leave that with? And how do you leave a skill? Well, only through education and teaching. Yes, it can be documented: you can interview people, you can photograph people. But, really, if it’s to stay alive, that treasure needs to be implanted in another human being.”
Born in Tacoma to Croatian immigrants, Mike is particularly interested in passing down the boatbuilding traditions of his parents’ homeland. Currently living in his father’s birth village of Sumartin, Brač, Croatia, Mike wants to sustain the cross-cultural shipbuilding practices that connect Croatia and Puget Sound—where many immigrants from the Dalmatian coast have helped shape local maritime practices and culture.
This summer, with support from the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area, Mike is working with the Croatian nonprofit Maritima Educare, the Gig Harbor BoatShop, and the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival to build a traditional Croatian fishing skiff known as a batana. Construction of the batana started on July 4 in Gig Harbor, a community with deep Croatian-American connections, past and present. Over the course of two months, Mike will craft a boat that, as he describes, “represents hundreds of years of Croatian fishermen.”
The build and surrounding celebration of Croatian-American maritime heritage is truly an international group effort. Plans for the batana were donated by the Batana ECO Museum of Rovinj, Croatia, while Pacific Northwest Timbers and Crossroads Recycled Lumber have donated reclaimed wood for the boat’s construction. Port Townsend’s The Artful Sailor is making a sail in the traditional Croatian checkerboard pattern, while the Northwest Maritime Center’s Boatshop builds the batana’s spars. The build itself, led by Mike, is supported by dozens of community members—from experienced woodworkers to those entirely new to boatbuilding.
Once the batana is completed in September, it will travel to Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival where it will serve as a centerpiece for this year’s theme of Croatian Maritime Heritage. “The birth of this idea came when the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival told me they wanted to highlight Croatian-American maritime heritage at their festival this year,” says Mike. “So the boat project is certainly to help educate people about wooden boat construction, but it’s also here to tell a story, to remind people of where they came from, how their ancestors fished with small wooden boats with no motor in it.”
On Day 18 of construction, Mike Leach and Jonathan Cunningham joined Mike Vlahovich at the Eddon Boatyard to craft the body of the batana. Both have their own ties to Croatian maritime heritage—in fact, their family trees include many immigrants from Brač, Croatia, and multiple generations of fishermen, shipyard owners, and boatbuilders. “I heard stories about this kind of wood from my grandpa,” says Mike Leach while steaming planks of hundred-year-old recycled fir on the batana.
Croatians and Croatian-Americans have had a significant influence on the maritime practices of Washington’s saltwater shores. Many immigrants—particularly those from the Dalmatian Coast—settled in the Puget Sound area in the late 1800s, drawn by salmon-rich waters and budding communities of fellow Croatians. They brought with them shipbuilding technologies and traditional fishing practices from their homeland—including the influential method of seine fishing, which utilizes a net with floats on the top to encircle and capture a school of fish. Families of Croatian origin (including the well-known Skansie family) founded large boatbuilding operations, shipyards and marinas, ferry lines, and fishing businesses that helped put Washington’s maritime sector on the map.
Today, Mike and the batana project aim to celebrate and strengthen these ties. Members of the public are invited to step into this story—centuries in the making—by:
- Attending an open house at the historic Eddon Boatyard where Mike will guide visitors through the history, design, and construction of the batana every Sunday in August from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm.
- Volunteering to help build the batana for an authentic, hands-on boatbuilding experience—no prior experience required! Sign up for a three-hour time slot Monday through Wednesday throughout the month of August on the BoatShop website.
- Joining the boat christening celebration on Saturday, September 3 at the Gig Harbor BoatShop’s Eddon Boatyard.
- Visiting the completed batana and learning more about Croatian maritime heritage at the Wooden Boat Festival from September 9 to 11 in Port Townsend.
Stay tuned for more updates on the batana project from Maritime Washington over the coming weeks!