The Batana Project: Celebrating a Connection with Croatian Maritime Heritage

April 13, 2023 // Alex

Footage from the building of the batana at the Gig Harbor Boatshop in 2022, courtesy of Trevor Nordeen.

On July 4, master shipwright and third-generation commercial fisherman Michael Vlahovich set out to build a boat in Gig Harbor. Although the vessel was small, it had big ambitions: it was meant to represent hundreds of years of Croatian American boatbuilding and fishing traditions, provide hands-on opportunities to pass on traditional maritime skills, and spark a cross-cultural exchange between Puget Sound and the Dalmatian Coast. Oh, and it had to be done in time for Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival less than three months away.

Despite these lofty goals, the process of building and launching this traditional Croatian fishing skiff—known as a batana—became a joyful, community-wide celebration of maritime skills and stories. Efforts were led by the Croatian nonprofit Maritima Educare and the Gig Harbor BoatShop (who hosted the build) in partnership with the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival and with support from the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area. Plans for the batana were donated by the Batana ECO Museum of Rovinj, Croatia, while Pacific Northwest Timbers and Crossroads Recycled Lumber donated reclaimed wood for the boat’s construction. Port Townsend’s The Artful Sailor made the sail in the traditional Croatian checkerboard pattern, while the Northwest Maritime Center’s Boatshop built its spars.

Mike Vlahovich, Mike Leach, and Jonathan Cunningham at work on day 18 of construction in the Eddon Boatyard.

The build itself was supported by dozens of community volunteers—from experienced woodworkers to those entirely new to boatbuilding. “It exceeded my expectations and surprised me in many ways, the camaraderie that was built and the generosity from so many people and just the desire to be part of it, to be part of an exciting project,” says Mike. Through demonstrations, open houses, and hands-on programming, the building of the batana became an opportunity for the entire community to learn about traditional boatbuilding and the Croatian influence on our maritime landscape.

Washington’s saltwater shores have long attracted waves of newcomers from around the world, enticed by the natural abundance and beauty that have nurtured indigenous communities here since time immemorial. Over the past few centuries, immigrants from what is now known as the Republic of Croatia settled throughout the region—especially around the South Sound—driven from their home on the Dalmatian Coast by war, disease, and diminishing resources. Like many immigrant groups, they brought with them shipbuilding technologies and traditional fishing practices from their homeland that quickly became part of the region’s rich maritime culture. Families of Croatian origin (such as the well-known Skansie family of Gig Harbor) founded boatbuilding operations, shipyards and marinas, ferry lines, and fishing businesses that helped put Washington’s maritime sector on the map.

Although much has changed over the years, Croatian maritime influence remains within the boats and the people of Washington’s working waterfronts. Mike hopes that this project has helped celebrate and pass on the traditional maritime practices shared between Puget Sound and Croatia. “Passing on those skills and stories has been my passion for several years now,” Mike explains. “You never know what happens when you plant seeds like that, but with this particular project, I just have a lot of confidence that the seeds that have been planted in these people are going to spring forth with great ideas and new efforts. That’s what I’m proudest of.”

Thanks to the hard work of Mike, a dedicated team of volunteers, and widespread community support, the batana was officially launched amidst community celebrations in Gig Harbor on Saturday, September 3—complete with a christening and send-off from a traditional Croatian band. From there, it headed to Port Townsend for the 45th annual Wooden Boat Festival, where it served as a centerpiece for this year’s theme of Croatian maritime heritage.

What’s next for the batana? With support from the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area, the batana will travel to Tacoma to make her permanent home at the Foss Waterway Seaport. There, she will continue her quest to celebrate and educate about Croatian American maritime heritage. Stay tuned!

Michael Vlahovich at work on the batana. Photo by Trevor Nordeen, courtesy of the Gig Harbor BoatShop.

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