Music Credits: “Annibelle June,” composed and performed by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck.
Michael Vlahovich: My maritime occupational crafts and skills and passion are far more than fitting two pieces of wood together, far, far more. And it's the passion that's kept me in the trade and kept me building wood boats, restoring wood boats.
Jo Reed: That’s Master Ship Wright and 2016 National Heritage Fellow Mike Vlahovich. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Mike Vlahovich has the sea in his blood. He is a third generation commercial fisherman whose ancestors fished the Adriatic off the coast of Croatia. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Mike began fishing professionally when he was 15—loving the wooden working boats almost as much as he loved fishing. His fascination with the timber vessels grew and in the off-season, he learned the craft of repairing and building these boats. He opened his own boatyard and gained a reputation as an exacting and talented builder. Mike’s passion for wooden working boats went hand-in-hand with his appreciation of a working waterfront. To that end, he turned his attention to education and Heritage tourism with the launch of the wooden fishing vessel The Commencement, which Mike restored and turned into a floating classroom. Since then, Mike has been in the forefront of the effort to save historic wooden vessels. Aside from his continued work on the boats, he’s trained more than 100 apprentices and consulted more than 22 heritage organizations. He was a founder of the Working Waterfront Museum and still conducts Heritage and education tours on The Commencement. And that’s just his west-coast resume.
Mike moved to the Maryland’s Chesapeake region in 2001 and rebuilt a fleet of sail-powered wooden oyster boats known as skipjacks and he created a thriving apprenticeship program in the bargain. He’s trained 120 waterman to serve as Heritage Tour guides and he formed the Coastal Heritage Alliance, which promotes the restoration of historic working boats on both coasts. His job, as he sees it, is to keep both the craft and the culture of the working waterfront alive and bring them to the next generation. And for his work, he’s received awards from both Washington State and Maryland. And now Mike Vlahovich has been named a 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellow. It’s our nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. I spoke to him over the summer at his home in Maryland’s eastern shore and wondered if he knew early on that working on the water was what he wanted.
Michael Vlahovich: Oh, I mean, absolutely. I mean I think I loved it before I even went because my brother, my older brother I remember seeing him off early in the morning when he left with my grandfather for Alaska to go fishing, I was still too young to go. But before I was hired as a crewmember, I did go out with my grandfather not to Alaska, but closer to home, and I watched the whole operation.
Jo Reed: Can you describe what it is that you loved about it? What spoke to you so deeply?
Michael Vlahovich: The sea. The sea life, it was exciting, it was an adventure. And I loved the old wood boats. <laughs> The boat that my grandfather was using when I went, it wasn’t the one he owned. He had turned the family boat over to his two sons, so my uncles. But grandfather still wanted to run a boat, so he basically leased one from a cannery and it was very rotten and, you know, I was too young to do any work, so he would sit me up on the bow of the boat, to stay out of the way of all the fishing gear and everything. And, you know, I'd get kind of bored and I remember just picking away at the rot <laughs> like it was something to do. Little did I know that that would be something I would do for the rest of my life, pick away at rotten wood boats. I liked the camaraderie, it was around the galley table, the kitchen in the boat that I learned about my heritage. So at the end of the day, you know, you would have a big meal, the older guys would have a drink or two, and that's when I would hear the stories of the old country. In the beginning, all of the crew except for me, and maybe a couple of my cousins, they were all immigrants.
Jo Reed: And all from Croatia?
Michael Vlahovich: Yeah. And a lot of times they would speak in their native tongue, but a lot of times it was just sort of broken English, kind of a mixture of Croatian and English, quite hilarious, really <laughs>. So I mean that was really special too. I didn't speak Croatian. My parents spoke it fluently. My parents didn't want their children to be viewed as immigrants. You know today, you know, I think parents would be proud of the fact that their children spoke their native tongue. So I never learned it, but I was around it on the fishing boats. And so it was special. And being with a bunch of old men, because I mean that's when I became a man myself I guess, again, because they expected me to do a man's work on the boat. And if it got rough and I got seasick, too bad. Nobody babied me, nor did I look for that. But you know, looking back on it now, it was really instrumental in who I became. And, actually, when my children, my son and my three daughters, were the same age as I was when I was introduced to the sea, I wanted that for them so much because it was so valuable for me.
Jo Reed: Not too go too far off track, but I'm fascinated by the fact that you were in a seminary, the Jesuits?
Michael Vlahovich: Well yeah, I mean I went to parochial schools my whole life. A couple of years of Jesuit college and then Jesuit novitiate. I wanted to study to be a priest. I always wanted to - that's an earlier memory than fishing. A lot of that was because of my father. Dad was extremely religious, was really into the rituals, and was very devout and very generous, very charitable, you know, did a lot of social work himself. So that, I'm sure that influenced me. But you know, I didn't stay in it long. It was only a year, but a very influential year because it was part of their spiritual training formation where you were almost like in a cloistered environment, intense. A good intense, I loved it.
Jo Reed: How did you get back to the sea?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, I loved the sea as well because I had fished several seasons before I went to become a Jesuit. Part of our daily routine, and it was very regimented, part of the schedule was your morning meditation at sunrise. And in nice weather I would take it outside. It was on a 900-acre farm in western Oregon, and so I would walk out on the farm land and do my meditation. And it would end up at the cafeteria, or the refectory we called it for breakfast <laughs>. And one spring morning I was walking back for breakfast, and before I got there, I smelled the coffee. And immediately, the smell of that coffee just took me right back to the deck of the fishing boat. We would get up before dawn, when we were fishing and have our coffee first and sit around the galley table and tell more stories. And it just came clear to me that I needed to go back with my people, It's not like I didn't want to be part of the church, it's just that I felt like was ready, I was ready to go do my thing with the fisherman.
Jo Reed: What is daily life like on a fishing boat? I know it's really hard work, but I have very little sense; you throw nets over, you get fish. I mean how does it work?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, it's teamwork and so that's really crucial that you're with a good team and you don’t always pick the team, I mean unless you're the captain and make the decisions. So, the personality part of it, can be difficult, can be. When it's not, then that's a real high point, that's a real plus, just because of that companionship and that camaraderie, and working hard together, hopefully making money together, facing the storm together, enjoying the beautiful sunsets together. I started that 50 years ago, so even within my lifetime, things became more mechanized and therefore not quite as hard physically. More equipment, more hydraulic equipment meant fewer crew members, less physical backbreaking work. But it was always long hours and you always had sea conditions to deal with, and you know, fishermen are eternal optimists which didn’t always pan out very well. You'd go out with high hopes of making a lot of money, and sometimes you’d come home with nothing. So that was hard, you know, hard on the family. It was a risk and yet, you're called to it, you don't see it as a job. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle and that's what really draws you – what drew me in. I liked the seasonal part of it, so I very seldom fished year-round. I liked working hard for four or five months and then I was tired of it, I was ready to do something else. And yet again, come spring you're ready to get out of the house, and get away with the guys and experience nature and you know, kind of the risk and the gambling. And once I became a captain, which didn’t happen until the early 1990s. And that was a whole different situation than being a crew member. So it was another responsibility, but another piece of excitement, you know, you're the captain, you know, people called you "the captain," and they respected you as the captain, and all of a sudden you were part of the captain's club. So when all the boats were tied up together, the captains would sort of hang out together, they were sort of the upper echelon <laughs>, if you will. So that was pretty thrilling.
Jo Reed: And were you going out on wooden boats, was the boat you captained a wooden boat?
Michael Vlahovich: Always, always. Always wooden boats, yeah.
Jo Reed: And you loved them right from the get-go?
Michael Vlahovich: Oh yeah. I mean see I fished five or six years before I started repairing and building and restoring, so yeah, I was already in love with wooden boats before I really knew how they were constructed, but I mean, that's kind of how I learned how they were constructed, because you would, you'd be laying in your bunk at night maybe in rough seas and the deck beams are like right here, you know, it's kind of claustrophobic. But I would look and see, "How did they fit all these pieces together? I mean it's like a huge wooden puzzle."
Jo Reed: It's like you have to be an engineer?
Michael Vlahovich: Well yeah, and a pretty good craftsperson to make all these things fit.
Jo Reed: Yeah, both, yeah.
Michael Vlahovich: And so that intrigued me from day one, "Wow that would be so neat to be able to do that."
Jo Reed: How did you learn how to build and repair boats?
Michael Vlahovich: Well again, as a teenager, as a crew member on a boat, you were also responsible to do minor maintenance and painting to get the boat ready for the season. So I mean I learned a little bit then but that wasn’t major work. If there was major work to do, you would go to the shipyard with the captain, and the shipyard would put qualified people on it. So I would watch them, you know, I remember becoming intrigued with ship's caulking, so where you drive the cotton and oakum in between the seams, in between the planks on a wooden hull, to keep it water tight, and to actually stiffen up the structure, because you drive it in really hard. I remember just watching this old guy do it and I loved the rhythm, it makes a ringing sound that intrigued me. So I learned a lot just through observation, and it certainly got my curiosity up. But I did then decide to go to a trade school. So I went to a technical college and I learned under a fellow by the name of Joe Trumbly and he learned his boatbuilding from Croatians in Tacoma. So, even though he was not Croatian, in fact he was Osage Indian, but again, had learned under the Croatian family boat builders in the Pacific Northwest. So the skills he was teaching me really were from Croatians, and most of these Croatians were immigrants. And so they actually brought this skill with them. And now, I am bringing that skill back to Croatia.
Jo Reed: Because it was lost in Croatia?
Michael Vlahovich: They are struggling with that now, I mean it's just like America's lost a lot of it too. But anyway, that’s another story.
Jo Reed: Your boat building and repair, you had 24 craftspeople working for you, that seems pretty big to me?
Michael Vlahovich: That was kind of the heyday. And <laugh> it happened within a year's time. I was just a travelling single contractor working out of the back of a pickup truck, and then took a chance, had some projects that needed a facility, and then got the facility and only had one employee. And then my reputation grew, and you know, within a year, year and-a-half we had a big crew. And you know, I mean it wasn't a huge successful business financially, but it was still sort of a big deal. And I made some money, and used that to invest in a founding of a museum in Tacoma, The Working Waterfront Museum and then was also the originator of a Maritime Festival in Tacoma. So I gave back, I wanted to give back. I used that money to buy my own fishing boat, The Commencement.
Jo Reed: When you had your own company, did you only work on working boats, or were--
Michael Vlahovich: Primarily, actually once I had--
Jo Reed: I know that's what you like.
Michael Vlahovich: -- A big crew like that, then yeah, I had to branch out a little bit and we did some work on yachts, but you know, my heart was not in it. I like to work for what I call "working people," because as much as I love working on boats and I think I'm pretty fair at it, there's certainly crafts people that are better than I am, but I'm not sure there are any that are as passionate as I am, and as dedicated to it. But what really drives me is the culture. The working waterfront culture.
Jo Reed: Now you put together as you said a museum. We’re still on the West Coast and you rebuilt The Commencement which was a wooden salmon boat?
Michael Vlahovich: Yeah, right, right.
Jo Reed: And you turned it into a boat whose purpose was to educate people.
Michael Vlahovich: Correct.
Jo Reed: Tell me what your thinking was about the museum and about The Commencement. You talk about that loss of heritage. What was being lost? What was happening to fishing?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, you could see it physically. You could see the physical changes within my hometown, Tacoma, Washington. So for a variety of reasons fishing was in decline and that was sad in a way but I understood that. I mean I’m an environmentalist. I mean I was never a very good fisherman. I didn’t have the killer instinct. I was never aggressive enough and some people might think that an image of fishing like “The Old Man and the Sea” where you’re out there by yourself and you’re pitted against the elements – no, you’re pitted against your neighbor. If you don’t put your net in front of him, he’s going to put it in front of you and take your fish so it was very competitive. But the waterfront where the fishing boats tied up had at one time several shipyards and fishing boats so it was industrial; it was working waterfront. And there were some environmental issues over the years, different toxins and stuff like that, and so back in the ‘70s and ‘80s that, it became important that that waterway got cleaned up and shipyards started to shut down. It became more difficult for fishing boats to be there. Anyway what I saw is that the powers, the decision makers in town really wanted the working waterfront to go away. So I saw the changes coming and said, “Well, I need to do something else. Instead of fighting it, maybe I need to somehow influence this” and so that was the motivation behind the museum. I said, “Well, okay, let’s try to save pieces of the working waterfront in a museum where these skills will still be maintained.” I mean, that’s what spurs me on and that’s what got me into heritage tourism and education on the boat so okay—
Jo Reed: And that’s what you did with the Commencement.
Michael Vlahovich: Right. Somehow I need to impact the thinking of people in a good way and there’s no way I’m going to impact thousands of people so my approach is going to be to try to be transformative, to provide transformative experiences for a few people and that’s what I’ve done with apprentices and that’s what I do with the people that come to Alaska with me on the boat and many have said after the trip that it was life changing for them.
Jo Reed: What do they say? What do you want them to learn?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, we visit working waterfront sites. We go to the wilderness. We talk about the cultural change in British Columbia. It’s really learning about the human impact on resources and on the environment. I mean it’s – this is where they collide or where there’s this exchange and I mean it shows us that we are connected, and if that’s all they learn that’s really great that our actions in the environment and our actions in regards to natural resources, it makes a difference, <laughs> a huge difference.
Jo Reed: Tell me how you got to Maryland.
Michael Vlahovich: Well, I read the book “Chesapeake,” Michener’s book “Chesapeake,” in the late ‘70s and even though I was doing wood boats back in Washington, the West Coast has always modernized quicker than the East Coast, I mean they’re not as traditional as the East Coast. And so boat designs and boat construction materials were changing. I could see it coming, more fiberglass, more aluminum boats, and so reading a book like the “Chesapeake” got me really interested in traditional fishing methods and traditional boat-building methods. So I started to read and pay more attention to the current Chesapeake culture of the watermen and saw that they still were appreciative of wood boats and wood boat craftspeople so I wanted to go. I wanted to come here so I started looking for a job in National Fisherman magazine and after a couple years I found a help-wanted ad to be the head carpenter at a little shipyard in Reedville, Virginia, and came out, worked there a couple weeks, got to know the people and took the job and I moved the family out in the early ‘80s. We came out for four years and lived in Reedville right next to the menhaden plant and worked at a place called Jennings’ Boat Yard, which was originally owned by the Rice brothers; it was the Rice Shipyard, which built several skipjacks of which I had no idea. I mean I didn’t-- I had heard of a skipjack but knew nothing about them.
Jo Reed: What is a skipjack?
Michael Vlahovich: The skipjacks are the vessels that dredge oysters in the Chesapeake Bay under sail power. The entire fleet is considered historic by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and just steeped in history and maritime tradition in America. So I ran that yard. They asked me to design and build Chesapeake deadrise boats for the blue crab fisheries and it’s where I worked on my very first skipjack, the Sigsbee, but it was a long way from home. We had three young children and my wife didn’t have a support system there from family so we decided to go back. So I mean that was the first move, four years in Virginia. The friends I had made from Smith Island and Tangier Island because primarily they were the watermen that I-- whose boats I worked on. I remained close friends with them and on occasion they would need my help and they would fly me out so then I kind of became a traveling contractor so I had an opportunity to visit Tangier and Smith Island and work on boats. One boat I built was for a waterman by the name of Lonnie Moore and his boat gave me a great reputation in Maryland and it was mainly that Lonnie had a great reputation as a very rugged, tough fisherman and he would take the boat out in the worst weather but the boat held up and so anyway I got well known because of Lonnie and the boat. But Lonnie quit fishing and became a staff member for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, became an educator for them, so he quit harvesting and I helped him convert his boat over to carry passengers so he went from harvesting into education work with his boat.
Jo Reed: And taking people out and talking about the Chesapeake and--
Michael Vlahovich: The watermen’s culture and the environment.
Jo Reed: --and the history of fishing in the area and oystering.
Michael Vlahovich: Yeah. And so since he was on staff at the Bay Foundation when the Bay Foundation decided to buy a skipjack for their education program they bought the Stanley Norman, but the Stanley Norman needed a lot of work and so Lonnie recommended me so then that was like a four-month job that I came out with. I brought my daughter, Emily, with me and did that job, and the job actually required more but they didn’t have enough money so we did the bottom and we were going to wait to do the top of the boat later and I mean the boat still functioned. So a few years after that they called me back and that was in the year 2000. And so now the boat was totally rebuilt and the Bay Foundation called the Baltimore Sun and got a lot of, you know, coverage for it and it was, spread my name all over the paper and great photos.
Jo Reed: I read it. <overlapping laughter>
Michael Vlahovich: Okay. So anyway, it-- but before I left town I mean I was going to go back to Washington. It was when the State of Maryland decided to come up with the skipjack restoration program and they were going to host that at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum here in St. Michaels and they were looking for a project manager, and they offered me a job and I took it. I flew back home and we sold the house and within a month we were driving cross country again as a family.
Jo Reed: How many skipjacks were in Maryland at that time?
Michael Vlahovich: There were 13 that qualified for the program.
Jo Reed: Thirteen.
Michael Vlahovich: To qualify you needed to have had been active. You couldn’t pull a skipjack out of the marsh and say, “Well, I want mine restored,”
Jo Reed: Right. You had to be a fisherman.
Michael Vlahovich: Right. Yes. Yeah, and because I had seen the government attitude on the West Coast as anti-working waterfront when I saw in Maryland used taxpayer money to restore workboats to help sustain a culture. I got to do this, I mean this has got my name all over it; I mean I had to do this. Yes, I had dabbled in museum work prior but this was like jumping in with both feet.
Jo Reed: And you began the Coastal Heritage Alliance.
Michael Vlahovich: I did that three years after. In 2003, I founded it but I stayed at the museum for about four years.
Jo Reed: What was your goal with that?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, the mission of Coastal Heritage Alliance remains the same although our activities have expanded, but it was to save the vessels, skills, and stories of commercial fishing families within North America. And I trained 120 Maryland watermen, introduced 120 Maryland watermen to heritage tourism over a 5-year period. That was one of our organization projects.
Jo Reed: That was the watermen heritage tourism training program?
Michael Vlahovich: That’s correct, yeah, and so that was in Maryland and a couple of courses in Virginia and I did that because I saw the threat of tourism and the development that it brought as possibly displacing this working waterfront that I loved. So if you can’t beat them you join them. And so I said, “All right. Well, let me try to develop a form of tourism where the working waterfront is actually involved and therefore has an opportunity to generate some resources from it and actually influence its direction” so I got into community-based tourism.
Jo Reed: Did you go around interviewing fishermen to collect their stories? Did you have people going out and--
Michael Vlahovich: Well, I do that now; we didn’t do that in the beginning. Restoration work and training of apprentices really took center stage and also I had not been schooled at all in interviews, okay, so that was foreign to me. However, I always thought it was very important but that did come later so video, still photography, audio. I mean I started to learn about it and have a little more confidence in it because I went back to school because I didn’t have a degree and—
Jo Reed: You went to Goucher.
Michael Vlahovich: I went to Goucher and because my friend, Rory Turner started a program called cultural sustainability. I said, “Well, that’s kind of what I’m trying to do in the organization” and I’ve got no professional academic background at all so I thought this would be great for me but I didn’t have an undergrad degree and this was a graduate program but so I said, “Well, can I just audit it or something?” I said, “I don’t care about the piece of paper.” They were reluctant to let me but they said, “Okay. Well, we’ll try you for one semester. We’ll see what your grades are.” Well, straight A’s. <laughs> But after one semester I realized well, this is really expensive and this is hard work and I think I want that piece of paper after all. <laughs> So I asked for that and they said, “Well, we can’t do, you don’t have an undergrad degree.” Well, Rory and several other people went to bat for me and actually changed college policy that they would consider life experience as valid criteria to accept grad students. Lo and behold they changed policy and I got accepted and the first one in a hundred and thirty-four years that ever got accepted into Goucher grad school without an undergrad degree <laughs> and so I am now doing my thesis. I’ve actually finished all my courses and I—
Jo Reed: And you’re writing your thesis?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, that was part of my trip to Croatia; that was my field study.
Jo Reed: Yeah. What is your thesis?
Michael Vlahovich: It’s the intersection of commercial fishing culture and tourism. I think I’m going to do sort of a comparison of what I saw happening there compared to what I’ve experienced in America.
Jo Reed: You’re received other awards and I’m thinking the Washington Governor’s Heritage Award, which is very prestigious, and now a National Heritage Fellowship. What does getting the awards say to you about the work that you’ve been doing?
Michael Vlahovich: Well, you know, it’s a huge pat on the back and it’s really special that it’s recognized by other people. It’s nice to be personally recognized but it’s also very nice that it seems to me that there’s more attention given to these occupational crafts. I think in Maryland it’s really changed. I mean I’ve seen changes in my time in Maryland where the focus isn’t just on the fine arts, that more and more it’s into the crafts and the heritage work and again the occupational crafts.
Jo Reed: What do you think your dad and your grandfather would say about the work that you’re doing?
Michael Vlahovich: Oh, man, I sure wish-- I wish they were around for me to hear them. Extremely proud and my former trips to Croatia and my future trips, I mean they’re just key on my mind. They got a lot to do with why I do what I do, no doubt about it.
Jo Reed: That’s Master Ship Wright and 2016 National Heritage fellow Mike Vlahovich. You can see Mike and the other 2016 National Heritage Fellows on Friday, September 30 at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC at the National Heritage Fellowship concert. The curtain goes up at 8 pm. It’s free and open to the public. And if you can’t make it to Washington, be sure to watch the live webcast. For more information about the concert and the webcast, go to arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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