Gig Harbor celebrates its Croatian roots By Rachel Kelly | Photo by Rachel Kelly
The Batana Project is a celebration of a history that continues to thrive as a vital piece of our community culture. It began between the organizers of the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend and Mike Vlahovich. However, the project was put aside during the pandemic, due to the complexity of community support and international travel. The re-ignition of the project came about due to the longtime kinship between Vlahovich and his friends in Gig Harbor.
Gig Harbor has a long-standing history of Croatian immigration. Several well-known families can trace their roots to Croatia, such as the Skansies, Babich and the Gilich families. These families were integral to the establishment of boatbuilding and commercial fishing here in Gig Harbor. Vlahovich’s family comes from Sumartin, which is a town on the Croatian island of Brač. However, he grew up in Gig Harbor. He moved to Croatia after meeting his wife Lovorka, establishing the Croatian NGO Maritima Educare.
Maritima Educare is a European nonprofit that mentors its young students in traditional maritime heritage and modern maritime culture. They do this through youth and young adult maritime education programs and the restoration of boats. The building of the batana is not only an international endeavor, but it represents the thriving kinship and historical heritage between Gig Harbor and Croatia.
The batana itself is modeled after the boats built traditionally for the Venetian Lagoon. This keel-less flat-bottom boat is typical of the particular needs of the North Adriatic.
This regional boat assists larger fishing boats and highlights the particular cultural needs of that community. The building of the boat began from paper, with the only instructions being a historical rendering of the boat. The actual schematics had to be reconstructed and drawn, and eventually rendered through the knowledge of experienced craftsmen. The wood used to make the batana is recycled old-growth fir, which was donated by Pacific Northwest Timber of Port Townsend, making the wood used as old as the boat's history.
Mike Vlahovich worked long hours with volunteers such as Jonathan Cunningham and Mike Leach. From Croatia, Vlahovich’s wife Lovorka and her two children assisted with the finishing and eventual celebration of the batana, lending their own studied experience. Tomislav Solic, a civil engineer, flew in with the Vlahovich family to assist in the construction of the mast and rudder. And of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of Gig Harbor’s The Boat Shop. From its early beginnings to the hoisting of the lugsail, the building of the batana was a study in cultural heritage and a practice of friendship.
At its completion, the batana was celebrated at The Boat Shop by the offer of free tours of The Boat Shop’s historically renovated boat, The Veteran, and lunch. Champagne was broken, traditional Croatian music was played live, and all in all it was a fun community event. The batana was dropped in the water and rowed in the bay by Mike and Lovorka Vlahovich, with Tomislav at the oars. From there, the boat was showcased at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend a few days later. Perhaps now the boat will be burned? That would be traditional to Croatian culture, who once a year burn a boat in memory of the Pope’s boat, which once burned in the Adriatic. However, a boat burning is highly unlikely here in the waters around Gig Harbor. The boat will most likely be put on display for local enjoyment, a showcase of lasting friendship between Gig Harbor, Washington, and Sumartin in Brač, Croatia.