Shifty Sailors to share sea shanties Saturday

Shifty Sailors founder Vern Olsen, center, plays accordian during a recent group practice. - Michelle Beahm photo
Shifty Sailors founder Vern Olsen, center, plays accordian during a recent group practice.
— image credit: Michelle Beahm photo

“And all of the years, all the tears and the laughter, are there in the stories they tell,” the Shifty Sailors sang during practice last week.

And there will be plenty of stories to tell as the group sings “Away to America” and many other nautical-themed and old-timey songs during the fifth annual Shanty Fest 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12.

It will be a historic, if briny, occasion.

The Shifty Sailors are now the largest shanty group in the country, with 20 singers. They also have an accordion, three guitars, a harmonica and percussion to back up the singing.

“We don’t need any more than that,” said Vern Olsen, founding member of the Shifty Sailors. “We just need our instruments, we need our voices. And we sing a lot.”

The event will be held at the Coupeville Recreation Hall for the first time this year.

Another first will be the presence of an East Coast shanty group, the Rum-Soaked Crooks, joining in the concert.

Tom Goux and Jacek Sulanowski, two members of the Rum-Soaked Crooks, are bringing their performance of “Music and Poetry of the Sea” to Coupeville for the Shanty Fest. They’ll also be performing 11 a.m. that same day at the farmers market behind the Coupeville Library, weather permitting. They’re old friends of the Shifty Sailors, having performed with them in the past.

“We went back and sang for them, and had a great time with them,” Olsen said.

Also performing at Shanty Fest is Pint & Dale, a shanty-singing duo from Washington state.

All three shanty groups will be performing. Tickets to the show are $20 for adults, and free for children. All of the proceeds from Shanty Fest 2014 will go to the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville.

“This is an important one,” Olsen said. “We are beholden to them. If it hadn’t been for the Island County Historical Society, we would have never been.”

In 1993, the museum was trying to promote a book by reading passages to the public. According to Olsen, few people were attending the events, so the director of the museum at that time called Olsen and asked him to gather a group to sing songs of the sea between the readings.

After the event, when the museum sold around $3,000 worth of books, according to Olsen, the group of singers decided it was “too much fun” to stop there.

In 1999, the Shifty Sailors released their first CD. In 2001, they had their first tour off of Whidbey Island.

The group has travelled extensively since they started. Their tours included the West Coast tour, New England,  Hawaii and four tours in various parts of Europe.

But, according to Olsen, the best place to sing is here on Whidbey Island.

“We’re all Whidbey Islanders, every one of us,” he said.

And none of it would have happened if not for Coupeville’s history museum.

“This is kind of a payback to the Island County Historical Society, and the museum,” Olsen said.

Every year, Shanty Fest is held not for profit, but for a fundraiser for a charity chosen by the members of the Shifty Sailors.

In the previous four years, Shanty Fest has raised thousands of dollars for charities including Coupeville’s Hearts and Hammers and Small Miracles, which Olsen and his wife started about six years ago.

This year, Olsen said he is hoping to raise at least $3,500 for the museum, which was chosen this year due to recent budget cuts.

“Our idea is that we’re going to help, at least with some of the funding that’s necessary right away,” said Olsen.

Olsen is proud of what the Shifty Sailors have accomplished over the years, but is not satisfied. He’s hoping for more.

Next year, he said he expects there will be a shanty group from Europe joining Shanty Fest, which he hopes will attract more people from all across the country.

“To me, people to people is a real important thing in the world,” Olsen said, “and music can do that more than just about anything in the world.”


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