Shifty Sailors celebrate 20 years

The Shifty Sailors perform at the 2011 Loganberry Festival. They have sung sea ballads for 20 years.

What started as an attempt to promote a book became a decades-long journey for a group of Central Whidbey-based singers.

That journey included trips to the British Isles, Scandinavia and former Eastern Bloc countries.

The Shifty Sailors, a group of singers known for performing maritime-based songs, is turning 20 years old in 2013. The balladeers completed a full slate of summer performances along the Pacific Coast in Oregon and Northern California.

“We never figured it would go over,” said Vern Olsen, a Coupeville resident who is one of the founding members of the Shifty Sailors.

Known for their striped shirts and rousing renditions of sea shanties, the group has been a fixture at major Whidbey Island events for years.

In 1993, Island County Historical Society sponsored production of a book, “Sails, Steamships and Sea Captains,” and were looking for a way to promote it.

Olsen, along with a small group of singers that would eventually form the nucleus of the Shifty Sailors were asked to perform at an event promoting the book. In addition to Olsen, performing were Karl Olsen, John White, Kermit Chamberlain, Les Asplund, Rick Newell, Bruce Bardwell and Alan Hancock.

“We have been friends forever,” said Hancock, now an Island County Superior Court judge.

Hancock was among the founding members but left the group in the late 1990s after the sailors produced a CD.

He wanted to focus on his other musical interest — playing bagpipes.

Following the book promotion event, the small group of singers, all from Whidbey Island, continued singing at events such as the Penn Cove Water Festival, Choochokam, Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival and the FolkLife Festival in Seattle.

Hancock said Vern Olsen had the great idea in 1998 that the group should produce a CD, which was recorded live at what was then known as Great Times Espresso on Front Street.

The money raised from CD sales could be used to pay for shirts and equipment the group needed.

The group received their first international exposure in 2001, when a cousin of Olsen invited the Shifty Sailors to play at a tall ship festival in Bergen, Norway.

In 2003, the singers spent the summer touring the Baltic countries in the former eastern bloc. They toured Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.

Mike Thelen, who was a newcomer to the group at the time, noted it seemed difficult for people in some of the former Soviet-dominated countries to have a sense of joy, but they started smiling after several songs by the Shifty Sailors.

The Shifty Sailors managed to go on an excursion every other year. They went to Ireland, Wales, England and France in 2005; visited New England in 2007; Hawaii in 2009 and the Czech Republic in 2011.

The group was able to fund their adventures through sales of CDs and merchandise.

Olsen mentioned that the Shifty Sailors often tag along with tall ship festivals throughout a touring season.

Originally starting with nine singers, the Shifty Sailors has grown to a current complement of 21.

“It’s just such a fun group of guys. For me, it’s difficult to tell the difference between practicing and performing.”

The Shifty Sailors rehearse as a group one night every other week.

Olsen said the group is comprised of Whidbey Island connections. He often gets requests from people to join the group, but wants to keep the number of singers right around 20.

The group is busy preparing for a summer full of events. They have several dates throughout the summer at locales between Blaine and Seattle.

The highlight of the summer, however, is their swing down the Oregon and Northern California coast. They are renting a bus for a tour West Coast cities starting in Westport, Wash., and continuing down to Monterey, Calif.

In addition to the their West Coast tour, the Shifty Sailors are singing at several festivals throughout the Puget Sound region, including the Loganberry Festival at Greenbank Farm, the Fall Fishermen’s Fest in Seattle and the Wooden Boat Fest in Port Townsend.