Traditional Greek wooden boat builders a declining profession

DRAKAIOI, Greece (AP) – On the forested slopes of a mountainous island, the morning mist swirling around its summit, the unmistakable shape of a traditional Greek wooden boat emerges: a caique, or kaiki, who sailed on these seas for hundreds of years.

Each wooden beam, each plank has been cut down, cut and shaped by a single man, hoisted and nailed using techniques handed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from uncle to nephew. But the current generation could be the last.

Wooden boats are an integral part of the Greek landscape, adorning tourist brochures, postcards and countless vacation photos. They have been sailing through Greece for centuries, used as fishing boats, to transport goods, livestock and passengers, and as pleasure boats.

But the art of designing and building these entirely hand-crafted ships is threatened. Fewer people are ordering wooden boats because plastic and fiberglass ones are cheaper to maintain. And young people are not as interested in joining a profession that requires years of learning, is physically and mentally exhausting, and has an uncertain future.

“Unfortunately, I see the profession slowly dying,” said Giorgos Kiassos, one of the last boat builders in Samos, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea that was once a major production center.

“If something doesn’t change, there will come a time when there will be no one left to do this type of work. And it’s a shame, a real shame, ”said Kiassos during a brief break in his mountain work site where, between walnut trees and wild mulberry trees, he works on two: a 14-meter (45-foot) pleasure craft and a of 10- one meter fishing boat (about 30 feet).

The boats are made to order, the largest costing around 60,000 euros ($ 70,000) and the smallest around 30,000 euros ($ 35,000).

The caiques of Samos are renowned for both their manufacture and their raw material: the wood of a pine species whose high resin content makes it durable and more resistant to woodworms. A few decades ago, numerous shipyards dotted the island, providing an important source of employment and supporting entire communities. Now there are only four left.

“Yes, it’s an art, but it’s also hard work, it’s hard work. It is the manual work that is tiring, and now the young people, none of them follow, ”said Kiassos. He encouraged his 23-year-old son to learn, but he’s not particularly interested. Instead, he hopes to become a merchant captain.

Kostas Damianidis, architect with a doctorate. on traditional Greek shipbuilding, said there are several reasons for the dramatic decline of shipbuilders, or traditional boat builders, across Greece.

“It’s a traditional craft that is slowly dying, yet it is treated as if it were just a manufacturing or sourcing business. There is no state support, ”he said.

In addition, for years the European Union, of which Greece is a member, has subsidized the physical destruction of these vessels in order to reduce the country’s fishing fleet. This practice has led to the destruction of thousands of traditional fishing boats, some described by environmentalists as unique works of art, by bulldozers.

The policy is “a blow to timber shipbuilding,” Damianidis said. “They might be old boats, but that’s a contempt for the profession. When a young person sees that he is breaking wooden boats like useless things, why would he bother to learn how to make them? “

For their creators, the destruction is heartbreaking.

“It’s a bad thing, very bad. Because this art is one of the best and one of the most difficult. An ancient art, ”said retired boatbuilder Giorgos Tsinidelos. Now 75, he started working at the age of 12 at his grandfather’s shipyard in Samos. He spent years as an apprentice before moving to the main shipbuilding area of ​​Perama, near the main Greek port of Piraeus.

“You don’t learn this trade in a year or two. It takes many years, ”he said. “Remember that you are taking wood and creating a masterpiece, a boat.

Another important factor in the rapid decline in the number of marine carpenters is the lack of formal education.

“The young people have to go and learn alongside the old craftsmen, often for five years, six years, so that they are able to make themselves a small boat, a kaiki”, explains Damianidis. “There is no boat building school.”

Damianidis is the curator of a new museum of Aegean shipbuilding and maritime crafts being set up in Samos, and hopes that a traditional shipbuilding school, which would be Greece’s first, will open in the museum.

It could also help Samos’ remaining boat builders, who now work mostly alone due to a shortage of skilled assistants.

“It’s important to have someone with experience because if you make a mistake, especially in the early stages of (building) the boat, the boat might end up being – well, more of a pool than a boat, “Kiassos laughed.

Like Tsinidelos and all current boat builders, Kiassos started young. Now 47, he has been working for over 30 years but says he continues to learn. As a schoolboy, he would sit in his uncle’s shipyard, watching the logs transform into beautiful ships. He started working there at 16 while finishing his studies.

He learned when the right season is to cut down trees – when to use naturally bent lumber and where on the boat each piece should go. If you get it wrong, the ship could end up in trouble, he explains. Get it right, and its creation combines beauty, functionality and durability.

The time and effort put into production means that boat builders often bond with their creations, and ultimately delivering them to their owners is often bittersweet.

Kiassos says he can’t wait to finish each boat and start the next.

“But when he leaves, I’m kind of sad. Yes, I’ll be happy when I see it in the water and see that it’s okay, but it’s like something is going away – like a part of me, how can I tell? He catches the words. “It might sound a little strange the way I say it, but it is like that.”

Despite the gloomy future prospects of his profession, another builder from Samos, Andreas Karamanolis, 45, remains hopeful.

“I believe people will go back to the wooden boat. I want to believe it. Because the truth is, no other boat has the durability of the wooden boat. Not the plastic ones, none of them, ”he said. “Wood is a living organism, which no matter how many years you use it, it continues to be alive.”


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