Greek traditional wooden boat builders a dwindling craft

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DRAKAIOI, Greece (AP) – On the wooded slopes of an island mountain, with early morning mist swirling around its summit, emerges the unmistakable shape of a traditional Greek wooden boat: a caique or kaiki, which its peers have sailed these seas for hundreds of years.

Every wooden beam, every plank was felled, trimmed and shaped, dragged and nailed in place by one man, from father to son, from uncle to nephew, using techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation. But the current generation could be the last.

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

But the art of designing and building these ships by hand is under threat. Fewer people order wooden boats because plastic and fiberglass boats are cheaper to maintain. And young people are less interested in a job that requires years of apprenticeship, is physically and mentally demanding and has an uncertain future.

“Unfortunately, I see the job slowly dying,” says Giorgos Kiassos, one of the last remaining boat builders on Samos, an island in the east of the Aegean that was once a large production center.

“If something doesn’t change, there will come a time when no one is there for this type of work. And that’s a shame, really a shame, “said Kiassos during a short break in his mine yard, where he was between walnut and wild mulberry trees at a two-meter (approx. 30-foot) fishing boat.

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

Samos caiques are known both for their processing and for their raw material: wood from a type of pine that is durable and more resistant to woodworms due to its high resin content. A few decades ago there were numerous shipyards on the island, which represented an important source of employment and supported entire communities. Now there are only about four left.

“Yes, it’s an art, but it’s also hard work, it’s hard work. It is the manual labor that is tiring, and now the young people follow, none of them, ”said Kiassos. He encouraged his 23-year-old son to study, but he doesn’t particularly care. He hopes to become a trade captain instead.

Kostas Damianidis, architect with Ph.D. on traditional Greek boat building, said there were several reasons for the dramatic decline in shipbuilding or traditional boat building across Greece.

“It is a traditional craft that is slowly dying out and yet it is treated as if it were a simple manufacturing or subcontractor. There is no support from the state, ”he said.

In addition, the European Union, of which Greece is a member, has been subsidizing the physical destruction of these vessels for years in order to reduce the country’s fishing fleet. The practice has resulted in bulldozers smashing thousands of traditional fishing boats, some of which have been described by conservationists as unique works of art.

The policy is “a heavy blow to the wooden shipbuilding,” said Damianidis. “They may be old boats, but that is a contempt for the craft. If a young person sees himself smashing wooden boats as useless things, why bother learning how to build them? “

For its 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 boat builder Giorgos Tsinidelos. The 75-year-old started working at his grandfather’s shipyard on Samos when he was 12. He spent several years as an apprentice before moving to the important shipbuilding area of ​​Perama near the main Greek port of Piraeus.

“You don’t learn this job in a year or two. It takes many years, ”he said. “Don’t forget that you take wood and create a masterpiece, a boat.”

Another important factor in the rapidly dwindling number of shipbuilders is the lack of any formal training.

“In addition to the old craftsmen, young people often have to study for five or six years in order to be able to build a small boat, a kaiki,” says Damianidis. “There is no boat building school.”

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

This could also help the last boat builders in Samos, who today mostly work alone due to a shortage of skilled workers.

“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 could end up – well, more of a basin than a boat,” chuckled Kiassos .

Like Tsinidelos and all current boat builders, Kiassos started young. The 47-year-old has been working for more than 30 years but says he’s still learning. As a schoolboy he sat in his uncle’s shipyard and watched tree trunks turn into beautiful vessels. He started working there at 16 while finishing school.

He learned when was the right time of year to fell the trees – when to use naturally curved wood, and where on the boat each piece should go. If you do that wrong, the ship could run into problems, he explains. Get it right, and its creation will combine beauty, function and durability.

The time and effort put into production means boat builders often bond with their creations and eventually deliver them to their owners, which is often bittersweet.

Kiassos says he wants to finish each boat and start the next.

“But when I can, I’m kind of sad. Yes, I am happy when I see it in the water and see that everything is fine, but it’s like something disappears – like a piece of me, how should I say it? ”He reaches for words. “It might sound a little strange how I say it, but it is.”

Despite the bleak prospects for the future of his profession, another boat builder from Samos, 45-year-old Andreas Karamanolis, remains confident.

“I believe that people will return to the wooden boat. I want to believe 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 that lives on, no matter how many years you have used it.”



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