DRAKAIOI, Greece – On the forested slopes of an island mountain, with morning mist swirling around its peak, emerges the unmistakable shape of a traditional Greek wooden boat: a caique, or kaiki, like the one that has sailed these seas for hundreds of years. .
Every wooden beam, every plank, has been felled, trimmed and shaped by a single man, hoisted and nailed in place using techniques passed 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 and adorn tourist brochures, postcards and countless Christmas photographs. They have been sailing Greece for centuries, used as fishing boats, to transport cargo, livestock and passengers, and as pleasure boats.
But the art of designing and building these boats, made entirely by hand, is under threat. Fewer people order wooden boats, as plastic and fiberglass boats are cheaper to maintain. And young people are less interested in entering a profession that requires years of learning, is physically and mentally exhausting, and has an uncertain future.
“Unfortunately, I see the profession slowly dying out,” said Giorgos Kiassos, one of the last remaining shipbuilders on Samos, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea that was once a major production center.
“If something does not change, there will come a time when there will be no one left doing this type of work. And it’s a shame, a real shame, ”Kiassos said during a short break at his mountain shipyard where, among walnut trees and wild mulberry trees, he is working on two: a 14-meter (45-foot) pleasure boat and a 10-meter (about a 30 foot fishing boat).
The boats are made to order, with the largest costing around 60,000 euros ($ 70,000) and the smallest around 30,000 euros ($ 35,000).
Samos caiques are famous both for their workmanship and for their raw material: wood from a kind of pine whose high resin content makes it durable and more resistant to woodworm. A few decades ago, numerous shipyards dotted the island, providing an important source of employment and sustaining entire communities. Now there are only about four left.
“Yes, it is an art, but it is also hard work, it is hard work. It is the manual work that tires, and now the young people, none of them are following, ”said Kiassos. You have encouraged your 23-year-old son to learn, but he is not particularly interested. Instead, he hopes to become a merchant captain.
Kostas Damianidis, an architect with a Ph.D. On traditional Greek boat building, he said there are several reasons for the dramatic decline in boat builders, or traditional boat builders, throughout Greece.
“It is a traditional craft that is slowly dying out and yet it is treated as if it were a simple manufacturing or supply business. There is no support from the state, ”he said.
Furthermore, for years the European Union, of which Greece is a member, has subsidized the physical destruction of these vessels as a way to reduce the country’s fishing fleet. The practice has led to thousands of traditional fishing boats, some described by conservationists as unique works of art, being crushed by bulldozers.
The policy is “a great blow to the construction of wooden boats,” Damianidis said. “They may be old ships, but this is a disdain for art. When a young man sees that they are breaking wooden boats as useless things, why should he bother learning how to do them? “
For its creators, the destruction is heartbreaking.
“It is something bad, very bad. Because this art is one of the best and one of the most difficult. An ancient art, ”said retired shipbuilder Giorgos Tsinidelos. Now 75, he started working at the age of 12 in his grandfather’s shipyard in Samos. He spent years as an apprentice before moving to the main shipbuilding area of Perama, near the main port of Piraeus in Greece.
“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 ship.”
Another important factor in the rapid decline in the number of boat builders is the lack of formal education.
“Young people have to go learn alongside old artisans, often for five or six years, so that they can make a small boat, a kaiki themselves,” Damianidis said. “There is no shipbuilding school.”
Damianidis is the curator of a new Aegean shipbuilding and maritime crafts museum being established in Samos, and he hopes that a traditional shipbuilding school will open in the museum, which would be the first in Greece.
That could also help the last Samos boat builders, who are now working 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 ship, the ship could end up being … well, more of a basin than a ship,” laughed Kiassos.
Like Tsinidelos and all shipbuilders today, Kiassos started young. Now she is 47 years old and has been working for more than 30 years, but says she is still learning. When he was a schoolboy, he would sit in his uncle’s yard, watching the logs being transformed into beautiful vessels. He started working there at 16 while finishing school.
You learned when is the proper season to cut down trees, when to use naturally curved wood, and where on the boat each piece should go. If you do it wrong, the boat could end up in trouble, he explains. Get it right, and your creation combines beauty, functionality, and durability.
The time and effort that goes into production means that boat builders often bond with their creations and eventually handing them over to their owners is often bittersweet.
Kiassos says he is eager to finish each pot and start the next.
“But when he leaves, I am sad in a way. Yes, I’ll be happy when I see him in the water and see that everything is fine, but it’s like something is leaving, like a piece of me, how can I say? “Look for the words.” It may sound a little strange the way I say it, but it is.
Despite bleak prospects for the future of his profession, another boat builder from Samos, 45-year-old Andreas Karamanolis, remains hopeful.
“I think people will go back to the wooden boat. I want to believe it because the truth is that no other boat has the durability of a wooden boat. Not the plastic ones, none of them, ”he said. “Wood is a living organism, no matter how many years it is used, it is still alive.”