DRAKAIOI, Greece — On the forested slopes of an island mountain, early morning mist swirling around its peak, the unmistakable form of a traditional Greek wooden boat emerges: a caique, or kaiki, the likes of which has sailed these seas for hundreds of years.
Each beam of wood, each plank, has been felled, trimmed and shaped by one man alone, hauled and nailed into place using techniques handed down through generations, from father to son, 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 holiday snaps. They have been sailing across Greece for centuries, used as fishing boats, to transport cargo, livestock and passengers and as pleasure craft.
But the art of designing and building these vessels, done entirely by hand, is under threat. Fewer people order wooden boats since plastic and fiberglass ones are cheaper to maintain. And young people aren’t as interested in joining a profession that requires years of apprenticeship, is physically and mentally draining and has an uncertain future.
“Unfortunately, I see the profession slowly dying,” said Giorgos Kiassos, one of the last remaining boatbuilders on Samos, an eastern Aegean island that was once a major production center.
“If something doesn’t change, there will come a time when there won’t be anyone left doing this type of job. And it’s a pity, a real pity,” Kiassos said during a brief break in his mountain boatyard where, between walnut and wild mulberry trees, he is working on two: a 14-meter (45-foot) pleasure craft and a 10-meter (about a 30-foot) fishing boat.
The boats are being made to order, with the bigger one costing around 60,000 euros ($70,000), and the smaller one around 30,000 euros ($35,000).
Samos caiques are famed both for their workmanship and their raw material: timber from a pine species whose high resin content makes it durable and more resistant to woodworm. A few decades ago, numerous boatyards dotted the island, providing a major source of employment and sustaining entire communities. Now there are only about four left.
“Yes, it’s an art, but it’s also heavy work, it’s tough work. It’s manual labor that’s tiring, and now the young people, none of them are following,” Kiassos said. He’s encouraged his 23-year-old son to learn, but he isn’t particularly interested. He hopes to become a merchant captain instead.
Kostas Damianidis, an architect with a Ph.D. on Greek traditional boatbuilding, said there are several reasons for the dramatic decline in shipwrights, or traditional boatbuilders, throughout Greece.
“It is a traditional craft which is slowly dying, and yet it’s treated as if it were a simple manufacturing or supply business. There is no support from the state,” he said.
What’s more, for years the European Union, of which Greece is a member, has subsidized the physical destruction of these vessels as a way of reducing 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 smashed by bulldozers.
The policy is “a big blow to wooden shipbuilding,” Damianidis said. “They might be old boats, but this is a disdain of the craft. When a young person sees that they’re smashing wooden boats as useless things, why should they 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,” retired boatbuilder Giorgos Tsinidelos said. Now 75, he started working at the age of 12 at his grandfather’s boatyard on Samos. He spent years as an apprentice before moving to the major shipbuilding area of Perama, near Greece’s main 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 you create a masterpiece, a boat.”
Another major factor in the rapidly dwindling number of shipwrights is the lack of any formal education.
“Young people have to go learn beside the old craftsmen, often for five years, six years, for them to be able to make a small boat, a kaiki, themselves,” Damianidis said. “There is no boatbuilding school.”
Damianidis is the curator of a new museum of Aegean Boatbuilding and Maritime Crafts being set up on Samos, and hopes a traditional boatbuilding school, which would be Greece’s first, will open in the museum.
That could also help Samos’ last boatbuilders, who now work mainly alone due to a shortage of skilled assistants.
“It’s important to have someone experienced because if you make one mistake, especially in the first stages of (building) the boat, the boat might end up being — well, more of a basin than a boat,” chuckled Kiassos.
Like Tsinidelos and all the current boatbuilders, Kiassos started young. Now 47, he’s been working for more than 30 years but says he’s still learning. As a schoolboy, he would sit in his uncle’s boatyard, watching logs morph into beautiful vessels. He began working there at 16 while finishing school.
He learned when the right season is to fell the trees — when to use naturally curved timber, and where on the boat each piece should go. Get that wrong, and the vessel could end up with problems, he explains. Get it right, and his creation combines beauty, function and durability.
The time and effort that goes into production means boatbuilders often form a bond with their creations, and eventually delivering them to their owners is often bittersweet.
Kiassos says he’s eager to finish each boat and start on the next.
“But when it leaves, I’m somehow sad. Yes, I’ll be happy when I see it in the water and I see everything is OK, but it’s like something is leaving — like a piece of me, how can I say it?” He grasps for words. “It might sound a bit strange the way I’m saying it, but that’s how it is.”
Despite the bleak outlook for his profession’s future, another Samos boatbuilder, 45-year-old Andreas Karamanolis, remains hopeful.
“I believe that people will return 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, not any of them,” he said. “Wood is a living organism, which no matter how many years you use it, it continues to be alive.”