The midpoint of the 1700s in the Aegean was a tumultuous time. The Greeks had been under foreign rule for several hundred years, since the Fall of the Byzantine Empire, and had lived as unwilling subjects of either the Ottoman or Venetian Empires. These two conquerors battled over the fate of the Greek islands and the Peloponnesus.
The Venetians had been pushed out of the Aegean for good by the Ottomans just a few decades before, in 1715, when they lost the Peloponnesus and several Aegean islands they held, including a murky sovereignty over the Saronic Islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra, and Spetses. Venetian shipping declined in the area, and the Greeks, heretofore more likely sailors than shipowners, rushed in to fill the gap.
Aside from skilled pilots, the Greeks were increasingly skilled at navigating the rougher seas of international politics and economics. Both the Ottoman and Venetian Empires were old and decrepit, and the green shoots of The Enlightenment were finding their way back to the Greeks, often enough on Greek ships, or via the many Greeks then established in Venice, or in the up and coming Austrian Empire, particularly the port of Trieste.
Another emerging power, the Russians, also were moving south against the Ottomans, threatening the Turks’ position in the Black Sea, for centuries a Turkish lake but whose littoral inhabitants were all too often Greeks. Further west, the British were beginning to create the first global naval empire.
Many Greeks started to take advantage of this emerging situation, and none more than the inhabitants of a tiny, largely arid rock a few kilometers off the Peloponnesian coast. Hydra always had a small population of pastoralists or fishermen, but it lacked the history of its neighbors in the Aegean Archipelago. Lacking good harbors, its settlements were a couple of villages on small escarpments, away from the water so as not to attract the many pirates who tormented the Mediterranean of the time. The island’s very isolation attracted refugees from turmoil elsewhere, most particularly the Peloponnesian mainland a short sail away, and as the population grew on an island where arable land is practically non-existent, their only means of agency was the sea.
The Hydriots launched their first ship, according to most sources, in 1657, one locally made and using plaited vines for lanyards, so the story goes. They were, however, quick studies, and the local mix of politics and economics was favorable for intrepid pilots. They rapidly increased the size and number of their ships. In 1749, a local islander, Ioannis Sourmpas, established the school at what is now the St. Basil’s School in the district of Upper Kamini. A plaque on the building reminds us that the Hydra Nautical Academy is the oldest such school in the world.
This was a period when many wealthy Greeks, merchants and shipowners, began establishing educational institutions for their compatriots in the Ottoman Empire. This spirit of volunteerism would remain at the Academy. Archives for the early period are scarce if at all extant, according to both the historian Antonios Lignos in his three volume History of Hydra and the current Director of the Hydra Historical archives and museum, Ms. Dina Adamopoulou.
The instructors were often foreigners, among them Italians and Portuguese, teaching various navigation arts and foreign languages. As often happens when a Xeno (foreigner) encounters Hydra, at least two of these instructors from Italy went native, serving in the Greek War of Independence.
By the time of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), the school had been teaching several generations of Hydriots a variety of foreign languages and higher arts of navigation and commerce. The Hydriots were not, Lignos notes, merely hardy and daring seafarers, but rather increasingly enlightened and skilled technocrats. This thirst for personal and national agency at sea, when combined with the latest nautical skills and commercial education, proved a winning combination, which was put at the service of the country during the War of Independence.
During this war, the Hydriots’ wide network of commercial and political contacts, earned over a century of increasingly sophisticated merchant shipping, went to work for the good of the nation. In this sense, the Hydriots resembled American merchant mariners of the 1770s, who had done well carrying the commerce of the British Empire and then turned their naval skills over to their nascent country in the war for national self-determination. However, the United States did not have a merchant mariners’ school until the Pennsylvania Nautical School was founded—in 1891, over 140 years after the Hydra Academy.
While Hydra’s naval primacy receded after the War of Independence, the nautical school remained, turning out hundreds of classes through war and peace, training skilled mariners for Greece’s growing merchant fleet, centered on key Aegean islands such as Chios, Andros, Syros, Kasos, and Cephalonia. Graduates of Hydra’s nautical school were the “Gold Standard” for a fleet with global horizons, and until 1930 the school operated as a private institution, “Hydra Shipping Union,” supported by the global Greek shipping community which greatly esteemed their graduates.
From 1930, the Nautical Academy moved from its original site to the current venue, in the imposing grey-granite Tsamados Mansion, right above the quay which welcomes thousands of tourists arriving by boat every year. That same year the Greek State took over the operation of the academy, which runs it to this day. The sense of volunteerism continued, for example, Evangelos Tsigkaris donated his ship Agios Georgios for cadet training in the summer, a point of pride for his grandson, Captain Evangelos Tsigkaris, also a proud academy graduate.
Hydra Nautical School graduates distinguished themselves particularly in the carnage that was the Battle of the Atlantic, during the Second World War, where many met a watery grave. Nikos Pigadas, in his inimitable book Volunteers in the Convoys of Death has numerous references to Hydra-trained captains and their brave leadership in the shooting gallery of the North Atlantic. Far too many did not return.
The Greek merchant fleet, the world’s ninth largest in 1939, suffered catastrophic losses of ships and men in World War Two, yet Greece still had plenty of trained seamen and officers, savvy shipowners, and a merchant/diaspora network spread across the world. Here, the enlightened self-interest of the United States played a decisive role; the US government sold off surplus cargo ships, the Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, to allied countries and nationals and extremely favorable terms. Greek shipowners by and large went “all in,” and buoyed by global reconstruction and the growth of international trade, the Greeks made fortunes, both large and small.
Every year, the Hydra Nautical Academy turned out graduates eagerly snapped up by the Greek Merchant fleet, which by 1970 had become the world’s largest, a position it still holds after 50 years. In 1976 the alumni of The Hydra Nautical Academy established a Captains’ Club for graduates, showing a devotion to their institution and to their profession every bit as deep and “clubbish” as an Ivy Leaguer in the United States. For further details see www.hydracaptainsclub.gr
They have reason to be proud, they belong to a tradition nearing three hundred years old, a part of the “secret formula” that made Hydra an international trading center, and Greeks owners of the world’s largest merchant fleet. Pride and grit, combined with intellectual and technical smarts, are winning combinations in any era. The story of Hydra, which we will—and should—celebrate in the coming Bicentennial Year is for me as much a story of “how” they did it, as “what” they did. A key part of how Hydra—and Greek Shipping—became success stories can be found in the skills and traditions embodied in the nautical academy.
Honor is due.
Special thanks to Captain Evangelos Tsigkaris for his invaluable knowledge of the Nautical Academy.