As they had done on many previous occasions, the men of Aghios Kyrikos left the warmth of the cafe and headed to the waterfront of the eastern Aegean island of Icaria’s port capital to watch a fishing boat disappearing into the distance. It was a wintry day and the small wooden boat was sailing into choppy seas with winds of up to 7 Beaufort. “May he be safe,” they whispered into the upturned collars of their coats. Fishermen themselves, they were all too aware of the dangers faced by Captain Lefteris Kottaras as he made his way back to Thymaina, one of the Fournoi islands, after transporting a patient to Icaria’s hospital.
“Sure, the cost of the trip is covered by EKAB [the National First Aid Center], but here is a man who decided to travel in such weather to save another person,” said Chrysostomos Fountoulis, one of the men gazing out to sea that day.
“And imagine that we pay as much value-added tax as they do in Kolonaki,” he added, in reference to the upscale neighborhood in the center of Athens.
For Captain Lefteris, though, this is life. As far back as he can remember, illness and injury have always been potentially life-threatening events on his home island. Every new case triggers the same scramble to find a way to get that person to Icaria, Samos, Lesvos or even Piraeus, anywhere with a hospital, be it via coast guard speed boat, a regular ferry or any other means available.
“I always respond if the coast guard calls for help,” said Kottaras, knowing that he is the last resort – the twice-weekly ferryboat to Piraeus might not be sailing that day, or the weather may be too rough for the Megalochari, a small ferry that connects Icaria, Samos and Fournoi, to sail. When all else fails, that’s when Kottaras is called in.
“I’ll go out in winds of 7 or 8 Beaufort, if necessary,” he told Kathimerini. On the day Kathimerini watched him head out in blustery conditions, it was also the fourth day in a row that he had shuttled patients to Samos and Icaria. Demand for his services, meanwhile, just seems to grow as Greece’s more remote islands often find themselves without medical staff either because of central government budget cuts or the failure to find professionals interested in these posts.
“I run more and more routes every year. We had no doctor this year so now we are 60 families relying on a small fishing boat,” he says of Thymaina. The main island in the cluster, Fournoi, has two doctors serving 1,000 permanent residents and a lot more over the summer.
“And one of them needs to stay with the patients who are transferred to other islands. God has thankfully taken mercy on us and we haven’t had any deaths,” laments Fournoi Mayor Yiannis Marousis.
Hospital runs are not the only service Kottaras provides for the island. In an agreement with the Education Ministry, five days a week he picks up Thymaina’s five secondary school students (the island only has a kindergarten and elementary school) in his fishing boat, the Spyridoula, and takes them to Fournoi. He goes back at 2 p.m. to take them home again. It’s a 15-minute trip each way for the small caique, but bad weather can make it longer. Later in the evening, he takes them to and from Fournoi again for additional tutorials. All this, of course, is weather permitting.
“Fournoi also has needs, but we are even more isolated here,” Kottaras says of Thymaina. Despite the hardships, he has never thought of moving his family, even to Icaria nearby. “What business have we got in Icaria? We were born here, so we stay here.”
Aged 62, Kottaras has been serving his island with a succession of different caiques since 1975, earning him the nickname “Captain Savior.” “I admit that I’m tired from all the back and forth, but I’m hanging in there. Anyway, who’s going to do it if I don’t? The young guys, the sailors, are always leaving. They don’t stay in Thymaina; they don’t like it here,” he says.
“This is a marvelous place, but the conditions are very bad,” says Mayor Marousis. “We obviously want a more frequent ferry connection, but we’ve come to the point of saying that the two we’ve got are enough. We have been through better but also worse times, like going for months on end without any connection whatsoever to the mainland.”
The problems are myriad for such islands on Greece’s easternmost border. “The elderly have to go to Icaria or Samos just to have medical tests, with everything that entails. If they go on the small boat in good weather, they may even return the same day. If they take the big boat, they may have to spend two nights there.”
Doctors on the two islands often give priority to residents of Fournoi in order to help them get back home faster.
For the students too, getting to school every day is a matter of luck and even in Fournoi there is a shortage of teachers. “The kids will be sitting university entrance exams in information technology and German without having had a single proper lesson at school all year,” says Marousis.
This is Marousis’s fourth term as mayor of the Fournoi Korseon Municipality, but even if it was his 14th, he still wouldn’t feel it’s enough. “I love this place. I don’t want to leave it,” he tells Kathimerini. “You come into local government somewhat bashfully at first, but then you see how much work needs to be done.”