PIRAEUS – Just a few months before 11 giant cruise ships arrive to host thousands of visitors for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Greek capital’s port of Piraeus has set out to remove the ugly wrecks infesting the waters near its entry. Tourists leaving Piraeus for the Greek islands are offered an unsightly view. Around one hundred hulls of abandoned cargo ships, tugboats and barges, others submerged, others half-sunk, others just floating in disrepair, have been left rotting for years under the boiling Greek sun. «This is an image that tarnishes the Mediterranean Sea’s biggest port, which stands to receive an unusually high number of visitors during the Games,» said Frangiskos Papadoyiannis, director of Ergoport, the salvage company appointed to start clearing up the mess. On board the Ergoport tugboat Thunder, Papadoyiannis criss-crosses daily what he describes as a «ship cemetery» that has been hampering navigation at Greece’s biggest port for more than 20 years. «The sunken wrecks are dangerous because parts of their hulls that have broken off have often threatened ships en route on the surface, particularly at night,» Papadoyiannis said. Tired of waiting for shipowners to foot the bill for refloating or destroying the vessels, Greece gave the state-run Piraeus Port the go-ahead to liquidate the ships. «Earlier we were not allowed to intervene because of many juridical problems related to ownership,» said Eleni Glava, the Piraeus Port official appointed to deal with the wrecks. «The law provides a good opportunity to get rid of this problem, which is bedevilling not only Piraeus but dozens of other ports across the country too,» Papadoyiannis said. «It’s going to be a vast and costly operation. Its duration depends on many factors, from the weather to each ship’s condition,» he added. A total of some 100 boats, tugboats and vessels with cranes will be used to have the ships removed and torn apart. The pieces will then be towed to nearby scrapyards. Ergoport carried away a state contract to clean up a first batch of wreckages near Salamina, an island off Piraeus. Salamina (Salamis) is known from one of the ancient world’s most famous naval battles waged there between Greeks and Persians in 480 BC. «The local municipality and archaeologists are waiting impatiently for the cleanup in order to exploit the site,» Papadoyiannis said. The Salamina operation could be wrapped up by January and will cost around 200,000 euros, he added. «A crew of around 30 is required to deal with an average-sized ship,» Papadoyiannis explained. Another three public tenders are under way to remove the rest of the hulls from Salamina to the Keratsini dockyards, one nautical mile to the west of the Piraeus harbor. But it is far from certain the operation will be finished by August 2004, when the Olympics take place, the experts close to the works said.