One group’s mission to save the age-old art of boatbuilding

In the port of Perama, southwest of Piraeus, men go back and forth bearing large planks of timber. Shipbuilders, carpenters, caulkers and painters are building the last of the wooden boats and keeping alive a dying tradition. Manolis Psarros is the third generation in his family to work in the business. Many of his father’s boats are still at sea. «Only when those are gone will I believe that my father has also gone,» said Manolis, who also heads the Friends of Traditional Boats cultural society, a group of about 150 people, including some politicians, who are trying to keep the ancient art alive. In Psarros’s narrow office, sea captains gather to tell their stories. The European Union has imposed heavy restrictions as a result of widespread illegal fishing and the general reduction in the Mediterranean’s fishing reserves. Fewer fish mean fewer fishing boats. Many fishermen took advantage of an offer for a hefty financial incentive to give up their fishing licenses and sacrifice their wooden fishing boat, which had to be completely broken up in order to for its owner to claim compensation. Over 10,000 unique crafts, some of which had been plying the country’s sea routes for 50 to 70 years, were destroyed without any record being made of their structures or features for future boatbuilders, or even for educational purposes. «There is plenty of work maintaining boats. But it is only in building a new boat that you create something,» said Psarros, one of the few remaining practitioners of his profession. He spends hours boatbuilding. About 20 years ago, he launched the Kyrenia II, an exact replica of an ancient Greek merchant vessel. Now what interests him is saving traditional wooden boats, so he is experimenting with ways to modernize the construction. «I build traditional boats using modern methods so the boat does not need caulking,» he said. His dream is to set up a school for boatbuilders. «Wooden boats are part of our cultural heritage,» he said. «If you break up one of these boats, it’s like knocking down a traditional house on Hydra and putting up a prefabricated house in its place.» Tradition is no empty word for Psarros. «I’m one of those people who believe that we can build these boats again,» he said. «If we look at the Turkish coast, there are people who earn a living from building boats. Tourists come here and rent plastic boats from Germany or France. Why not a traditional Greek boat? What could be better?» The truth is that a lot has to happen before people change their attitudes to wooden boats. «It is unacceptable, for example, to have fishing boats and power boats in the same tax category. The one needs a barrel of fuel a week, the other needs 10 just in a weekend. I don’t understand why Greek-made boats should be taxed the same as American or Italian boats,» Psarros said. Psarros and the members of his association are trying to reverse the trend created by past mistakes, omissions and political practices. Some years ago, the association issued a proposal which bore no results. A suggestion that these boats be donated to municipalities and exhibited in parks and squares resulted in the abandonment and decay of the craft provided for the purpose. «If we preserve boats that need repair, we provide jobs for shipyards that are in danger of closing down,» he said. «Every island has some kind of shipyard.» The association’s latest proposal is for wooden fishing craft to be reclassified for recreational or tourism purposes. The European Union requires that all fishing equipment be removed from the craft to discourage illegal fishing. «Isn’t that what they do with taxis? They sell them as private cars after their license expires,» Psarros said. «Now we have to convince Greek people to turn to wooden boats. Instead of buying a summer house, people would do better to buy a boat and take the family off on sea journeys. It costs very little.» This article first appeared in the June 26 edition of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.

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