Traditional Craft of Wooden Boat Building May Disappear in Greece


While fewer people order wooden boats nowadays, the traditional boatbuilders of Samos see reasons to be optimistic about the state of their profession.

On the forested slopes of the island’s mountain, the early morning mist swirling around the peak reveals the unmistakable shape of the traditional Greek wooden boat: a kayak or kaiki, the likes of which have sailed the seas for hundreds of years. Every wooden beam, every plank, cut and shaped by a single man, pulled and nailed into place using techniques passed down through generations from father to son, uncle to nephew. But the current generation is facing being the last.

Wooden boats are an integral part of the Greek landscape, adorning tourist brochures, postcards and countless vacation photos. They have been sailing all over Greece for centuries, used as fishing boats, for transporting cargo, animals and passengers, and as sightseeing boats. But the art of designing and building these boats, made entirely by hand, is under threat. Fewer people are ordering wooden boats because plastic and fiberglass boats are cheaper to maintain. Young people are not interested in taking up a profession that requires years of apprenticeship, is physically and mentally exhausting and has an uncertain future.

“Unfortunately, I see the profession dying a slow death,” said Giorgos Kiassos, one of the last remaining boatbuilders on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, once a major manufacturing center. “If something doesn’t change, there will come a time when there will be no one left doing this kind of work.

Samos boats are famous both for their craftsmanship and for their raw material: a timber from a type of pine that is durable and more resistant to woodworm thanks to its high resin content. Until a few decades ago, there were many boathouses on the island, providing important employment and sustaining the whole community. Now there are only four left.

Kostas Damianidis, an architect with a PhD in Greek traditional boatbuilding, said there are several reasons for the dramatic decline of shipwrights or traditional boatbuilders across Greece. “This is a traditional craft that is slowly dying, but it is still treated as a simple manufacturing or supply business. There is no support from the state,” he said. Moreover, the European Union, of which Greece is a member, has for years supported the physical destruction of these boats as a way of downsizing the country’s fishing fleet. This practice has led to the bulldozing of thousands of traditional fishing boats, some described by conservationists as unique works of art.

Despite the bleak outlook for the future of his profession, another Samian boatbuilder, 45-year-old Andreas Karamanolis, is hopeful. “I believe that people will come back to the wooden boat. I want to believe that. The truth is that no other boat has the durability of a wooden boat. Wood is a living organism, no matter how many years you use it, it remains alive.”

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