By Alexander Billinis
The use for wood in navigation is older than civilization itself, as it is present in nature. A ride hitched on a fallen log begat the dugout canoe, and the rest is history.
The Aegean islanders may have been the first navigators in Europe, and a legacy of shipbuilding is several millennia old in this part of the world.
Ships have brought fortune to Greece in good times and have defended her in bad times. Rarely have Greeks been defeated at sea, in any era — Mycenean, Classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Modern.
Navigation and shipbuilding are a knowledge business, and the art of building wooden ships was a prized skill down to the second half of the twentieth century.
Shipbuilding in Hydra
My island, Hydra, played a key role in the creation of the modern Greek state and the Greek Merchant Marine, which for the past fifty years has held the title of the world’s largest fleet.
The local legend has that the islanders built their first ship, rather ungainly and unseaworthy, in 1657.
The demands of a growing population and skill in shipping continued, and supply caught up.
One master shipwright, Konstantine Sakellarios, by a strange twist of fate put Hydra’s shipbuilding efforts into overdrive.
Algerian pirates raided the island and forced Sakellarios, among others, into slavery, where the corsairs put him to work at building yet more and bigger ships for his captors.
Once he secured his freedom, he returned to Hydra, and set to work leveraging the skills he had learned in the Barbary shipyards.
The sheer effort and craftsmanship required for this task, on a tiny, mountainous, and poorly resourced island, was enormous.
Practically every bay with a few hundred square meters of flat beach became a shipyard, and Hydriot “mastorous” and “madeirous” turned out increasingly seaworthy, large, long distance vessels.
Hydra and the War of Independence
The Hydriot way of doing business was about as vertically integrated as you could get, with local materials, shipyards, and crews, doing business largely with a Greek merchant class ensconced in key Mediterranean and Black Sea ports.
It was a winning combination, which would then be set loose upon the Turks when the fight for freedom came.
During the War of Independence, the well-known, devoted American Philhellene Samuel Gridley Howe, who fought for years in Greece and actively noted the conditions in the country, opined that “Almost every Greek sailor is capable of being a shipbuilder and it is surprising to see the skill and ingenuity which they exhibit.”
Walking along the beach on one island, Howe found “only one man . . . with a rude ax, saw, and knives . . . (create) a boat so fleet that few barges could overtake her.”
Howe’s observations are borne out by history in Hydra, where ships up to 100 tons were often built by just one or two shipwrights, and in classic Greek fashion, such operations were usually family affairs — just like the shipping companies.
Many of the ships, particularly the fireships, that the Hydriots used with such effect and precision were born on the narrow shorelines of Hydra, the wood hewn by Hydriot hands, and then piloted by Hydriot sailors.
The period of the Greek War of Independence was the last hurrah for the sailing ship, as steam and iron ships edged out the millennia-old wooden ships.
Hydra lacked the space to compete, and most of her capital lay at the bottom of the Aegean, sacrificed so that Greece itself might be born.
Wooden ship tradition
The Greek merchant marine continued, and prospered, building ships both in Greece and increasingly abroad but the formula of family business, skilled pilots, and savvy, cosmopolitan business acumen continued, and by 1970 Greeks owned the largest fleet in the world, a position they have held for the last fifty years.
However, the wooden ship tradition did not die out in the Aegean. While global trade yielded to steam and steel, the Hydriots and other Greek islanders continued to hew large and small caiques as before, with local materials and local craftsmen.
These wooden ships, built perfectly for the capricious winds of the Aegean, continued to be normative well into the 1980s.
As a young boy in Hydra, I remember several small Xylourgeia (woodshops) particularly near the sea, custom-building these beautiful boats, following an island tradition well over three hundred years old.
And the grizzled madeiro, his cigarette often as not burning sawdust along with its Thracian tobacco, participating in a ritual that made Greece a global shipping powerhouse.
Most of these artists are gone, and even their sturdy ships reach their expiration date, staved off by decades of scrubbing and meticulous painting.
Some of these ships go out with a bang, literally, sacrificed for the annual Miaouleia festival, where an old boat is burned, recalling the Hydriots’ deadly skill with the fireship.
Fiberglass has finally conquered wood, and with it a shipbuilding culture that formed the literal foundation of the Greek shipping miracle, and arguably, the modern Greek state.
As we commemorate the Greek Bicentennial, let’s also remember those ships and who built them.
Some of us remember them very well, and it is our responsibility to retell their stories.
Alexander Billinis is a Greek-American writer, author, lawyer, and university lecturer. He is the author of two books: