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Fisherman on a Mission to Save the Kaiki, Greece’s Iconic Fishing Boat

Kaiki Lesvos
The Agios Nikolaos, a kaiki belonging to Lesvos fisherman Kostas Adonakis and his wife, Electra. Credit: Dimitra Damiani/ Greek Reporter

In 2007, the European Union announced a new policy to bring a balance between fishing resources and all the related activities surrounding it, including the destruction of Greece’s iconic ‘kaiki’ fishing boats, in an effort to address the depletion of fish in the Mediterranean.

In reality, this means the physical destruction, or “cutting,” of fishing boats that are more than ten years old, with the offering of compensation for the loss of fishermen’s ancient livelihood and their wooden boats, which are part of Greece’s history and heritage.

In essence, the EU is paying the fishermen to forget their way of life by destroying their own boats—something that would have been unthinkable until recent times with Greece’s age-old tradition of fishing being an essential part of its very identity.

About 13,000 kaikia have been deliberately destroyed since 1994 after the EU directive called for the demolition of the small wooden fishing boats which Greek fishermen have used for millennia.

The directive, which aims at putting a stop to overfishing in the Mediterranean, applies to other Mediterranean countries, as well.

The European Commission law calls for Greek fishermen to give up their fishing boats and licenses in exchange for a few thousand euros as compensation.

Lesvos port
The graceful lines of the kaiki Agios Nikolaos are seen as it is docked at the port in Lesvos. Credit: Dimitra Damiani/Greek Reporter

Kostas Adonakis, a fisherman from the island of Lesvos, determined that he would do something about the issue. A video shot in 2013 shows just how much work Kostas put in over the span of four weeks to maintain his beloved fishing boat, called the “Agios Nikolaos.”

In an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, he refers to “the things that Germany and the EU are currently doing by trying to compensate fishermen that have traditional boats with which they have braved the seas, caught fish, and enabled their children to go to university,” and maintains that, “They’re forcing us to destroy our heritage and culture.”

The Lesvos fisherman recalls a great figure from the past who serves as his inspiration. “George Psarros is from (the island of) Symi, where 90 percent of wooden boats were constructed until around 1910 [and] I’m not quite sure when this occurred, but when Italy became involved on the island (in around 1910),” he says, “they banned people from making boats. Hundreds of people used to work in this industry, and they were banned from doing so.”

Kaiki “dance in the sea”

Adonakis describes how all the ancient kaiki boats were, and still are, built. “When constructing a kaiki, you start with a singular straight wooden plank which makes up part of the bottom of the boat named the “karina” (keel). However, in order to build the rest of the boat, the karina has to be elevated onto another wooden board.”

“The person who was in charge of elevating the boat also needed to keep the sun in mind, as there was a superstition at the time which claimed that if the boat was in the shade it was bad luck”, he states. “In order for it to fare well on the seas and yield lots of fish, it had to stay in the sun during its construction.”

“George Psarros would also dance while he was designing his kaiki boats, which was what people believed made the boats so fluid and agile—when you see our kaiki in the waves, it looks like it is dancing in the sea because of how beautiful its construction is,” Adonakis says reverently.

“Psarros was so talented that he knew how to build the boats without even pausing to consider where each piece of wood went; in that way, he seemed to ‘dance’ around the boat during its construction, and that’s why the boats he made are so uniquely beautiful,” the fisherman says in awe.

Adonakis adds that if you speak with boat makers, they will tell you that in the past, they would make 50 to 60 boats annually whereas now they only create one or two…and, if they’re lucky, they’re make three. That’s some of the real harm that the EU has done to the fishing industry, he maintains.

“Like you’re destroying something that’s still living”

“The sea is now full of plastic and metal boats, which will never have the same connection with the sea that wooden boats do. Wood is a natural material. If you take my boat for example, it is fifty years old—but when you look at it, it seems to be only around ten. Even recently, when we rubbed it down, resin was still present and came out of the wood, forty years later!” he says emphatically.

“So when the EU asks fishermen to destroy their kaiki boats, it’s not only sentimental and personal memories that they’re asking you to destroy, but it also feels like you’re destroying something that’s still living…Watching someone destroy a kaiki boat that looks like it’s still a living ,breathing thing, it feels soul destroying,” Adonakis says plaintively.

Lina Mendoni, Greece’s Minister of Culture, stated earlier in 2021 that the new apprenticeship structure will contribute to the preservation and promotion of the art of carpentry, and that they will create new workshops, which will lead to the development of the craft. In some areas, she added, some tourism initiatives may be initiated to show people the art of woodwork in Greece.

“Kaiki funding should be given to those who want to be fishermen”

Asked how he felt about this program, Adonakis was ambivalent.

“This does sound positive, but it’s unclear whether they will actually follow through,” he states to Greek Reporter.

“I remember when I was at school, and we went to museums and things like that,” he says, “I didn’t have any interest at all—but if people go and see woodworking in real life, I’m sure that it will make a difference to some.”

“I’ve seen that in other EU countries, they have these programs where children can see boat-making up close, and this seems like a natural step for Greece,” Adonakis speculates. “But I’m more interested in the fact that they are breaking these boats, and that they need to stop this policy. They should give this funding to people that want to be fishermen and can’t afford it, to help them get started rather than to people in order to make them destroy their cars.”

“The frustrating thing about the whole situation is that the fishermen that get the funding and break their kaiki boats continue to do the same things they used to in their new, plastic boats,” Adonakis maintains. “There just doesn’t seem to be a point; no one is benefitting, and the only major consequence is that a piece of Greek culture is destroyed,” he charges.

“Another component is that tourists love kaiki boats; they see them on postcards and want to come see them in real life, and they should not be destroyed for no reason,” Adonakis points out to Greek Reporter.

“There was even a professor of sustainable tourism that spoke to us and said that the government should instead be paying people to keep their kaiki boats, not destroy them, as they draw in tourists. When we paint our boat, you should see the amount of people that stop by and watch us, take pictures, ask questions,” he notes.

“People who become fishermen, the majority of people I know at least, did so because their fathers were fishermen and the trade was passed down,” he explains. “But the thing that saddens me is that a lot of these people see their boats as an object that makes them money. They don’t see it as a living thing because none of us went to school to become fishermen. For me, it was my choice—my father and grandfather were not fishermen. So that’s why I think my outlook is different.”

Electra Adonakis, Kostas’ wife, relates to Greek Reporter “We met in 1987; I had come on holiday to Lesvos from London, and Kostas had come on holiday from Athens. We met and fell in love, and we decided we wanted to live here,” she reveals.

Electra adds that they “gave it a chance and decided to stay for a year, and see if it would be possible for [them] to live [there] long-term.”

“Where are the brakes?”

“Every day when we would pass the port, he would remark on one of the boats and how beautiful it was,” Electra remembers. “And then we found out it was for sale, and decided we should buy it, along with some nets with the little money we had.”

“The first time we took it out for a spin, we didn’t know what we were doing. Kostas, The former landlubbers had literally no idea what they were doing,” she admitted. “Kostas shouted out to the other fishermen on the way into the port ‘Where are the brakes?’ and someone responded ‘Drop anchor!’ and that’s how we ended up being able to stop,” she relates with good humor.

But Kostas was a quick study, and before long, he was an established fisherman plying the waters around Lesvos—which he made a good living from for many years.

He admits that “Nowadays, there are very few fish in the seas near Lesvos. There are even species that are almost entirely extinct. From 1988 to 1994—even until 2000—things were pretty good,” he notes. However, due to unregulated overfishing, the situation for fishermen quickly deteriorated.

“Ever since 2000, things have been very hard. When I first started, we lived very well even though I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. Lobsters, crabs, everything!” he reveals. “By the time this EU initiative started, most fishermen had already become disillusioned with their jobs anyway, and were disappointed with their catches, and so they destroyed their boats just for the money.”

In Sigri, Lesvos, many boats have been destroyed due to this EU initiative, Adonakis relates. “I’d say upwards of ten, and this is a small village,” he says. “On the entirety of Lesvos, who’s to say… probably thousands.”

“For a five meter boat, a fisherman can get around 15,000 to 20,000 euros. So they would gut the boat and take out all the mechanical things and anything of value, and just destroy straight wood for that much money,” he says. “Then, they would simply move all of the valuable parts of the old boat onto the new plastic boat they purchased with EU funding.”

“Many would even make a business out of it by destroying their boat and getting the money and then using that money to buy another, cheaper, wooden boat—only to destroy that again and make an even bigger profit,” he adds with incredulity.

But finally, the overfishing and the constant skirting of the EU’s regulations caught up with the fishermen of Lesvos.

“Currently, in Sigri, there are only three professional fishermen left whereas, once, there were upwards of fifteen,” Adonakis says.

However, he has his own plan, which not only doesn’t involve the willful destruction of the priceless heritage of Greece but would also help buoy up the fishing stocks around Greece so that fishermen could once again make a living from the sea.

“Instead of these ineffective policies which just lead to people destroying their boats but continuing to fish twelve months a year, Greece should implement a similar policy as other EU countries where they cap fishing at a certain weight of yield,” he states.

“These policy makers, they have no relationship to fishing and these boats—they have no idea. Instead, they should implement policies about how many nets each boat is allowed, and how wide the nets are,” he states. “I’ve hated watching people fish in the shallow waters because it destroys the surrounding ecosystem,” he states.

One thing is clear—there must be a better way to limit the size of catches while, at the same time, preserving the beauty of the timeless kaiki, the ancient, graceful fishing boat of Greece.


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