Crooked Boards Are Stronger:
The Boat Builders of Spetses

By John Marlowe

Spetses, just south of Athens, in a chain with Aegina, Hydra, and Poros, is a working island. While travelers with backpacks, glow-in-the-dark sunburns, and video cameras sneak around, Yannis Vassiopoulos hardly knows they exist. He builds and repairs caiques, those elegant and sturdy low-riders, the Aegean's Little Engines That Could. Vassiopoulos is one of the island' s handful of independent boatbuilders who work long hours creating new boats and fixing old, using simple hand tools, with sensible nods to power tools as needed. Progress and economics work against these builders, but their trade is more healthy than sick, and, like Mark Twain's, reports (including those of the builders) of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Vassiopoulos' work is easy to romanticize: It is a passionate, simple task of making a classic, usable shape in a classic site. At twilight, music floats in jasmine-scented air, and in the bright sunlight, bougainvillea splash buckets of purple and blue against high, white walls. Six other yards, besides Vassiopoulos's, ring Spetses' Palio Limani, the old harbor. They range in sophistication from a humble father-and-son operation, to a complex, future-oriented business that is expanding its repairing and building of caiques. Vassiopoulos, in his late 30s, fits in the middle.

The touristy action is around the new harbor, where the hotels are and the ferries and day-tourist boats dock. The new harbor is a long, shallow cut into the island, while the older harbor, where the caiques are built, docked, and re-paired, is an incisive gouge, roughly the shape of South America.

The promenade connecting the two is less than a road, more than a path. Cars are outlawed, but the route accommodates horse-drawn carriages and an abundance of foot, bike, and motorcycle traffic. In two short kilo-meters, it travels past a small beach and the grand, high houses above whitewashed stone walls that could keep out Metallica fans; it runs by the outdoor tavernas, empty in the morning, their floors as clear of tables and chairs as roller rinks; and it sweeps around another bluff decorated with cannons from the war against the Turks, a war won in boats made by men like Vassiopoulos. At the end of the seawall is a taverna where, close to sunrise, men drink coffee. They would be a cluster if they were not stretched one table deep along the sea wall. At night, these restaurants are crowded with foreigners who dock three-deep in plastico boats, but at this early hour I encounter only fishermen and boatbuilders. Vassiopoulos was already at work; I would meet him later. The men sit about four to a table, at mixed angles to each other, and argue with a passion that seems doomed to end in fistfights. Greeks discuss weather with friends the way Americans discuss abortion with enemies.

Tassos Boufis has explained to the group my intended task of touring the boatshops of the harbor to determine if the builders were romantic dreams of themselves or a real economic force. Foreign words of paint, engine size, and cousins' weddings become clear. Boufis is a cousin to at least two friends of mine. In Greece it is hard to find someone who is not a friend's cousin.

As the men gossiped, a handsome, fit guy in his mid-60s, with thick, white hair in Sta-backed waves and a mustache that required daily toilette, proclaimed in English, apropos of nothing, that the boat building trade would be dead when these men died, making a sweeping gesture to include them all, their wrists on their spread knees, their heads down, and for a split second I saw a mist of sadness that quickly lifted, and his prophecy faded. But I found that this voice of doom was not accurate.

The old harbor is not dead. It gasps occasionally, one hand on its chest, the other on a chair for support. It faces difficult problems, but it has a strong heart and good legs.
Vassiopoulos's operation is different from those of the other builders. "Wildcat" easily comes to mind. He has sectioned off a portion of the beach. No shed; no web of extension cords back to some basic, primal source. He works mostly with his dovleti, pirgoni, pencil, and radio under a jury-rigged awning. He sports shorts, shoes, and a Babe Ruth build, a wild head of curly hair. He has a laugh and a joke with just about everything, and a self-deprecating style that would make anyone want to give up the nine-to-five to work with him.

This carefree spirit is strong on Spetses. Though Vassiopoulos has problems, the work joyfully goes on. Sometimes he looks too happy, as if asking, "What would Anthony Quinn do right now if he were playing the part of me? "
Vassiopoulos enthusiastically praises his own work, saying such things as, "Ah, it is such hard work, but it is worth it when your beautiful boat slides into the sea." And, "What can young men do? They have to love the work like we do. They have to have the passion. "

He does not wear a work belt. He has no tape measure, no beeper. His tools are mostly used and dropped on the spot-placed on a box or set on a beam. Picked up later. His dovleti and pirgoni are nonchalantly set aside. The dovleti is an adze-hammer that looks like the crossbreeding of a hammer and a midget hoe, and the pirgoni is like a sturdy keyhole saw. The hoe end of the dovleti is used like an adze to whack wood into shape. Yannis, with his wild hair, his ready laugh, is the kind of man who makes everything else look mundane: the archetype of the carefree operator, the stuff of novels, the fantasies that drove Gauguin to Tahiti. He told me how hard he worked when he was a young man. His bosses treated him badly. He arrived at sunrise and quit at dark. Kids don't work like that anymore.

He had some recent trouble with the police, and the city government drags its heels in giving him electricity. He claims he was renting a bit of land farther down the beach, but he moved a tiny piece of somebody else's wall, and the police came and took him to jail. Property, who owns it, and how you get it is a tricky thing in Greece. For example, I heard about a man who moved his plow line a tiny bit each year, gradually moving into his neighbor's property as he secretly plowed a few millimeters to his left on his last pass. One year his son plowed
off to the right, and his father yelled and cursed, exclaiming that it had taken him 10 years to get that extra four centimeters of property.

To build a ciaque, Vassiopoulos only needs two measurements: length and width. Everything else takes care of itself. In another yard, I saw how this all started. In the yard of Tassos Boufis, the first in the crookedly open lasso of the harbor, they took the first step, slicing planks from trunks and limbs of trees.

It takes three months to go from tree to sea. First step, one man uses an electric sander to create a roughly flat spot along one side of the log. Eyeballing a close right angle on the opposite side, a chalk line is snapped as a guide, and then Tassos and his crew of four men heft this log as big around as a 50-gallon barrel and twice as tall onto the table of a giant Italian bandsaw. The word "hernia " must have its roots in Greek.

After they muscle the log onto the saw, they use the "flat" as a base and saw along the snapped line, splitting the log and creating two "flatter" sides. Then they grunt one half over to a planer and make the flat side even flatter. Using this new really flat side as a base, they then bring the half-log back to the bandsaw, set up a sturdy metal right angle guide at the desired width, and rim planks from the side, like running salami length-wise through a meat slicer. These planks, about one and a half inches thick, lie in yards along the bay, against white rock walls; graceful and loopy against corrugated tin sheets, tacked like art deco jigs along gray, ancient, dusty walls.

Besides the temperature at 9:00 a.m., the angle on the bandsaw was the only thing even close to 90. Right angles, drawing boards, T -squares, plans-all have little use on Spetses. Eyeballing, trimming, forcing, and just plain knowing are far more common.

The men move freely through the boats, a plank in one hand, a dovleti in the other. The movement is like that of a large, cooperative artist's studio, more than of a production yard. Everyone works at his own project, at his own speed. The trouble with visiting yards like Boufis's and Vassiopoulos's is that they spoil you for every other kind of boat, especially plastico, a word spoken with a sneer. The value of wooden boats here is, of course, a given, but still, seeing them in the yards, bare to the bone, curved hand-shaped planks, makes the contrivances of seamless, high-tech design that owe more to the office than the yard seem pretentious and unnecessarily clumsy. Using the boats from these yards is sailing at its simplest level, like going to the source of a river.

One warm evening, I walked around the yards. The boats sat silently on the stocks, safe and solitary, graceful in stripped-down simplicity, and out past them was a giant Tonka Toy plastico boat filled to spilling with young women all wearing more jewelry than clothes. The boat looked high, thin, and carcinogenic. Its height and unnatural sheen gave me the willies.

It is the same difference between stone village houses and those made of cement blocks. The pocketbook understands the cement blocks, but the heart understands the stones, each placed by hand, each worried into position, each contemplated and felt before the next.

Vassipoulos's yard is not typical. Most are divided into two areas, separated by the promenade. The big machinery, the bandsaw, and the planer are ma building on higher ground above the road. The yard is a flat spot along the beach; rented from the government since there are complex laws (with many grandfather clauses) against owning waterfront land. Like Vassiopoulos's, these yards are models of simplicity: jury-rigged combinations of canvas and poles to keep the sun off, a mare's nest of electric extension cords running to the buildings housing the planer and the bandsaw. Walking from yard to yard, from taverna to house, from anyone place to any other in the old harbor, you step over a spider web of extension cords. OSHA would not be happy. The cords could be a safety problem, but they have been used this way for so long that they sit in permanent weathered grooves, below the tread line, hidden from harm. Bikes ride over them, cats play with them, people step on them, all with no apparent harm. I've seen no one with smoking eyebrows.

The network of cords serves the electric hand tools, which often get lost in the dust and the debris. Vassiopoulos uses electric tools, but the belt and disc sanders, Skil- and sabersaws, and electric drills lie around the boat, next to radios, under scraps of wood; he seems to make a conscious effort when he uses them, whereas he saws with a pirgoni or swings a dovleti with no conscious effort.

The planks are cut by hand with an electric sabersaw and the pirgoni. Each one is pushed, jammed, tapped, forced into place, clamped and nailed. After the hull is planked, the seams are caulked with tarred cloth, and the whole thing is painted with red lead.

Vassiopoulos said, as he used the adze end of his dovletito edge-set a plank, that it is always best to use boards with crooked grain because crooked wood is stronger. He smiled, knowing the strength of the metaphor. About every five years, a boat is pulled out of the water, a torch is taken to the hull to burn off the old paint, and the caulking is replaced, as are bad planks.

It is nice to think that the whole process involves simply building and repairing, but, in talking with Vassiopoulos and others, four problems emerged: wood, the Greek government, the EEC, and the fading family.

First, wood: Pine was once so abundant on Spetses that the ancient name for the island was Pityoussa, Pine Island. Greece had magnificent pine and oak forests, but they have been cut down. The cutover land has been grazed by goats and sheep that devour everything green, so few new trees grow. They used some native pine, which is more difficult to obtain since Greece, like the rest of the world, is wood poor. Greece is more so because Greece has had more time to deplete natural resources. Who has heard of Jason and The Econauts?

In the 1800s and early 1900s, builders went from island to island in the winter, cut wood, and brought it back to their yards to build huge ocean-going vessels that traveled the world. These days, wood comes in by foreign boats from foreign lands. Greek wood is not as good as imported. It is soft and prone to termites and rot, and it is not treated with preservatives. So, decay-resistant wood has to be imported from Scandinavia, the States, and Africa.

Politics make getting and keeping wood troublesome. Not only are imports hit with a heavy tax, but the European Economic Council (EEC) , the common market, while providing funds for crucial projects like the new Athens underground, created an 18% Value Added Tax (VAT) that includes wood for boats. VAT goes all along the economic food chain.

But, Greece needs EEC money be cause, according to The Economist Magazine, "The European Community gives Greece roughly $4 billion a year, almost 6% of its GDP and as , much as net tourism and shipping together bring in."

As if foreign-bred problems are not enough, there is a general feeling that the national government helps too little and interferes too much. The Greek government says it supports some of the more visible industries such as tourism, but Vassiopoulos says he gets absolutely no help. But he has a plan: The government should pay two young men, teenagers--- kids who are through with their mandatory schooling at 16---to work for the builders. He would gladly train them so he could get more work done, and they would learn a trade. Sort of a Greek CCC from our' 30s, or, a modification of The Neighborhood Youth Corps.

"If someone came to work for me, I would take care of him. He would not be treated like I was treated." He also complains about the government's effort to expand hotels and villas along the old harbor. The government has long been an advocate of increasing tourism, which does have an ironic side: The Third Reich had big plans for Greece. They did not want the olive oil, they wanted the sunshine that created the olive oil and the purple-blue sea. Greece was going to be one giant R&R sun-and-fun playground for German officers once the war was won.

One of the big problems is that the boatyards are on prime property. No one understands that the boatyards themselves are what make the place so popular. Replace them with fake yards, and you lose your source of profit.

The dead-end street of tourism compounds the problem. Replacing the tourists' attraction with tourist housing kills the builder that builds the golden boat. Given that the EEC pumps as much, if not more, money into the economy, the government would do well to let tourism slide for a while and make sure they are on time to the EEC meetings. As long as the boats make their way across the purple-blue waters of the Aegean, tourists will, in fact, visit.

Another builder argued that the government should help him and the other boatbuilders, citing that they are of historical importance, sort of living historical monuments.

Boatbuilders Voutris Bellis and Nikko Kaloyannis brought up a completely new problem. The EEC has deemed that Greece has provided too many fishing licenses-too many people after too few fish. The EEC forced the Greek government to stop issuing licenses to fishermen with boats between 5 and 12 meters long. The fallout was that the lack of licenses cut the number of boats produced on Spetses by about 80%, according to the builders, who are probably biased statisticians.

As for the problems of the modern Greek family, Vassiopoulos directed me to the yard operated by Costas Korakis and his son, Pendelis. Here I found possible success and potential failure.

The good news first: On the beach between Vassiopoulos's yard and the next was a confectionery of a ciaque, one that could decorate a wedding cake. It was a Greek purple-blue and creamy white; each color seemed applied with a pastry knife and lovingly smoothed. In particular, one raised piece of wood on the foredeck held a stanchion painted thick white, sitting on a small wooden sea of eternal blue, like a church on its own island. It could have, should have, been displayed at the D'Orsay museum in Paris. A fish symbol on the bow was smooth, stained wood, brown against the white. All details were perfect. As the boat sat silently on the shore, thick and rich and separate so that you could take it apart in colored sections and put it back together again, like those simple puzzles for preschoolers, I was reminded of William Carlos Williams's great poem in which he says, "So much depends on a white chicken next to a red, glazed wheelbarrow." The simplicity of those two shapes, one round, the other square, the animate and the inanimate, the dry and the wet, all of that which is so clear without words, is a part of these boats.

Korakis built this elegant, simple boat. He has a shop flush against the bluff that falls to the beach and serves as the rough back wall of his shop. I noticed that he had taped pictures of many of the boats he has built onto the face of his bandsaw, the one flat perpendicular space in the place. Along with the photos was a religious card of Joseph the Carpenter sawing on a beam, Mary glowing in the background, and Jesus sitting by the toolbox.

Farther out in the water, floating with all the dignity of swans, were two more caiques like the one I had just walked by. They bobbed, we talked. These boats were not made for working, like the teak boat I would see in another yard. An Athenian professor, an Englishman living on Spetses, and a Greek-American wanted pleasure boats. (Korakis made one working boat this year.) Each ciaque cost about four million drachmae, between $17,000 and $18,000, depending on the value of the dollar. Each, between six and seven meters long (20-23'), is equipped with a Perkins diesel.

Korakis, who worked for his father and grandfather, believes that kids have to have a passion and that the modern youngsters do not have it. I could not help but look at the boy, Pendelis, who seemed like he mostly had passion for lunch. The chunky kid smiled as if he, too, understood that when it came to loving work, he would rather flip through a magazine. Maybe I am hard on kids. A kid is a kid, and Costas Korakis's father probably thought Costas lacked boat-building passion. Maybe passion replaces baby fat.

While we talked, the two worked at long cuts on a dogleg log. They wrestled it to the giant bandsaw and could only push it partway through a cut before the saw would seize. Costas, with his son standing around grinning, would then go through the laborious job of changing the loop of a blade that was, when free of the machine, taller than any of us. Costas stood holding the blade in his spread arms, a giant "0" around his body, and then did a magician-cowboy lariat trick, and in a twang of metal, the blade would be lying at his feet in tame concentric circles of toothed steel. They were on their third blade when I left.

The problem is Pendelis, a harmless chunky adolescent boy who would rather be at the beach scoping out the topless German girls than changing endless saw blades. His young heart was not in it. He grinned when referred to, but he never moved quickly to carry out an instruction. He never anticipated a need. I asked Costas about the kid. The man smiled, turned his slightly folded hand in a twisting motion. The jury was still out.

But, Pendelis aside, I saw plenty of young men in the various yards, in spite of other builders telling me that young men were not going into the trade. The evidence contradicted what they said. However, these young men were not family. They were grunts who wrestled logs onto bandsaws. They did not fit planks. They did not make sophisticated cuts. They did not get to handle the pirgoni or the dovleti. Instead, they lifted, pulled, and moved. A lot of them, and men, like them on other islands, were actually Albanians or Poles who came to Greece from their own tormented countries to find gainful work at the lowest level for wages only. Their passion was for food on the table. Never mind the romance of the sea and cutting wood under the right lunar conditions.

I learned about lunar conditions in Tassos Boufis's yard when he introduced me to an Italian fellow named Alexandros, who was repairing his own ciaque there. I asked him in English if he spoke the language and he replied, in perfect English, " No, I speak only Greek. " He really spoke English. A lot of it. Boatyards the world over are filled with characters. Spetses is no exception.

Big trouble: Alexandros is a romantic, with a capital R. So am I. If there were a 12-step program for Recovering Romantics, my Thursday nights would be full. I must keep this under control or else I will end up in some god-awful place like Tangier or San Francisco's Tenderloin with cigarette holes in my shirt, four teeth in my mouth, and a shot of tequila in my trembling hand. But Alexandros made me and Vassiopoulos look like Rush Limbaugh. The first thing he said was, "I love these boats. I understand the Zen of them. You know what I mean?" Do I know what he means? I do not need this. I was going cold turkey on Romance. I did not even want Zen and boat building on a Japanese island, so I asked how old his boat was, to bring us to a more manageable plane.

"Forty-two years old. The same as me. A man was born on this boat. Not many caiques have men born on them. This was built when they really knew how to make caiques. Now they do anything. They don't understand. This boat was made when they knew how to cut the trees in just the right cycle so the sap was right. ... I know these boats. I am a unique source of information."

I listened and I learned. He had sailed his motorless ciaque from Greece to Sicily, after he had been told that it would be an unlucky trip because a man had been born on the boat. Other people told him that the boat was lucky for the same reason. The trip would be an event for any sailor, but this one was even richer because Alexandros suffers from the bends. I thought the bends were that condition you got coming up too fast in water too deep. For a couple of minutes you flopped around until you were dead in Sophia Loren's arms.

Death was the only real bad side effect. Not so, when I learned Alexandros stood to full height at well over 6', swaying like my cat who died of old age on the front lawn of my parents' house. He took staggering steps, weaving drunkenly to keep balance, shuffling, moving like an infant learning to walk. These "bends" took away all the feeling in his feet, and he did not know where they were unless he could see them. He walked like they were someone else's feet. His disability did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for caiques.

Though he had few complaints for the current practitioners ("They do not care anymore," he said), he did give Tassos Boufis a real compliment. Alexandros loudly proclaimed, "Tassos feels the building of boats. He is a maestro!"

Alexandros started the string of beefs I heard up and down the bay. As always, as everywhere, no one does anything as well as they used to. Fathers are always better than sons. Grandfathers and great-grandfathers? They carved boats out of trees and carried them to the sea. The spirit is gone. It's not like the good old days. As another put it, "Nobody cares. They would rather be waiters. Take care of tourists, make more money. The new builders use motors when they should use sails; tin and plastic instead of canvas."

The troubled builders cannot reasonably meet these mystical standards. Alexandros wants wood cut under cold, starry nights. He needs paint as thick and smooth as marzipan icing, but Vassiopoulos, Boufis, and the others, such as Voutris Bellis and Nikko Kaloyannis, do not have time for mysticism. They must build boats and turn profit. While Vassiopoulos runs a Mom and Pop operation without the Mom, just him and occasional help, others have more complex, buzzing activities. Boufis's yard, for example, is a beehive of activity. There, they repaired an old liberty, the feminine version of the ciaque as opposed to the trehandri, which is the classic, wide-waisted, double-ended ciaque that comes to mind when you hear "Greek wooden boats." The liberty was stripped to pastel orange bones, and the men replaced wood where needed; painting, caulking, bringing her back to new. The boats have about a 25- to 45-year life span. Some say that the age is a function of the builder, others argue that it is how the owner treats it. Those who argue for the builders say it does not matter what you do with a boat if it is not good from the start.

Yannis Kourbellis works on new and old boats, and he was happy to talk. He even has a proper office: a cluttered desk, catalogs for engines and engine parts. In other yards, deals were made over a log, over a beer. Unlike Vassiopoulos, Kourbellis worked on both plastic and wood. He was modern to the max. Other yards had old calendars from bygone years. Kourbellis had up-to-date regressive women in politically incorrect poses. Kourbellis got into the business the hard way: marriage. His father-in-law was a boatbuilder, and Yannis carries the torch. He showed me his latest effort. Floating in the harbor was a custom-made (all caiques are custom made, but this one really looks it) ciaque, built of teak, with paint thick enough to keep its shape after the wood is gone.

As the demand for working boats diminishes, but does not disappear, the builders will shift over to build caiques for pleasure. This one is such a boat, owned by a Frenchman who summers on Spetses. It took three men ten hours a day for seven months to build. It looks to be as stable and trustworthy as Canada. It is rigged to sail; the sails, incidentally, have not been tested by the owners even though the boat is over a year old.

Vassiopoulos's care for detail goes against the stereotype of most Greek work. The stereotype says that paint covers a lot of mistakes and that conjecture and a cavalier attitude toward fit are as pervasive as the summer sun. Yet the boats I examined are done with a mind for detail and fit. I asked Alexandros about this, and he kissed one hand's fingers and said, "The Greeks are marvelous."

Recently, I was at an isolated beach, isolated but for a lone fisherman in his small boat, who was under the awning, cleaning his nets, and as he cleaned, I discussed the colors with him; he had taken special care to paint them just right. The paint was lined, crisp, exact. The fittings, the details---anchor chains painted blue to match a theme on the boat, small symbolic fish on the bows, simple and ancient along the side---are of a celebratory nature. While Vassiopoulos is the star of this aesthetic show, he represents the peak of the craft.

The future appears more mundane, more practical, more business-like.

The last yard on the bay's rugged loop is run by young, energetic men whom you could picture in a Rotary meeting. Yannis Klesas was in charge. In his early 30s, with a Pete Rose haircut, a pair of shorts, and a handsome surfer look, he was optimistic. He mostly repaired older boats, with occasional new construction. Kourbellis, the builder next to Vassiopoulos, works the same way. They believe their best bet is to build, of course, but they must spend time and effort repairing all kinds of boats. To make it, they must be willing to build new pleasure boats and to repair any of the workboats made by men who came before them.

Klesas was not ashamed to work on plastico, and at the same time he was proud of what he did with wood. His crew of four men worked on the skeleton of an old ciaque, almost rebuilding it from scratch. When asked about his future, he smiled. "Long after the old men who built them are gone, I will repair their boats. My future looks good."

Past him, over his shoulder, I saw Yannis Vassiopoulos clamping a bent plank, made from crooked wood, into just the right place for that boat at that time.


This article originally appeared in WoodenBoat Magazine and is reprinted with the author's permission.


Return to The Collected Greek Works of John Marlowe