Boatyard in the Argolian gulf

Traditional craftsmanship in Greece – the traditional boatyard in the village of Kilada

The fishermen’s village Kilada in the Argolian gulf is famous for its caïques, Greek wooden boats. Yannis Lekkas and his son Kostas run a big boatyard in the bay.

In the protected bay, the well-known shipyards of Kilada are located directly next to the coastal road. In his big factory workshop Yannis Lekkas sits on a table with three other men. They talk loudly. Coffee is bubbling on a gas stove. The radio plays the news. There is loud hammering in the background. A band saw is screeching in one of the workshop’s corners. Yannis Lekkas, a man with distinctive features in his late seventies, builds boats. He greets us with a radiant smile: “We just made coffee, do you want one?” On a shelf above the sink various ship models are placed next to cups. Photos of boats, all built in Yannis’ workshop, are hanging on the wall alongside icons.

The art of building a Trechantíri
Two semi-finished boats are jacked-up in the big workshop. “The big one is a liberty and the small one a trechantíri“, Yannis explains us. The traditional way of constructing caïques can be wonderfully demonstrated on both examples. On the keel beam, which is made from a straight beam, also called karína, one beam for the bow and one for the stern are mounted in a slightly tilted way. At the next stage the curved ribs are fixed on the keel beam in regular intervals. Afterwards the structure is covered with bent planks. The trechantíri, a double-ended vessel, is the kind of boat mostly associated with the typical Greek caïques.

Working exclusively to order
Over twenty years ago business was booming. Demand, especially for bigger boat types, was more than double of what it is today, Yannis tells us. His workshop often constructed two or three boats at the same time. At the time they had difficulties to keep up with the numerous orders, so, in the calmer winter months, they started to build boats on speculation. The golden times are gone. He points to the big boat: “We started constructing this hull about five years ago.” It isn’t only due to the economic crisis that demand for traditional wooden boats has slowed over the past ten years. The fishery crisis has begun much earlier. When the European Union took action against overfishing in the early 1980s, fishermen who agreed to abandon their boats were paid a redemption sum. The overfished oceans that didn’t yield a good return for small-scale fishery anymore, as well as the amount of the redemption sum to be gained led to a massive reduction of small-scale, independent fishermen.

One of the men stands by the gas stove and fries freshly caught sardines in olive oil as Mezé.

The economic crisis that persists since 2009 has aggravated the situation of the shipbuilders. Fewer new boats have been ordered since. Many people rather buy second-hand boats and have them repaired. A well maintained caïque has a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. “We are working exclusively to order”, Yannis says, “building a boat on speculation is very risky. It isn’t only about the advance of working hours but primarily the cost of material procurement.”

Solutions mature during sleep
“I dream about work and the tasks I have to manage the next day”, Yannis tells us, “it can’t be explained rationally, it’s rather a feeling that recognises the imbalance of a shape and at night these problems resolve automatically.” The business is now run by his son Kostas. Yannis experience and know-how however remain the core of the shipyard. Quite naturally he takes the executive chair and proudly points to the numerous certificates and awards they have received over the years.

“The boats are like children for me”

Lunchtime with Mezé and Tsípouro
A five litre plastic bottle is passed around. “Do you want some?” one of the men asks smirking. “Are you sure? That’s tsípouro.” He pours a generous shot into his coffee. Yannis tells us how he wanted to learn constructing boats in a school on the island of Leros when he was young. He laughs and says: “I left after two days.” He went to Mariettas in Kilada. “You will hear a repeat of Dinos’ story”, Manolis Pantelis adds, “no money and a lot of hard work.” Yannis laughs: “Money?! Of course we didn’t get any.”

In the workshop next-door Yannis is ordering several metal parts for his boats.

The boats are like his children, somehow they resemble each other, but each one has its own characteristics. To give them away, “Alas”, Yannis makes a gesture of regret. When a boat leaves the shipyard it is like a child leaving home: you don’t know whether it will ever come back.

A special thanks to Captain Manolis Pantelis, founder of the Yacht Club of Spetses, as well as Annika Barbarigos and Emmanouel Vernicos of the Traditional Boat Association of Greece.

A sketch of a traditional sail design by Manolis Pantelis