The Death of the Kaiki, Greece’s Traditional Fishing Boat



Fisherman Petros Tzevelekos at Neos Pyrgos, on the island of Evia

He sits sad-eyed on a bench in front of the Neos Pyrgos pier in North Evia, watching some of the few remaining kaikia go to and fro. Just a few years ago, his own kaiki was tied there next to them. Every day, before dawn, he would climb aboard her to go fishing to make his  living.

He performed this timeless ritual of the fisherman for over forty years.

But Petros Tzevelekos cannot do it anymore. He is 75 years old and time lays heavy on his shoulders.

But even if he could physically perform this arduous labor again, he could no longer use his beloved kaiki, because it was smashed to smithereens in front of his eyes for a small monetary compensation.

Tzevelekos’ beloved boat was one of about 13,000 kaikia which have been deliberately destroyed since 1994, after a European Union directive called for the demolition of the small wooden fishing boats which Greek fishermen have used for centuries.

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

File photo

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

However, the papers allowing the compensation must be signed at the very moment the boat is destroyed, which means that the owner must be present during the “cutting.” This anthropomorphic term is the word the fishermen use when their beloved kaiki is broken to pieces by a bulldozer.

“I had my kaiki for forty tears,” Tzevelekos told Greek Reporter. “The money we got was very little, since its was a small boat. I felt very bad when they cut it… I feel sad for losing it.”

“I didn’t do it because I was forced, though. I’m 75 now, I can’t work. But I will continue to fish. I’ll find a small boat to fish for myself,” he avers.

Α cruel law threatening a centuries-old tradition

“Every crack was a stab in my heart,” said Dimitris Livanos of Agiopyrgos — also in North Evia — describing the boat demolition that he was forced to witness.

The EU law asks fishermen to surrender their boat and license in order to be compensated. Every time the owner of a fishing boat gives up his license for subsidy, the boat must be broken to pieces, making sure that it can never be used again for fishing.

The “cutting” procedure takes place during specific time periods, approximately every two years.

The directive may be aimed at stopping overfishing in the Mediterranean, but without a doubt it shows a complete disregard for the strong sentimental value the traditional kaikia hold for their owners.

As an age-old maritime country, a large proportion of Greece’s population depends on fishing for their livelihood. Countless generations of Greek islanders and coastal inhabitants on the mainland have made their living from the sea, and the the main tool for their trade was their kaiki.

Fisherman Dimitris Livanos

“I spent sixty years at sea,” Livanos relates. “I had an eight-meter (26-foot) boat. But the years passed and I had to cut it. It was very sad. Now I can’t work to live, since the money I got was little.”

The fisherman also touched on the emotional subject of the destruction of the traditional kaikia, which also signifies the death of an ancient Greek tradition.

“These boats are traditional. They shouldn’t cut them. They should keep them and display them. There are no new craftsmen now to build such boats. They should conserve them. There are no craftsmen now to either restore them or build new ones,” Livanos says.

In addition to the incalculable damage to the many Greeks who make a living by fishing, the EU directive also threatens the centuries-long traditional craft of boatbuilding. Building a wooden fishing boat requires exceptional craftmanship and knowledge of the qualities of various wood types as well.

Greece has a long and proud heritage in kaiki building. The construction of such a vessel requires natural timber, special design and construction techniques and equipment, and then decorating according to specific cultural practices.

The technique of kaiki building and maintenance has naturally passed down from generation to generation since ancient times. But as the years go by, the tradition fades. The destroyed kaikia will not be replaced.

The descendants of traditional fishermen have turned their sights to tourism, for the most part, or even other professions entirely which may have nothing to do with the wine-dark sea.

Another tradition which seems to be dying out, along with kaiki, is the karnagio, the small shipyard where fishing boats have always been maintained or repaired. Always seaside and sometimes within harbors, the karnagia have always been an indelible part of Greece’s fishing tradition.

Efforts to salvage the kaikia

The Traditional Boat Association of Greece is a private organization which is making concerted efforts to save traditional boats from extinction.

Established in 1999, the Association is attempting to introduce a program which, instead of destroying them, will allow the salvage and restoration of traditional boats through private ownership.

“There are about 15,000 fishing boats left, based on the number of current licenses. We don’t know how many of these are traditional,” says Nikos Kavallieros, president of the Association. “This doesn’t mean they are all active. Some of the fishermen have retired, some boats are damaged and cannot be repaired, or the owners can’t afford to repair them. Others keep them on shore.”

“So far, 13,000 traditional fishing boats have been destroyed. About 10,000 were destroyed according to the EU directive and 3,000 have been abandonded or damaged and they are no longer active,” he adds.

“The EU is going to give more money for another round of withdrawals and demolition. We lose fishing boats every year. In the end, there will be nothing left,” Kanallieros laments.

Regarding the compensation given to the fishermen, the president of the Association says that a 12-14 meter (46-foot) long boat with 150 horsepower can mean a compensation of 100,000-150,000 euros. Most boats, however, are 4-5 meters (16 feet) long and their owners can only receive about 30,000 euros when they relinquish their craft.

Kavalieros says that the destruction of the kaikia is completely absurd. “They could have asked for the boats to remain on land and stop being used for fishing. Owners could keep them in their yard as antiques, as objects of sentimental value,” he protests.

Asked whether the measures to stop overfishing are dictated by big international fish farming companies, Kanallieros says “I don’t want to believe that the (EU) directive is only to support fish farming, because they don’t want to stop fishing altogether.”

One would think that Greece’s Ministry of Culture, so adept at protecting the nation’s cultural icons, might make an effort to preserve the traditional kaikia and the entire maritime culture connected with fishing, including the beautiful and unique craftsmanship of the wooden boats.

“The Ministry of Culture has done absolutely nothing,” Kavallieros tells Greek Reporter in frustration. We have approached them and they said that they have salvaged some traditional fishing boats — but not what and where. They say that they make efforts to preserve them, but they haven’t done anything. They only shed crocodile tears.”