Saving Greece’s Handmade Wooden ‘Kaikia’ Boats

Greek kaikia boats

There in every postcard-perfect picture of Greece, a bright red, green, and blue boat can be seen bobbing in the sea transporting the viewer for a brief moment to a favorite beach or a memorable Greek summer recreating the sound of the waves and the excitement of a trip to some unknown beach.

Known as “kaikia”, these handmade wooden masterpieces have for centuries stood witnesses to the country’s long seafaring tradition, which is an integral part of Greek heritage.

A Greek kaiki boat like a fish out of water on Ithaki, Odysseus’ island.

Sadly, however, these works of art are today being destroyed after the European Union decided in 1983 subsidize fishermen to scrap their boats.

The initial reasoning behind this questionable decision was to tackle overfishing.

Nearly a decade later, in 1996, the EU told fishermen to quit their professions and destroy their boats. The sad result? Hundreds of Greece’s beautiful (and perfectly sound) vessels have ended up in scraps in landfills.

As crazy as it may seem, the EU has spent at least 46 million euros (in subsidies to fishermen) to demolish hundreds of decommissioned caiques and traditional fishing boats instead of funding the preservation and continuation not only of Greece’s maritime tradition but those of many other member states as well.

At the same time, the decision also led to the extinction of related boat craft professions which for decades fed and educated Greek families on remote islands and at coastal villages.

And the damage does not stop there. Greek officials did absolutely nothing.

This is the same country that tells the tale of its most important heroOdysseus (Ulysses) who sailed on a Greek boat for 10 years battling one-eyed giants, sirens and witches to reach his home Ithaca.

This is also the same country that bore us Nobel Prize (1979) winning poet Odysseas Elytis, who summed up all that Greece is in five verses:

If you take Greece apart,

In the end you will be left with 

an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat…

which means that with these items 

you can rebuild Greece…” 

Odysseas Elytis

#Savekaikia Brings Greek Boats to the Spotlight

Greek kaikia boats
Not wanting to destroy a ‘member of the family’, the owners of this kaiki keep it alive on the beach in Mani next to their fish taverna.

A few years back, in 2018, the #savekaikia campaign was launched in Greece as a last-ditch effort to stop the destruction of these treasures that once proudly roamed the seas now facing a bleak future.

I can only remind that what made Greece the highly-sought after destination it is today was its quant fishing villages on the islands and mainland which lived off fishing and sponge diving.

The simple beauty of the sea, the small huts or “syrmata” where these boats spent their winters sheltered from the cold gale-force winds, and the tiny whitewashed homes of their owners are what attracted and still attract millions of visitors to Greece. Many of today’s popular seaside destinations on the Greek islands were decades ago only humble “resting spots” for kaikia.

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A Wrong that Must Be Made Right

Greek kaikia boats being demolished under an irrational EU regulation and ‘thanks to’ Greek government negligence. Photo credit: Hellenic Maritime Museum

Besides the EU’s irrational decision which failed to consider the importance of the kaikia tradition for Greece, decades of inactivity on the part of Greek officials led to the destruction of thousands of handmade wooden boats.

According to the Traditional Boat Association of Greece, more than 13,000 Greek boats were destroyed between 1991 and 2017, the majority of which traditional wooden kaikia boats made by hand at Greek shipyards.

In an attempt to stop the madness and to raise awareness about the importance of safeguarding the country’s seafaring heritage, #Savekaikia was launched.

The campaign is now urging government officials to stop the EU-funded destruction of traditional fishing boats. #Savekaikia is also calling on Greek authorities at the shipping, tourism and culture ministries to take measures that will allow for these boats to be ‘reinvented’ and converted into vessels for tourism or pleasure purposes. It would make sense if one takes into consideration the fact that Greece has the longest coastline in Europe, the largest number of fishing boats, and one of the continent’s most enduring traditions in boat-making and professional fishing.

Joining the initiative is AB Felix, a company working with the Traditional Boat Association of Greece to fund and save these boats by refitting and selling kaikia as yachts, which the company says are “ideal for sailing in the short waves of the Aegean”.

In this direction, the Traditional Boat Association has also suggested offering incentives to boat owners to transform their vessels into recreational boats or to sell for private use in efforts to safeguard the country’s maritime legacy.

Greece’s Seafaring Heritage

Greece’s seafaring tradition dates back to ancient times. Ample evidence was found in this direction in 1967 by an archaeology professor from Indiana University, who discovered inside the prehistoric Franchthi Cave remnants suggesting long distance sea journeys, including obsidian from Milos island and tuna bones, among others.  

Greek kaiki boat
Some Greek Star Trek humor: A Greek kaiki boat named ‘Enterprise’ overlooks Gerolimenas in Mani.

T.W. Jacobsen carried out excavations in the cave, which dates back to the Mesolithic period, or is over 40,000 years ago. His work at the archaeological site which is near the fishing village of Kilada in the Argolic Gulf in the Peloponnese, brought to light among others the oldest complete human skeleton in Europe, which goes as far back as 23,000 BC. Years later, in 2014, archaeologists confirmed that Franchthi Cave appeared to be the oldest human settlement in the world

Backing Jacobsen’s finds is a 23-meter ship that has rested at the bottom of the Black Sea undisturbed for over 2,400 years. Archaeologists from the ongoing Black Sea M.A.P – Maritime Archaeology Project say the perfectly preserved ship dates back to 400-500 BC and is believed to be Greek. Due to the lack of oxygen, the ship – complete with mast, rudders and rowing benches may be the oldest ship ever discovered.

The long history of Greece’s seafaring heritage is also portrayed on the thousands of ancient vases and art works, in its oral tales the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as in the dozens of ancient shipwrecks that lay still under the waters of Alonissos, Cyprus, Kythera, Tzia, Fournoi, and Delos and which the culture ministry is aiming to make accessible to the public. 

Christmas
The Greek Christmas boat depicted in ‘Ta Kalanta’ by Greek painter and engraver Giorgos Sikeliotis (Benaki Museum).

What’s more, up until the mid 1800s, Greeks particularly on the islands or along the coast traditionally decorated a kaiki boat for Christmas as it not only represented the country’s connection to the sea but was also paid tribute to the thousands of sailors at sea. 

The Greek Christmas boat also symbolized the arrival of Christ’s love as well as our own new journey into life. The Greek Christmas boats were made by village children from wood and various items washed ashore and then carried around when they went carolling on Christmas Eve.

How to Save Greece’s Kaikia

Greek kaki boats
Kaikia removed from the waters on the shore overlooking the sea in Mani, Greece.

Every year, European cultural heritage federation Europa Nostra launches nominations for its “7 Most Endangered” program, which aims to heighten awareness with regard to heritage treasures across Europe that are threatened due to natural, human-related or climate change.

Europa Nostra encourages anyone or group knowing of an endangered heritage gem in Europe to nominate it for the 7 Most Endangered program.

As of 2021, the selected 7 Most Endangered heritage sites will be eligible for an EIB Heritage Grant of up to 10,000 euros per site.

Besides raising awareness, the program – launched in 2013 with the support of the European Investment Bank Institute and the Creative Europe program – prepares independent assessments, proposes recommendations for action and seeks to rally support to save the selected endangered sites. 


♬ I end today’s post with favorite Greek singer Giannis Poulopoulos in a song about our favorite kaiki which he will “equip” for smooth sailing in the seas of love: “Trechantiri tha Armatoso” – with music by Mimis Plessas featuring in the 1969 film “I Pariziana”. 

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