Saturday, 29 April 2017

April 25 – Boat stories

(The Bellatrix in Petra)

Yesterday was a black day for the island, when at least 16 refugees drowned during a failed crossing from Turkey to Lesvos. Only two women were fished out of the cold water, one of them pregnant. Now though the blue sea smiles at me, pretending to be innocent, but I know that she remains a dangerous thing, and not only for refugees.

Lesvos used to have mighty fleets with fishing and transport ships, with important commerce overseas (Plomari only once had a fleet of more than 200 cargo ships). There were various places on the island where you could buy new boats; the ship yards of Plomari were famous for a special kind of boat: trechantiria. Wooden boats, of course, the craft of building them going from father to son. Nowadays ships are made of different materials and the traditional fleet of wooden vessels shrinks by the day. Also European laws seem to militate against traditional built boats.

The shipyards of the island suffer with the same history. Only in Skala Loutron will you see boats docked. But that is for reparation or maintenance, because who is interested in having a new wooden boat? In Plomari, Sigri or Skala Loutron you might see, now and then, a ship simply docked in the street. There are plenty of islanders still having the skill to keep those old rigs going.

Entire forests used to be cut for the ships. And, until not long ago, the resin from pine trees was tapped and used amongst other things to waterproof the boats. All those industries have gone and even though Greece still has a leading role in international shipping, the huge tankers and container ships are not made of wood anymore, nor produced in Lesvos.

Maybe Lesvos tried one last time to compete with its neighbour Chios (where most of the mighty Greek shipping families come from): in 1972 NEL Lines was founded, a socialist company where all islanders could buy a share. The company grew and was one of the regular ferry services sailing the Aegean Sea with 8 ships. But the new century and her crisis only brought misery. The ships grew old and now they no longer even serve their home island. Last week, one of their ships, the Virgin Mary of Paros, sank in the Spanish harbour of Algeciras. Since 2012 this ship was chartered by a Moroccan company to serve as a ferry between the cities of Tarifa and Tangier. But the ship was too big and was latterly anchored in the harbour of Algeciras, where it remained because then Nell Lines already had plenty of problems. During the last few years all their big passengers ferries - Mytilene, Taxiarchis, Theofilos and European Express – were taken out of service and now you can only see the Kenteris I, II en III speeding somewhere over the Aegean waves.

The sea between the coasts of Eftalou and Turkey is not only dangerous for refugees. Somewhere in the middle a mountain peak under water, like a treacherous, invisible iceberg, reaches to the surface and many a boat has been trapped there.

Last February the 17th: the Togo registered Bellatrix, belonging to a Turkish company, did not pay attention and BANG, a collision with the famous peak stopped the boat in the middle of the sea. After the cargo of grain – destination Izmir – was loaded onto other ships and the emergency services got the boat floating again, it had to go to Petra, to undergo some repair and wait until the Greek authorities thought the ship was fit enough to continue its journey. Now, either the boat has lots of failures, or its captain rather likes to watch football, because the fact is that only two months previously, on December 4, 2016, the Bellatrix also got stranded, this time in the Russian Azov Sea, nearby Yeysk.

I presume the Greek authorities must also have some doubts, because the boat still only moves (when the salt and war ships need to dock) between the port of Petra and the middle of the bay. Now the rusty ship almost seems to belong to the landscape. Had this have happened in Holland, there would be plenty of entrepreneurs grasping a chance to open up a brilliant business: what a marvellous place to have a cafe or restaurant - it's huge deck offering a splendid view over Petra and Molyvos. But here in Greece, where having a business means years of fighting against an opaque wall of rules, you can forget about such a project. In Greece, so lumbered by its crisis, it is a nightmare to start a business, especially an unusual one. So the Bellatrix continues to float around: wasting money instead of earning money - until, just like the Virgin Mary of Paros, it sinking to the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2017

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