“Speak a little louder,” says Michalis Hatzinikolaou, better known as Mastromichalis (Master Michalis). Sitting next to him, his wife of over 60 years, intervenes: “You tell me, and then I’ll ask him.” With invisible subtlety, she complements the narrative of her husband like all lifelong couples do.
Sitting opposite me is one of Greece’s last traditional shipwrights. At 90 and with eyes that still sparkle and hands worn from work, he orders a Greek coffee and pulls out a pack of cigarettes and takes one. He takes a deep, invigorating puff and begins.
AMONG THE MASTER
“I was born on the island of Symi. At the age of 12 I went to a monastery for a year and half. When I was 13, a church cantor named Antonis Kyramarios, who was also a carpenter, told my parents that I had a nice voice and he could teach me singing and carpentry. I accepted immediately. In our house the front door practically opened onto the sea. In the morning we went to Kyramarios’ workshop and in the evening we learnt Byzantine notes. But I was restless and six months in I left and went to another master, Malaxos. He knew wood and how to be economical with it, shaving it away sliver by sliver. But he never gave me a single penny. So I left and went to work in the lime kilns. Eventually I ended up under Giorgos Psaros, who built larger vessels. I liked to wake up the morning. I went to work before anyone else and would wait for the boss to come with the big keys to open the door. Psaros, with his mustache and knit jerseys, wore poplin shirts full of holes from pipe smoking. He had no children and he liked me. After a while he said, ‘Mastromichalis, you take the keys.’ He was the first to call me that. I was 15 years old. He had grown old and his hands shook. I helped him, and soon I was the master and he the apprentice.”
“Now they pay us to break up our boats. Do you know how that feels? I have tears in my eyes. You know why it hurts? Because I know how to put a hull together.”
WAR AND LOSS
“In 1942, my father went to Rhodes for work. On his return the boat he was on was bombed and he was killed. My mother became a widow at 35 with eight children and bare cupboards. I took over the family. I worked on a ship as a repairman and made good money. The war was a tough time; I stole food to survive. After the war, I opened my workshop in Symi. I got lucky because an old craftsman who knew the art took a liking to me. He taught me all the secrets. I learnt quickly. In 1947 I tried to find work in Rhodes. Finally I built a boat to demonstrate my skills. I went to work for the Diamantis Pateras company. They were good people. I met Pantelis Pateras and he shook my hand to see if it was soft or rough like that of a craftsman.”
ONLY ONE SHIRT
“They sent me to Antwerp. I left with just a shirt. I got on a plane for Brussels. It was the first time I flew. It was freezing when I arrived. I waited for the boatswain, an old man, and we departed for China. In 1958 I married my wife. She was the sister of a fellow crew member. He had a picture of her in his cabin. Every now and again I used to go and look at it in secret and we started writing to each other. I saw her on a Sunday evening and on Monday I married her. We disembarked and everyone came to see us off.
“I left the sea to open a cinema, Titania, in Rhodes with my brother. I got a loan as a carpenter to build it. On our opening night we sold 3,800 tickets. A huge success. We lived above the cinema. We did so well that even Aliki Vougiouklaki, the famous Greek actress, came to see us.
“But my love of ships didn’t stop. In 1964 I bought a boat and ran a route from Symi to Rhodes. I was the first to do so. Then I bought a large metal boat from Italy. Under the Junta, things began to go wrong. First came TV, then videos. We closed the cinema in 1980. The big boat was confiscated.”
“I threw myself into my old job. I requested a space in Rhodes harbor and got it. I’m now lord of the harbor. Everyone knows me. I’ve made all kinds of boats, big and small. You know the secret? Before you make a hull, you build it in your mind. I plan it, I sail it and then I start working. The carpenter is in charge of the construction, the leader, and then come the rest. If the mast is crooked, nothing else will work.”
GIVING AWAY MY CHILD
“Now they pay us to break up our boats. Do you know how that feels? I have tears in my eyes. You know why it hurts? Because I know how to put a hull together. I work it, I listen to it, I stroke it, working on it for a year, sometimes two. And when it’s time for the boat to leave the dock, I feel sick. I don’t talk for days. Like when your daughter gets married and you think about how you used to sing her lullabies. There would be no humanity without boats. We went to the other side of the world with cloth sails, a compass and a wooden hull. Are we are ready to forget that? ”
“We should make a museum for our maritime tradition, hopefully to save something. Greece has some of the most beautiful boats in the world and we break and destroy them so the fishermen get compensation from Europe. The Europeans want their trawlers. They want farmed fish. We have our boatyards, some of which are over 100 years old. Yet, we’ve been burdened with fines because they claim our buildings are illegal. Disgraceful! We are the last practitioners of an art born in ancient times. The museum needs to be created now. I could be dead tomorrow. Who will learn what I can teach? Even if you make a plastic vessel, you take the shape from wood, from the boat builders.”
Originally published in Kathimerini newspaper
“ We should make a museum for our maritime tradition, hopefully to save something. Greece has some of the most beautiful boats in the world ”