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Ferry Tales

Greek ferry and flying dolphin

From " Spearfishing in Skatahori" by Matt Barrett

Andrea is keeping up a subtle pressure, letting me know that she wants to leave the island. She's not into this middle of the road scene. She wants an island that is either totally Greek, or she wants to be in our house in Carrboro, North Carolina happily vacuuming with the air-conditioner on high. She doesn't get the same thrill that I get watching the ferry boats come in at all hours of the day and night. I have been trying to get Amarandi interested. My love of ships is something I treasure. I hope I don't create an obsession in her.

I remember a few years ago there was an English gentleman staying at the Hotel Stavros who knew everything there was to know about all the ferries. He knew when they were built, which routes they traveled before becoming obsolete and being sold to the Greek ferry companies, and where the old ferries went after they got too worn out even for Greece. He was fun to listen to but his interest bordered on obsession, perhaps even fetish.

Most of the ferries came from Holland and Scandinavia. Many of them ended up on the rocks when they became too old to sell and the only way to get rid of them at a profit was to wreck them. The Agios Yorgos sits on a small islet off the island of Kimolos. The Ionion is quietly resting near Kasteli, Crete. It's strange to see them because I remember them sailing into the bay, painted white and full of life. Now they are totally covered in rust with not a speck of their white paint visible. It's an eerie sensation to see one.

The Agios Georgos was an interesting boat. The islanders called it The Ghost Ship. Not because it was haunted but because you never knew when it was going to arrive. It could be anywhere from 5 to 25 hours late. The fishermen hated it because unlike other ferries which had the entrance in the back and took up very little space when they docked, the Agios Georgios had it's entrance on the side and took up the entire length of the dock, meaning the fishermen had to move all their boats when it arrived, and wait out in the bay until it left. Because they never knew when it would actually get there they had to waste great amounts of time sitting on their boats or in the cafes waiting for it. This Ghost ship was disrupting their simple lives.

Luckily it only came once or twice a week. But one summer the islanders had been petitioning the government and the merchant marine to provide them with daily service to and from Mykonos. Sifnos has always had the attitude of "what has Mykonos got that we don't?" and believed that their promiscuous sister island should be required to share the wealth. A daily boat to Sifnos would help.

After much lobbying and perhaps a small exchange in cash or favors, it was announced that starting this week there would be a daily boat from Mykonos. There was much celebrations among the workers and especially my friends who owned the Old Captain Bar. This was the week that Sifnos would turn the corner in tourist revenues. Imagine their disappointment when they saw the Agios Yorgos sail into the bay. And so it began. The daily torture of the fishermen. And every day the ship came in later and later. It was losing the race against time.

Finally in an effort to get the ship back on schedule, the ferry company decided to keep the ship overnight in Kamares and start fresh the next day on a new schedule. This meant that the fishermen would have to spend the night on their boats in the middle of Kamares bay since the ship would be taking their berths. This was the final straw. The fishermen got organized. When the Ghost Ship sailed into the harbor it found a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft totally surrounding the dock. There was nowhere for the Agios Yorgos to let off their passengers and vehicles so it just sat in the middle of the bay. Meanwhile on shore a demonstration had been organized and the crowd marched to the end of the dock carrying a large banner that said "NO TO THE GHOST SHIP". They chanted slogans and yelled at the ship with a megaphone. Many of them were tourists who had no idea what they were demonstrating, thinking they were taking part in some traditional island custom or welcoming ceremony. Finally some of the fishermen agreed to go out to the ship and bring the passengers to shore. As they arrived looking frightened and confused the man with the megaphone greeted them. "We welcome you with flowers to Sifnos."

While all this was going on Francisco Katsoulakis, part-owner of the Old Captain and the ferry ticket office, had gone up to the fishing boat Captain Andreas, and cut down the banner that had been tied there. In response, Nikolaki, the Captain of the Captain Andreas threw a brick through the travel agency window. Suddenly, on the island battle lines were being drawn and because I was playing guitar at the Old Captain I was seen as being on the wrong side of those lines. At the time I was good friends with the people who worked at the Captain Andreas restaurant which owned the fishing boat and one night when I walked in to eat I heard Nikolaki say "It's one of Katsoulakis boys." It really bothered me because here was the hero of the anti-Agios Yorgos movement of which I considered myself a part of, believing that I was a traitor. I decided to be bold and make my true feelings known to him by giving him various suggestions of nautical vandalism that I had picked up from living in New York. He seemed pleased and welcomed me back to the revolution.

But that was basically the end of the Agios Yorgos. The next summer it was given the dreaded Aegean Agony loop, stopping at almost every island between Pireaus, Crete, Rhodes and Thessoloniki. When a ship is given this government subsidized route it usually means it's days are numbered and if you find yourself on it one night when the sea is a little rough and there are very few passengers aboard you might want to familiarize yourself with the evacuation maps and wear a life vest the duration of the journey. I saw the Ghost Ship one night in Pireaus. The next time I saw it was on the rocks.

The Ionion, or the Onion as my brother James called it, was one of the oldest and proudest of the Greek ferry system. It was gradually losing ground to the bigger, faster and fancier ferries but I imagine in it's day it was something special. Not only was it one of the regular Sifnos ferries, but it was also the once a week boat to my grandmothers village of Kyparissi on the Peloponessos line, another ominous route. The last stop is Kasteli Crete and on one journey the Onion fell a little bit short of it. Sifnos 1994

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