The two boatyards starring in this blog are separated by about 30 nautical miles and over 2,500 years. The oldest, in Oiniades, Greece (see photo) once stood on the banks of the Acheloos River. Over the millennia, however, the river apparently got bored of the local scenery and meandered off, leaving the boatyard landlocked.
The other is a working yard in Levkas.
You have to hand it to the ancient Greeks. They had style. In its time the Oiniades boatyard (perhaps ‘shipyard’ is a more deserving term) was a magnificent facility, featuring six separate slipways, each about 47m (154ft) long and hewn from the solid rock. To put it in context, it was building and repairing triremes (and one presumes other craft) some 400 years or so before the Romans took a wrong turn and found themselves in Britain.
And no scruff of a workplace was this. The gently sloping slips were fashioned to closely cradle the hulls. Rows of stone columns (now collapsed and strewn around) supported an undulating roof that spanned the entire working area – welcome shade for the shipwrights. And just beyond the hill you see in the photo was a handy amphitheatre, open to all, where they could recharge their intellectual batteries. I wouldn’t have minded working there myself.
But enough about the yard. The triremes must have been interesting. In a world before firearms, their manner of attack was to outrun and then ram enemy vessels with their protruding bows, a manoeuvre in which speed was obviously of the essence. When not under sail – which means often in the Mediterranean where winds can be very light – a trireme was powered by up to 170 oarsmen arranged in three banks on either side. It has been calculated that they could reach at least 15 knots, more than enough to chase down the average quarry. Perhaps this was at least partially due to the crew’s motivation. Contrary to popular belief, all the rowers were free men and from different walks of life – some rich, some poor – who toiled, not under a lash, but in the name of the democratic principles they believed in.
One assumes that it’s those same democratic principle that makes strikes so much a part of modern Greece life though somehow none of the motives seem even close to being so altruistic.
But what about the boatyard in Levkas? Well, it’s fascinating to observe that its working methods have barely advanced at all. Over twenty-five centuries, technical evolution has been spectacularly resisted. Yes, there are electrical tools and diesel powered tractors and the like, but boats are still brought to the water’s edge and hauled ashore on sledges – the hull wedged secure by men chest-deep in water. Once on dry land, they are propped up by timber shores and … hey, I’ve spotted a modern innovation … empty oil drums! Sometimes Greece’s undeniably glorious history seems so wretchedly far astern.