Skopelos, in the Northern Sporades, is just how you imagine a Greek island. Picturesque white houses tumble down the hillside to the harbour, where they meet the deep blue of the Aegean Sea. The scene probably hasnít changed that much in centuries, although it hasnít always been so quiet here. At one time there would have been constant noise and bustle as hundreds of men worked all day in the busy shipyards, or tarsanadss, building ships and fishing boats using pinewood from the islandís steep forested slopes. Boats have always played a big part in life on Skopelos. With its rainy climate, the land was very fertile and good ships were needed to export the farmersí produce. In less peaceful times, Skopelos built 35 ships to take part in the fighting against the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century Greek Revolution.
It was against this background that the young Triantafilos Boudalas began work at the islandís shipyard. Born in 1927, as soon as he was old enough he joined his father, building all kinds of vessels, from fishing craft to tall masted sailing ships. He stayed there until the shipyard was closed in the late 1960ís, when it became more economical to make boats from steel and fibreglass. Rather than lose the skills of a lifetime, he then began building wooden model ships, a business which he carries on to this day.
His workshop, in the basement of his family home, is a treasure trove, brimful with tools and lovingly prepared strips of wood. Standing tall amongst the clutter are the proud masts of a perfectly crafted scale model of H.M.S. Victory and nearby are the delicate three tiers of oars flanking a 5-feet long Greek trireme.
The business is very much a family affair. Triantafilos constructs the ships together with his son Yannis, while the sails are sewn by his daughter Nina. He uses wood from the walnut trees which grow abundantly on Skopelos. With its hardness, grain and rich colour, it is considered by many to be one of the best of the modelling woods.
Of course, with all this skill and talent, Triantafilos has gained a reputation as a master of his craft which spans continents. The former President of the United States, George Bush Senior, commissioned a large model of Old Ironsides, the three-masted frigate U.S.S. Constitution, just as she would have looked when launched on 23rd July 1798. A big model such as that could take a year or two to complete, but smaller ones take just weeks or months. Usually about five are completed per year. The prices are high, which is to be expected, and customers can expect to pay several thousand pounds for a ship by Triantafilos.
If such high prices are not for you, you can admire Triantafilosí skill for free by visiting the local Folklore Museum, which opened in 1992. Here, amongst the displays of furniture, bric-a-brac and traditional lace and embroideries, is an impressive display of wooden sailing ships, an integral part of the islandís history. All but one are made by Triantafilos, who of course is well known in the town. Surrounded by old photographs of Skopelos in its ship-building days, they are a proud record of the islandís past.
If you do go to Skopelos, you may be lucky enough to meet Triantafilos. If so, Iím sure that you will receive a very warm welcome from him and his family, just as I did, and perhaps a chance to see him putting into practice the skills handed down through the centuries.
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