Postcard from Greece: Heroes of the Small Cyclades

“It’s the VIP area. There’s only room for one,” quips the second, twinkling aquamarine eyes. He’s sitting in an old blue chair planted among giant rolls of rope, drinking coffee. coffee in a paper cup. His frizzy smile and leathery skin confirm a life of seamanship. He wears a sun-bleached navy blue T-shirt, adorned with a red S wrapped around a white anchor below the ship’s name : Express Skopelitis.

Those who have traveled on this brave little boat know that speed is not one of its strengths. (The Express moniker was added when its even slower predecessor, the Skopelitis, was decommissioned.) But a trip on this old-fashioned ferry is a rite of passage for Greek islanders — an interlude happy and salty that is both enjoyable and surprisingly affordable, unlike the sweltering high-speed catamarans that now dominate the Greek seas.

Run by three generations of the Skopelitis family since 1956, Small Cyclades Lines is an anomaly: a one-ship shipping company. With a capacity of 340 passengers and space in the hold for less than ten vehicles, the Express Skopelitis serves the archipelago of tiny islands between Naxos and Amorgos: Iraklia, Schinousa, Koufonisia and Donoussa. With a few hundred inhabitants between them, these islands and the islets around them are known as Small or Small Cyclades, but I like to think of them as pure Cyclades. The landscapes are the epitome of barren beauty: bare creeks and low hills dotted with huddled white hamlets. Cars are rare; you move on foot or on fishing boats. There are no deckchairs, no resorts, no banks (ATMs often run out of money) and (apart from Koufonissia) no pharmacies.

The Skopelitis Express criss-crosses the strait between these islands six days a week, 11 months a year. (For a month, the ship undergoes essential maintenance.) Medicines, bread and other basic necessities are transported free of charge. Residents also travel for free. The Skopelitis is their post boat, their ambulance, their only lifeline when the tourists have left, taking with them the lucrative shipping companies that serve the Small Cyclades in the middle of summer. “During the winter, we are committed to ensuring that the islanders have everything they need,” explains Dimitris Skopelitis, the 35-year-old captain-owner. “The weather conditions are difficult and the infrastructure in the ports is practically non-existent, which makes our work more difficult.

Boat in the water at sunset
Koufonissia Island © Alamy

Like other routes connecting the more remote and less populated Greek islands, this one is known as the agoni grammi (literally, the unsuccessful line). These shipping routes are subsidized by the state, as they are not commercially viable. The recent spike in fuel prices has led to a sharp rise in ferry ticket prices: most fares have risen by 25-30% compared to last year, making island vacations unaffordable for many Greeks already grappling with galloping inflation. But on the Skopelitis Express, a round trip from Naxos to Iraklia (1h30 each way) costs only €13.60. “We are not allowed to increase our prices because the road is subsidized,” explains Skopelitis. “But the government hasn’t increased subsidies to help us absorb rising fuel costs, so running this line becomes unsustainable.”

Despite these challenges, there is no question of abandoning ship. The Skopelitis Express rarely cancels a crossing. “If we don’t show up, the islanders will make a revolution,” laughs Captain Giannis Fostieris, a crew member since 1990. During a stopover at the port of Naxos, the administrative capital of the archipelago, I watch the delivery vans , couriers and pedestrians drop off plants, a washing machine, a birthday cake, new shoes, building materials and dozens of other parcels, which the 10-man crew patiently loads and sorts. Each island has a designated area in the hold. “We are more flexible than the big ships that take people on and off. If someone is held up in court or at the doctor’s, we will wait for them,” says Fostieris.

Ferry on the sea

The Skopelitis Express © Alamy

Once the ship has set sail, passengers arrive on deck to say hello. Fostieris clicks his rosary, his eyes towards the horizon, while they discuss. On deck, tourists curled up in bucket seats are doused as the ship rolls through the northern swell. The waves are sharp like whipped cream. The downstairs living room is straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, with its salmon-pink curtains, vinyl banquettes, and round tables inlaid with nautical motifs. Another passenger remembers having made this trip in very rough seas: “Everyone was seriously ill. The second one burst in, looked around and said, “Come on, people! You pay a lot of money for it at the carnival.

As the Skopelitis maneuvers through the small port of Iraklia, locals rush to the dock to see what she has brought. A ginger cat called Patata (Potato) is part of the welcome bustle. The crew, both social workers and sailors, exchange packages and joke with local residents. With fuel prices continuing to rise, I wonder how this nonprofit will stay afloat. “I have been doing this crossing since I was a college student, says Dimitris Skopelitis. “It’s a way of life.”

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