Greek pilots keep old traditions alive while facing new forms of danger

The Greeks have always been a seafaring nation, going back to Homeric times. After all, the Greek warriors who besieged Troy first had to cross the Aegean in their wooden warships.

The world will once again be reminded of Greece’s maritime heritage this August, as Athens plays host to the 2004 Olympic Games. Piraeus, the busy port that serves Athens, will be even busier because of a surge in traffic generated by the Olympics.

Ships will be bringing in all kinds of cargo, from food to building materials, to support the tremendous demand created by a modern Olympiad. Many of the visitors will come by sea. Some 13 cruise ships, including Queen Mary 2, will be serving as floating hotels for an estimated 10,000 people.

Image Credit: John Gormley

Capt. George Kasmas and Capt. Vasilis Leondarakis aboard the pilot boat between assignments.

The responsibility for the safety of ships as they move in and out of Piraeus rests largely with the members of the Panhellenic Pilots Association. As a result of the Olympics, the burden of responsibility on the pilots will be especially heavy this summer.

The pilots are well prepared to assume those responsibilities, according to Capt. Themistoklis Daskalakis, president of the Panhellenic Pilots Association.

“The Greek pilots have the highest standards in Europe,” he said.

A pilot must have served at least three years as master of a seagoing ship, and most have many more years of experience than that.

Prospective pilots must also serve an apprenticeship of at least three months. Anyone who does not exhibit sufficient confidence at the end of three months can have the apprenticeship extended. “That’s never happened,” Daskalakis said.

Employed by the Merchant Marine Ministry, the pilots are public servants who work demanding schedules. The area served by the pilots based in Piraeus includes a deepwater oil terminal and a liquefied-natural-gas terminal, as well as dock for containerships, ro/ro ships, car carriers and general cargo ships, plus extensive repair yards.

As a result, the 32 pilots who work out of Piraeus are stretched thin.

“We have roughly 20,000 ships a year,” Daskalakis said. “It is quite a busy port.”

Image Credit: John Gormley

Capt. Antonis Sourmelis, assisted by boat engineer Giannis Zografakis, ascends the pilot ladder of a small freighter on its way into Piraeus.

To provide 24-hour coverage 365 days a year, each pilot generally works one 12-hour shift every other day. The day shift runs from 0600 to 1800, and the night shift goes from 1800 to 0600. Ten pilots are assigned to the day shift and four to the night shift. For the system to work, each pilot must work one night shift per week. The result is that in a given week a pilot will work three or four day shifts and one night shift.

“You can’t have a complete weekend. You work either Saturday or Sunday,” Daskalakis said. “We are few for the number of movements.”

The pilots will be working even harder this year. Normally, they would be entitled to a month of leave, but the government has decided that because of the Olympics, all of the pilots will be required to remain on duty. “This summer we will not be getting our leaves,” Daskalakis said.

Clearly, the threat of terrorism is casting a shadow over the games. The Olympics will draw wealthy tourists from around the world, including those using cruise ships as hotels. Queen Mary 2, carrying 3,800 passengers and crew, will represent a conspicuous presence at a new pier that has been built especially for her in Piraeus.

The games will, of course, also generate enormous media coverage. This combination of soft targets and huge media presence could make the games an irresistible target for international terrorists. That is the sobering reality facing the pilots.

In some ways, they represent the first line of defense against terrorism. “The pilot is the first person going aboard the ship,” Daskalakis observed. “If we see something strange, we report it immediately to the authorities.”

The government is also upgrading the port’s vessel traffic system (VTS) by adopting automatic identification system (AIS) technology and by providing new global positioning system (GPS) equipment for the pilots. The AIS and GPS equipment should be in operation in time for the Olympics.

While AIS and GPS electronic gear will improve security by helping VTS and the pilots track ship movements, Daskalakis acknowledged the difficulties in stopping a well planned terrorist attack.

Image Credit: John Gormley

As part of a substantial program of waterfront construction undertaken in preparation for the Olympic Games, the Greek government is building a new pilot station in Piraeus.

“The terrorists, when they want to do it, they do it. You can prevent some of it, but not the whole thing. You saw what happened in Spain,” he said, referring to the recent train bombing in Madrid. “It is a big issue, the security of the Olympic Games.”

So the dangers are real. But Daskalakis seems undaunted. In his view, the first requirement of a pilot is the ability to stay cool in the face of danger.

“The most important thing for a pilot is to have very cool blood,” he explained. “If you lose control, you lose the game. If you feel your pulse increase, even one pulse more than normal, then you have to stop doing this job, or you will die on this bridge.”

To illustrate his point he recalled a difficult moment in his own career. While docking, he was executing a delicate maneuver that would bring the ship very close to the corner of a pier.

“I said to the captain, start astern to slow the ship. The captain gave the order. I was watching the revolutions. Nothing.”

At that point, Daskalakis ordered the tug with a line up to the stern to try to slow the ship. The tug master reported back that the ship was still going too fast. Daskalakis then called for the ship to drop its anchor. Just as the anchor was deployed, the engine finally responded to the order for power astern.

“We stopped 40 centimeters from the corner,” Daskalakis recalled.

This whole episode was observed by a man on the bridge who was not a part of the crew. After the crisis passed, the man seemed astounded that Daskalakis had not shown any signs of distress and asked why he had not sweated or raised his voice.

Daskalakis replied, “What for? The ship is not mine.”

“But it is mine,” the other man said, identifying himself as the ship’s owner.

The pilot had one more rejoinder: “I told him he needed to get better engineers.”

Daskalakis grew up on the island of Siros, lying about 80 miles south of Piraeus. None of his family had gone to sea, but the name they gave him, Themistoklis, may have suggested his destiny as a leader of mariners. His namesake was an Athenian who led the Greek naval forces to victory over the Persian invaders at the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. This encounter, pitting a greatly outnumbered Greek alliance against the greatest empire the world had ever seen, has been described as the battle that saved Greece and Western civilization. The site of the battle, the Salamis Straits, lies just a few miles west of Piraeus.

Image Credit: John Gormley

The waters around Piraeus boast a wide variety of repair yards and terminals, including the Elefterios Venezelos container yard. The 32 pilots based in the port conduct about 20,000 ship moves a year.

Even though his family were neither sailors nor fishermen, Daskalakis was intoxicated as a boy by the wine-dark seas that lapped the shores near his home. “All my games were with the sea,” he said. “I was in love with the sea. I still am.”

He was recently re-elected to a three-year term as president of his association, a job that entails representing the interests of 48 pilots across Greece. In addition to fulfilling his leadership and administrative duties, he still takes his regular turns bringing ships in and out of the docks and yards around Athens.

He and his colleagues clearly are proud to be keeping alive a maritime heritage stretching back to ancient times, a heritage that has shaped the lives of mariners around the world.

The very word pilot, he noted, has a Greek origin. The root is from the medieval Greek word pedotes, meaning steersman.

The dangers may be real, and the challenges formidable, but Daskalakis said he could not imagine doing anything other than what he does.

“I couldn’t do something better,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff