Postcard from Greece: Hero of the Small Cyclades

“This is the VIP area. Just room for one,” quips the 1st Officer, eyes sparkling with aquamarine. He sits on an old blue chair between giant pulleys and drinks coffee from a paper cup. His wrinkled smile and leathery skin attest to a lifetime of seamanship. He wears a sun-bleached navy blue T-shirt emblazoned with a red jump wrapped around a white anchor, under the ship’s name: Express Skopelitis.

Those who have traveled on this plucky little boat know that speed is not one of her fortes. (The Express moniker was added when her even slower predecessor, the Skopelitis, was decommissioned.) But a trip aboard this old-fashioned ferry is a rite of passage for Greek island hoppers — a boisterous, salty interlude that’s both enjoyable and surprisingly affordable , in contrast to the stuffy, 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 shipping company with only one ship. With a passenger capacity of 340 passengers and a cargo space for less than a dozen vehicles, the Express Skopelitis serves the archipelago of tiny islands between Naxos and Amorgos: Iraklia, Schinousa, Koufonisia and Donousa. With a population of a few hundred, these islands and the islets around them are known as the Lesser Or Small Cyclades, but I like to think of them as pure Cyclades. The landscapes are the archetype of austere beauty: bare bays and low hills dotted with huddled white hamlets. Cars are scarce; They move on foot or on fishing boats. There are no sun loungers, no resorts, no banks (the ATMs often run out of money) and (except for Koufonisia) no pharmacies.

GM081012_22X Small Cyclades Map

The Express Skopelitis operates 11 months a year, six days a week in the strait between these islands. (For a month, the ship will undergo basic maintenance.) Medicines, bread and other necessities of life are transported free of charge. Residents also travel for free. Skopelitis is their mail boat, their ambulance, their only lifeline when the tourists are gone, taking with them the lucrative shipping companies that serve the Small Cyclades in midsummer. “In winter, we work to ensure that the islanders have everything they need,” says Dimitris Skopelitis, the 35-year-old captain and shipowner. “The weather conditions are harsh and the infrastructure in the ports is practically non-existent, which makes our work difficult.”

Boat in the water at sunset
Koufonisia Island © Alamy

Like other routes connecting the most remote and sparsely populated Greek islands, this one is known as Agoni Grammi (literally the barren line). These shipping routes are subsidized by the state because they are not economically viable. Recent increases in fuel costs have prompted a sharp rise in ferry ticket prices: most fares are up 25-30 per cent year-on-year, making holidays to the islands unaffordable for many Greeks already struggling with soaring inflation power. But with the Skopelitis Express, a return ticket from Naxos to Heraklion (1.5 hours each way) costs only €13.60. “We are not allowed to increase our prices because the route is subsidized,” explains Skopelitis. “But the government hasn’t increased subsidies to help us offset rising fuel costs, making this line unsustainable to operate.”

Despite these challenges, abandoning the ship is out of the question. The Express Skopelitis rarely cancels a crossing. “If we don’t show up, the islanders will stage a revolution,” smiles Captain Giannis Fostieris, a crew member since 1990. During a stopover in the port of Naxos, the administrative capital of the archipelago, I watch delivery trucks, couriers and passers-by bringing plants, a washing machine, a birthday cake, new shoes, building materials and dozens of other packages that the 10-strong crew patiently loads and sorts. Each island has a specific area in the hold. “We are more flexible than the big ships that put people on and off quickly. If someone is held up at a court hearing or at the doctor’s, we wait for them,” says Fostieris.

ferry at sea

Express Scopelitis © Alamy

As soon as the ship sets sail, passengers come onto the bridge to say hello. Fostieris rattles his worry beads, staring at the horizon as they talk. On deck, tourists hunched in bucket seats are sprayed as the ship rolls into the northerly swell. The waves are pointy like whipped cream. The downstairs drawing room is straight out of a Wes Anderson film with its salmon pink drapes, vinyl banquettes and round nautical-themed tables. A fellow traveler remembers this trip in very rough seas: “Everyone felt very nauseous. The first mate burst in, looked around and said, “Come on, guys! You pay good money for that at the fair.’”

When the Skopelitis pulls into the cute harbor of Heraklion, the locals rush to the wharf to see what she’s brought with her. A red-haired cat named Patata (Potato) is part of the welcoming commotion. The crew, both social workers and seamen, exchange packages and joke with residents. With fuel prices continuing to rise, I wonder how this not-for-profit company is going to stay afloat. “I’ve been making this crossing since my school days,” says Dimitris Skopelitis. “It’s a way of life.”

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Adam Bradshaw

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