Flotilla fishes for fleeting Greek sailors

Near the Delphi ruins, where ancient Greeks consulted oracles to tell the future, lies the port village of Galaxidi on the blue Gulf of Corinth. Its coastal charm and large old homes were built on along tradition of rich shipowners. for the village boys, the future always included a few years as seamen, fulfilling a heroic ideal before returning home to take over a family olive orchard.

"The sea is the best wife of the Greek," says Aristomenis Karageorgis, president of the Union of Greek Shipowners. "You can never divorce her, you can never leave her."

Galaxidi, however, like hundreds of other villages in Greece, no longer serves as a sailor nursery. Industrial and tourist development have made life on land more appealing.

For the Greek shipowners, the portents of fewer and fewer available home seamen are as ominous as a red morning sky to a sailor. Empty berths are a No. 1 problem.

Ever since Jason and the Argonauts sailed off to find the golden Fleece, Greeks have coined millions from shipping. As the world's largest merchant fleet owned by one group of nationals, the nearly 5,000 ships under Greek flag today require about 200,000 seamen. But only 120,000 Greeks are registered, and of those, about 80,000 are active.

Why the lack of interest? "Because there are too many discos in Athens," Mr. Karageorgis quips.

In the past, crews were often from the same island or village as the ship owner, breeding a dedication that also allowed for low wages. After 15 years or so on board, a seaman could pool his money with another Greek to buy a cheap ship and get into the business himself.

Adventure for many young Greek boys now exists in owning a car or motorcycle. "It is their baby," says one Greek shipowner. "We've lost the old tradition of going to the sea." Shipowners have had to beef up recruitment and increase wages and benefits nearly to world levels.

Union leaders see it a little differently. "The wages are bad and the conditions are terrible," says Athanasios Stamatopoulos, president of the Panhellenic Union of Merchant Marine Engineers. "No wonder Greeks want to stay on land!" To illustrate his case, he shows a letter from a greek man to his wife , forewarning unsafe conditions on his ship -- it sank a week later, all hands lost.

"Life is not tough on land anymore, while a seaman is likely to get shot by pirates in Nigeria or get abandoned in Cairo," says Stephen Farrant, managing director of Naftiliaki, the Greek shipping magazine. The Greek flotilla, which grew from a base of Liberty ships dumped on the market after World War II, boomed in the 1970s when world recession hit other nations' fleets broadside. Greek owners snatched up surplus tankers. One problem: The fleet expanded while the number of seamen shrank.

The gap has been filled by foreign crew, mainly Asians. By Greek law, crews should not be less than 25 percent Greek, but shipowners had to man their ships' lower decks illegally with one-nation foreigners to avoid language problems. (Despite this trend, Greek ships took on the first 200 female crew this year -- all Greek.)

The shipowners would like to set up bilateral agreements with Asian countries to ensure having crew -- at lower wages than Greeks are now paid. Two days before Greece officially joined the European Community, in 1981, the government passed a law making such agreements legal. The EC bans such accords. But the seaman unions have effectively blocked the practice so far.

The hiring of more and more Asian seamen will not help Greece's image in the EC. Even though Greece now accounts for 70 percent of the community's fleet, it is seen by critics as a Trojan Horse for its bad safety record, caused in part by mixed crews but also by the style of Greek shipping.

Greek ships are the "taxi drivers of the ocean," going anywhere for anybody in single-trip, cross-trade business. IT's still run as a paternalistic cottage industry, and shipping magnates keep tuned into the latest report of cargo in need of transport. The average age of ships is old by world standards -- 12.5 years -- but more owners now can afford to buy five-year-old ships.

Western Europe's bread and butter in shipping is the liner trade with scheduled routes -- like "buses on the ocean." The difference could cause friction in the EC as it contends with demands from developing nations to share more of the ocean freight trade.

But upon entry into Common Market this year, Greece was given the chairmanship of the shipping committee within the EC Commission. That gives it a strong voice on a still-unformed EC maritime policy.

Greece's first concern as a memeber is the EC's attempt to curb the Soviet practice of undercutting liner rates. The possibility that the Community will allow members to designate ships of their own flags to carry more of each country's cargo could wipe out a good chunk of greek trade.

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