Everyone who visits Hydra sees the Nautical Academy, as it is at most 50 meters from the Hydra pier where the transit boats dock, just set your gaze above the ground-level boutiques to the stately slate-grey mansion perched above on the rocks.

Here, in plain sight, at a slight elevation, lies one of the most important buildings in modern Greek history, and possibly, in modern maritime and economic history. Most visitors to Hydra—including Greeks—are unaware of its role and significance.

The significance of the Hydra Nautical Academy

It is the oldest merchant marine academy in the world, with foundations in 1749, teaching nautical arts since the first decade of the 1800s. To draw on an American example, it is the Harvard of Nautical Academies, as it is both the oldest, with an unmatched pedigree, and, like Harvard, still one of the best academies in its field.

After a coffee talk in one of Hydra’s numerous cafés with the elegant, brilliant, and all too busy Dina Adamopoulou, director of the Hydra Museum and Archives, I met Captain Vangelis for our visit to the Academy.

Captain Vangelis Tsigkaris is a retired merchant marine captain, a proud Hydriot, a graduate of the Hydra Naval Academy, and an active member of its Alumni Association.

Hydra is an amphitheater, and most paths are vertical, including the one to the Academy, where we went up a quick zigzag of well-worn, whitewashed stone steps to the arched entrance, and a professor awaited us. Vasilis Stavropoulos, professor of English, greeted Captain Vangelis with a combination of familiarity for an active patron, and with respect for an alumnus, as we walked through the halls and classrooms of the academy.

The historic Hydra Merchant Marine Academy. Photo: Hydra Municipality

Many of the halls had pictures of distinguished alumni, including all too many who met a watery grave during the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. Having studied in these classes and walked these halls as a cadet, Captain Vangelis added his own stories.

University classrooms around the world have a certain uniformity, yet the historical setting, arched wooden windows looking out on a picturesque amphitheater of a port, itself with such a venerable nautical heritage, is a singular experience. As with every institution, remaining current with trends and digital technologies is a challenge, one that Professor Stavropoulos was quick to point out, and one, I suggest, where numerous shipping and/or diaspora foundations might play an affirmative role.

After my tour with Professor Stavropoulos, where we were joined by another colleague of his, Marianthe Petraki, professor of physics, and we went to the commandant’s office. Commandant Vangelis Danopoulos welcomed us effusively, as he and I made the social media-era transition from Facebook friends to analog ones.

The room, with high ceilings, arched windows, and whitewashed walls, had the timeless elegance of a Hydra archontiko (mansion). We gathered around the commandant’s desk, joined by also by the Head of Curriculum, Captain Christos Kotzias.

A very personal mission

For me, after several years of granular study of the Greek Merchant Marine for my master’s thesis, combined with my family’s Hydriot and maritime background, this was a very emotional experience. Like Greeks usually do, we had a bit of biographical small talk, but also guided the subject around to letting the wider world know about the significance of the academy and the day-to-day business of running the institution in the face of budgets and the constant advances in pedagogical and maritime technologies. Shipping is an art, but it is also a science, and staying at the cutting edge of this knowledge business takes resources and partners. We all agreed that more needs to be done.

As I left, Commandant Danopoulos gave me an honorary plaque, one of the greatest honours I have ever received. I also was pleased to hear that both he and I had something else, quite wonderful, in common: we are the only two honorary members of the Hydra Nautical Academy Alumni Association, and it was my distinct honor to be in such illustrious company.

The Hydra Nautical Academy is indeed the world’s oldest, with hundreds of graduating classes, but its current location, in the mansion of a former Hydriot admiral, began in 1930, when the Greek state took over operation of the hitherto privately financed academy.

Prior to that, the academy functioned in a series of buildings on a hill in the village of Kamini, a “suburb,” as it were, of Hydra’s main town. Founded in 1749, well before Greek independence or the naval acme of Hydra, the school exemplified the Hydriots’ dedication to technocracy as well as the school of life to educate its pilots. Beyond navigation, the school taught the soft skills of languages and commerce, often enough importing Italian or Portuguese instructors, some of whom went “native” and took up the cause of Greek independence as their own.

Ramparts with the cannons in Hydra. Photo: Hydra Municipality

Trespasser’s tribute to the old Academy

While Hydra shipping never recovered from her sacrifices for Greece’s freedom, the academy survived and thrived, and newly minted sea captains, both local and from elsewhere in Greece, became Hydra’s chief export. For over a century some of the greatest captains on the planet emerged from this academy on the hill, until it was moved to its present location and the academy became a primary school.

Captain Vangelis, repeatedly, told me I had to go see the old academy.

But when? My trip to Greece was booked between Piraeus, Athens, Hydra, and Spetses. Research, family, the Alumni meeting, friends, and voting. So, on a late Sunday afternoon I set my sights on the old academy building, now an elementary school.

I arrived at a locked gate, and I heard the sound of boys playing basketball on the school’s court. I called one of the boys over, and asked about the plaque for the academy, “Yes, sir, it’s here,” he said, wondering why some middle-aged fellow with a hint of an American accent was asking.

“Is there an open entrance,” I asked, to which the kid raised his head in the pan-Balkan negative, saying, “Emeis skarfalosame [we scaled it],” and he walked off. Skarfalosame, the onomatopoeic word gave me a chuckle, and I debated whether to risk my fifty-something limbs on doing this, but tomorrow mid-day I was off to Piraeus, and thence back to America, so it had to be now.

Scaling the fence, I felt a bit awkward, and I walked by the kids playing basketball to the plaque that Captain Vangelis and our colleagues from the Hydra Nautical Society Alumni Association placed there commemorating the founding of the academy in 1749.

I took a picture of the plaque, and looked at the buildings with a sense of awe – which graduated over one hundred classes, and sent captains to the four corners of the earth, I shot a few more pictures, including one of the Hydra and Greek flags fluttering in the wind with the hills of the Peloponnesus in the distance.

I then climbed the fence, and went on my way, proud to be part of this island, and linked to this institution.

Alexander Billinis is a Greek-American historian with a special interest in Greek maritime history, a university lecturer, and lawyer.