‘Filoxenia’ of Greek sea dogs

The new three-part documentary series Greeks of the Sea, to premiere on SBS ONE, tells a story of Greek mariners and their love affair with the sea

For 30 odd years, Phil Kiely and Peter Pentz have been in love with Greece and its seas. Since Phil’s first trip to Greece as a university graduate in 1976, till two and a half years ago, in his mind he was working on a movie that would feature that unusual love affair Greek people have with sea.

On the other side, Peter Pentz – a South African turned Sydney resident and a keen sailor, spent the last seven summers sailing the Greek waters, and falling in love with the local people, their maritime skills and ingenuity over and over again.

Kiely and Pentz are now the two executive producers of the new three-part series Greeks of the Sea, which premieres on SBS ONE on Saturday 19 July.
For young journalist and director Tom Nicol, it took one trip to Greece on board with Kiely and Pentz to witness their fascination with the tight connection Greek people had with the sea.

From Hellenic Coast Guard to local fisherman, to ferry captains of a seafaring nation, Peter describes it as a ‘love affair’ with sea, a relationship that has stood the test of time, provided security, and – now more than ever before – provided prosperity to the Greek people.

“There is necessity to travel by sea – to get goods and people from one place to another – but it’s more than just that in Greece. At a time when the country is really struggling, one of the things Greek people can really be proud of – is for a small nation to be the number one shipping nation in the world; it’s just remarkable,” writer and director of the series, Tom Nicol, tells Neos Kosmos.

“For both Phil and Peter, their dream was to create a movie about this connection to the sea. I thought it would make a great TV series; there was too much there for just a movie.”

For the host, Greek Australian filmmaker, actor and musician Nikos Andronicos, this journey was also a deeply personal one: a century ago, Nikos’ great-great grandfather was a fisherman on the island of Kythera.

Greeks of the Sea sees Nikos return to his ancestral homeland to discover what has always set its mariners – like his grandfather – apart from their competitors and opponents.

The three-part SBS series is about boats, islands and the sea – but most importantly it’s about people associated with those islands, boats and the Aegean – as Tom Nicol puts it.

During their visit to more than two dozen Greek islands, the crew encounters the most acclaimed mariners and true sea dogs – from wealthy shipowners, to village fisherman, from patrol officers to sponge divers, from traditional boat builders to experienced captains, who – as well as countless other Greeks – say they were born ‘with salty blood’.

“That’s what our story is about. The sea dogs. They all have such a wonderful story to tell. We interviewed one of the most prominent and wealthiest ship owners, who provides a fascinating insight into the mind and lifestyle and hard work associated with being a Greek shipowner.

“But then we also speak to a fisherman on a tiny island who is struggling to put food on his table every night; to a traditional boat builder who makes wooden boats that aren’t in demand anymore… We cover everything… The ‘everyday’ people and ‘important’ people. And the one thing that connects them is their connection to the sea and how they speak about it. The word that comes out more so than any other in regards to this is ‘respect’.

“If you talked to a bunch of Australians and asked what they liked about sea, they would think you were crazy. But every person we spoke to about their love for the sea in Greece said it was part of them, they talked about their respect for it and what it meant to them through their lives,” Tom says.

And for Greek people, the sea meant livelihood, safety, even spirituality. When Nikos Andronicos travels to Amorgos’ spectacular Byzantine monastery, one of the church’s most prominent priests – once a seaman himself – tells Nikos it’s a spirituality that’s shared among all Greek seafarers.

“We speak to a senior member of the Greek Orthodox church, as he takes us to a beautiful monastery of the Virgin Mary in Amorgos. He explains the special connection that seafarers have with God with only one word – fear. The sea is a dangerous place out there.”

Finally, the crew travels to the island of Paros, meeting a local fisherman who was instrumental in saving hundreds of lives after a passenger ferry crashed off the island in 2000. His is a story of great courage, bravery and heroism in the face of immense tragedy. Dozens of people lost their lives, but hundreds of lives were saved, with the skills and ingenuity of the fishermen of Paros, who got in their boats and motored back and forth picking up survivors.

As Nikos meets each character, he experiences first-hand the struggles they face today as the country endures its most severe financial and social challenges in generations.

Greeks of the Sea is far from a history lesson. It’s about the future, and – oddly enough – it doesn’t focus on the crisis.

“When I first became involved, I thought, we can’t ignore the fact that Greece is in a bit of trouble, and everyone that is watching our show – unfortunately – the first thing that comes to their mind is that Greece is out of money and the people are struggling.

“But in the series we contextualise the crisis as a moment in a country with millennia of history and fascinating stories of triumph, so we don’t focus on the crisis solely. I guess that one of our motivations was that we’ve been to Greece, we’ve seen there are some problems, but it is still a remarkable and very warm place to visit, whose people will welcome you with open arms.

“There is real genuineness and authenticity in the way you are welcomed on the Greek islands; there should be nothing to stop people from going to Greece and we hope that our series will show that it is still a beautiful place to visit with the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.”

The word that kept coming up during his time in Greece – and that Tom Nicol says the English translation doesn’t do it justice – is filoxenia.

“And we felt it. Anyone will feel that in Greece.

“What fascinated me personally was the people – never before have I been to a place where people are so welcoming, friendly and honest. They speak from
the heart not from the head, and that’s really refreshing,” Tom says.

“There is a real generosity of spirit in Greece.”

Greeks of the Sea intertwines fascinating and moving stories of the sea within a rich tapestry of Greek culture, hospitality, religion, history and mythology.

Taking in breathtakingly beautiful islands and stepping aboard spectacular ships, viewers are in for a visual treat.

Greeks of the Sea premieres on SBS ONE on Saturday 19 July at 7.30 pm. For more information, visit www.greeksofthesea.com

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