A dark, stormy October night, near the West coast of the island of Zakynthos, on the Ionian Sea. A small cargo ship, a mere 450 tons of rusting, weather-beaten iron, is struggling against the fierce waves of the fourtouna, to head toward Italy. It is not alone in this maelstrom; it is being followed by another, smaller ship, that is increasing its speed, and heading directly on its wake. It’s the Greek Coast Guard, and it is chasing it!
The storm-battered ship has had many names, having passed through 4 owners, its latest name being “Panagiotis”. Built at one of the River Clyde shipyards in 1937, still “middle-aged” as ship-years go, it is on its last leg of its adventurous life – it’s a smuggler! In its hold is the contraband cargo, its owners – or rather its unknown charterers – are risking the “expendable” ship for one more clandestine delivery at some unnoticed cove in Italy.
The year is 1950. It is a time when many East Mediterranean governments have raised huge protective tariffs on many local products, especially cigarettes. The cargo is – allegedly – mostly American cigarettes, to be smuggled in and thus avoid the heavy tariffs, or import duties, of a country. But someone has ratted on them, so the Coast Guard is giving chase.
The race is no-contest; “Panagiotis’” little 500 horsepower diesel engine cannot match the more modern Coast Guard vessel, and the distance was diminishing by the hour. The Kapetanios has to make a decision: Escape of the ship was out of the question, but perhaps he and the crew could avoid capture if they worked fast. So they anchor their ship near the land, jump into the (nearly invisible) inflatable boats, and with outboard motors “vanish” into the stormy night, never to be seen again.
But a series of storms dragged the abandoned ship closer and closer to shore, broke its anchor chain, and eventually shoved it up onto a narrow, secluded beach in Zakynthos, to be stranded, and pushed further and further inland by subsequent storms.
“Rust Never Sleeps,” is an old saying, and the 68 years since the smuggler was stranded have taken their toll. Its foremast has fallen, the cargo hold is open – and full of sand, not cigarettes – and its hull plates are eaten away by time.
But this old wreck, instead of vanishing into oblivion, has become almost a celebrity and a popular tourist destination, on the island of Zakynthos. Daily, dozens of small ships and cruisers carry hundreds of vacationers to the stunningly beautiful beach, to swim in the crystal clear waters, and explore the wreck. There are also views from the top of the sheer cliffs, from which automobile-bound tourists can get a bird’s eye view of the last remains of a real smuggler. The toils and dangers of smuggling now bring in the infinitely larger profits of tourism.
The name is a flaking ghost on the bow and is no longer visible on the stern, but everyone leaves their graffiti on the hull, and the place is known as “The Shipwreck Beach” or “Ναυάγιο” in Greek. In the Levant, which is full of ancient history and myths of heroic deeds and tragedies, there, stranded in the sands of beautiful Zakynthos, stands a more modern, tangible monument to adventure in the blue Mediterranean.
Text and photos by John Apostolos, Civil Engineer in Cherry Hill, NJ & Patras, Greece.