As a boy on the Island of Kalymnos, Greece, George Saroukos watched his father and grandfather build boats. Over time, he learned the craft. By 18, he became a master boat builder.
George Saroukos, now 61, is the only remaining builder of traditional Greek sponge diving boats in the Western Hemisphere. During the first half of the 20th century, many sponge boats were built by Greek Americans from Tarpon Springs to Apalachicola. Saroukos is the third generation of his family to master Greek sponge boat building. His father and grandfather were celebrated boat builders from the island of Kalymnos, the Dodecanese island from which most of the Greek American residents of Tarpon Springs trace their roots. Saroukos continued the tradition of building fine boats without using any printed plans and making some of his own tools.
For that distinction, Saroukos was among five recipients of the 2009 Florida Folk Heritage Awards recently awarded by Gov. Charlie Crist and Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning.
“As a tradition-bearer highly regarded by the Tarpon Springs area Greek community, he contributes significantly to Florida’s rich and diverse cultural landscape,” said Robert L. Stone, outreach coordinator of the Florida Folklife program, based in Gainesville.
“George Saroukos is not only an excellent practitioner of this tradition, but he is the last in a long line of such boat builders in the area,” said Tina Bucuvalas, curator of Arts & Historical Resources for Tarpon Springs.
“The Florida Folk Heritage Award recognizes the importance of his work as well as the importance of this tradition to Tarpon Springs and the Gulf Coast.”
In the early 1970s, Saroukos and his father traveled to St. Augustine with the intention of starting a boat-building operation there. But a visit to Tarpons Springs changed those plans.
Saroukos was drawn to the place that reminded him of home. The aromas of Greek food filled the air. People spoke Greek in the cafes and listened to Greek music. And the sponge-filled Gulf of Mexico called like a siren song.
The young man convinced his father to start Saroukos’ Boats in Tarpon Springs.
“My father was the only one in his family who stayed here to continue the family business,” says Tony Saroukos, George’s 26-year-old son. “The family traveled the country and made (Tarpon Springs) Saroukos Boats’ base, but dad was a homebody. He stayed to build boats and made his family and life here.”
Saroukos reads and writes in Greek, and speaks broken English, but builds boats that all people admire.
(With Information from Dos.state.fl.us & Tampabay.com)