LOUTRAKI, Greece – At the Control Tower of the Corinth Canal, the captain of a yacht in the Saronic Gulf contacts the traffic controller over the radio notifying her that his boat is approaching and it would need to refuel before passing through the historic Canal to the Gulf of Corinth. It’s a busy day at the scenic Corinth Canal on a sunny afternoon.
“Copy that, Captain. Proceed half mile to the canal entrance and call us on Channel 11 to receive clearance for the pier,” the traffic controller says, resting her binoculars on the table next to the computer screens.
The yacht is then told to prepare fenders before it parks at the pier. The captain will have to visit the office on the ground floor of the Control Tower where they will take down all the information about his boat and he will pay the fee before his yacht can pass through the canal only one convoy at a time on a one-way system.
Yachts and other recreation boats, which want to experience the extraordinary passage thought the canal, make up half of the revenues for the Corinth Canal because they pass in large numbers, especially in the summer. It is a tourist attraction and smaller boats also want to avoid the long journey around the Peloponnese. The other half of the revenues come from commercial ships, Corinth Canal S.A. General Manager George Zouglis told New Europe at the Control Tower. He said that some cruse liners that fit through the canal pass for tourist purposes. “Passing through this historical canal, that’s something they can sell on their itinerary,” he said. Larger ships have to be towed by tugs and have a to have pilot on the bridge.
Around 12,000 ships from more than 50 countries per year travel through the waterway.
Asked about memorable passages through the canal, Zouglis noted that NATO ships passing through as well as cruise liners are always impressive.
“A frigate among the canal walls or a cruise liners filling up the entire width are spectacular, he said. He also noted that they organise swimming contests through the canal as well as Jet Ski passages through the canal. He also recalled the Red Bull Corinth Canal jump and flying the Corinth Canal.
However, the Corinth Canal is too narrow for most modern ocean freighters.
Corinth Canal is a state company that still brings in a profit of about €1.2 million. Every Tuesday the Canal is shut off for part of the day as scheduled maintenance takes place that includes digging part of the canal as the steep limestone walls are vulnerable to landslides. Another persistent problem was due to the heavily faulted nature of the sedimentary rock, in an active seismic zone, through which the canal is cut.
The canal consists of a 6,343 metre-long channel by 24.6 metres wide at the top and 21.3 metres (70 feet) wide at the bottom. The depth is between 7.5-8 metres but at some points it’s only 6.5 metres deep.
Two railway bridges, a road and a motorway cross the canal. Two submersible bridges are at sea level at each end of the canal, by the eastern harbour of Isthmia and the western harbour of Poseidonia.
Serious damage was caused to the canal during World War II. As we pass through the canal, the captain on the bridge of Anna II, Giannis Antoniou, points to the spot where German forces, retreating from Greece at the end of WWII, used explosives to set off landslides to block the canal, destroyed the bridges and dumped locomotives, bridge wreckage and other infrastructure into the canal to hinder repair work. He told New Europe that a few years ago a blind German in his late 80s asked where that spot was and through a flower in the water.
The Isthmus is rich in history. Several rulers of antiquity dreamed of digging a cutting through the Isthmus. The first to propose such an undertaking was the tyrant Periander in the 7th century BC. The project was abandoned and Periander instead constructed a simpler and less costly overland portage road, named the Diolkos or stone carriageway, along which ships could be towed from one side of the Isthmus to the other. Remnants of the Diolkos still exist next to the modern canal on the side of the Gulf of Corinth although part of it is submerged by water, especially as ships pass through the canal.
The Deputy Governor of Peloponnese Apostolos Papafotiou told New Europe on location at Ancient Diolkos that the ancient paved road connected the Corinthian Gulf with the Saronic Gulf.
“It is considered and it is accepted that it was constructed by Periander, the tyrant of Peloponnese, the tyrant of Corinthia in the 7th Century BC. It was one of the main works of his rule. The first one was Diolkos, the second one was the harbour of Lechaion and the third one was the fortification of Ancient Corinth. Diolkos was connecting on gulf with the other and especially the harbour of Lechaion and the harbour Kechries, which was on the Saronic Gulf,” he said. “That means that anyone who wanted to pass along this road that connected one gulf to the other gulf he had to pay a toll to the authorities and that provided a steady flow of revenue, contributing to the wealth of Ancient Corinth,” Papafotiou added.
He noted that his region has high-level plans to restore the Ancient Diolkos road. “It has a calculated cost around 2.5 million euro and we expect that this money will be given by the Greek state as well as the European Union,” he said. Part of the funds will be allocated to properly display the ancient passage for the increased number of tourists visiting the area and restore the damage caused by the waves of passing ships, Papafotiou said as an old tanker passed by Diolkos near Poseidonia driving his point home.