TARPON SPRINGS — 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.
Saroukos, now 61, is the only remaining builder of traditional Greek sponge diving boats in the Western Hemisphere.
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."
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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."
Since then, Saroukos has stuck close to his roots.
He only reads and writes in Greek, and speaks broken English, but builds boats that all people admire.
He simply uses the traditional Greek methods taught and learned over three generations.
Marianne Geidel, 47, credits Saroukos' solid boat-building for saving her husband, Capt. Kris Geidel. In 2008, he was 20 miles from the eye of Hurricane Ike in Pete's Dream, a boat Saroukos built.
"My husband's here today because of George Saroukos' expertise," Geidel said. "Even the Coast Guard said they couldn't believe that boat made it through. Any other boat would have shattered."
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Saroukos is known for designing and building sponge boats, but he has created vessels of all kinds.
They include the original Clearwater pirate ship, Captain Memo, not the one in use today, and boats used in Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebrations. Each is built the same, from the mind's eye.
"My father can look at a pile of lumber and determine the amount needed to build a boat," Tony Saroukos said. "He just thinks about what he needs and does it. The old Captain Memo was designed on a napkin from Pappas' Restaurant."
Sponge diver Jamie Arvanitis, 40, has been diving from Saroukos-built boats for the past 10 years and has watched him build boats for 30.
"He's keeping alive the boat-building industry and sponge diving," Arvanitis said. "He absolutely deserves that award."
The third generation of his family to master Greek sponge boat building, Saroukos shares the name George Saroukos with his grandfather and feels that all three generations (Saroukos, his father and grandfather) shared a similar work ethic.
So how might this traditional boat builder's grandfather feel knowing his grandson received such a prestigious award for this family of Greek boat builders?
"Proud," Saroukos said.