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Woodworker's replicas of Greek sponge boats are instant heirlooms


Bill Hazivasilis ambles to his workshop and picks up a chunk of wood that once was part of a cedar tree's limb. He turns it this way and that, carefully examining the grain and the shape.

"You got to see the boat in it," he says, studying the block of aromatic wood with eyes that even after 81 years can still see the future as clearly as they have viewed the past.

He begins by shaping the wood with a hammer and sharp chisel, curling slivers as the boat's lines begin to take shape. In a few weeks or months, depending on how much time he devotes to it, a hull will emerge. A deck will form. Holes will ready themselves for masts and oars.

Hazivasilis, a former resident of Tarpon Springs, usually creates replicas of Greek sponge boats, a nod to his sponge-diving father, who led the family to Tarpon in the 1930s. His mind's eye tells him this piece of wood will be a Viking ship, complete with a dragon's head at the bow.

Carving one-of-a-kind ships is more than a hobby for Hazivasilis. He takes his time making them, always mindful of their future owners.

For the recipients, they are instant heirlooms, beautiful reminders of a time long past and a kind man's generosity.

Christina Minolas is the godmother of Hazivasilis' grandson, Nicholas. She baptized Nicholas six years ago and, at 22, is young enough to be one of Hazivasilis' grandchildren herself.

"I don't call him William, I call him Papu," she said, using the respectful Greek word for grandfather.

One afternoon a few years back, at a family cookout, Hazivasilis called Minolas inside. There, waiting for her, was a gleaming, hand-carved Greek sponge boat.

"She was surprised," said her mother, Emily Thomas. "We were all surprised."

The boat, Minolas said, is more than a gift; it's a keepsake, a tangible expression of Hazivasilis' affection.

"You definitely feel like you're a part of the family," she said.

• • •

Carving and building sponge boats comes naturally to Hazivasilis. He just has to draw on his own warm memories.

He was born on Symi, a small Greek island nestled next to Turkey in the Mediterranean Sea, where his life started humbly. He remembers using a blown-up bull's bladder as a soccer ball.

Sponging was the dominant trade on Symi, and it ran in his family. Men like his father and grandfather ventured into the sea for 30 or 40 days at a time, donning hefty metal diving suits and sinking into the water to harvest sponges from the sea floor.

A booming sponge trade at Tarpon Springs drew many spongers and Greek families to the area, including Hazivasilis' father in 1938. Not long after, he, his mother and other family members made the 18-day voyage to Ellis Island.

On a train for Tarpon Springs, he saw another young traveler sipping Coca-Cola from a bottle and asked his mother to buy him some.

"What would your father think if we got off the train drunk?" she responded, mistakenly thinking there was beer in the bottle. America took a bit of getting used to.

By the time he reached Tarpon Springs High School, Hazivasilis had adjusted. He was on the basketball, football, track and swim teams and was elected class president.

In the summer, Hazivasilis worked on his father's sponge boat, the Agia Trias, or Holy Trinity. It's a name he has shared with all the boats he's made over the years.

His father kept him out of the diving suits, pushing him to pursue other trades. Nature helped steer him away from sponging when, in 1947, a red tide algae crippled the sponging trade off Tarpon Springs, sending Hazivasilis elsewhere to look for work.

After graduating from high school, he bounced around a bit. He worked at a sponging factory in New York City and did a stint as an Army demolitions instructor in Italy during the Korean War. He was a steelworker in Gary, Ind.

Eventually, homesickness lured him back to Tarpon Springs.

Hazivasilis found a job at a clothing factory, where he met his future wife, Ruby. She worked in packaging, he in shipping. Eventually the two started dating.

"He used to be funny," she ribbed.

In 1972, Hazivasilis and Ruby moved to Brooksville in Hernando County when the sewing factory closed. He became one of the founding members of Christ the Savior Greek Orthodox Church, where he makes the special magheritsa soup every Easter and gathers the palms for Palm Sunday from his land.

The couple built a two-story, cedar A-frame in rural Hernando County. It took them five years, and they did everything themselves, from laying the chimney stone to raising the frame.

The property is now a verdant space full of Hazivasilis' trees. He grows grapes that he uses to make his own wine. When the grandchildren are around, playing around his small pond or hanging out on a jungle gym, he calls it his "little heaven."

• • •

He had made his first boat in 1949 in shop class at Tarpon Springs High School, gluing a few pieces of wood together and painting the 2-foot ship red and white. He entered it in the Pinellas County Fair, where it won a blue ribbon.

His second boat went to Ruby. A red-and-white 2-footer that mimicked the sponge boats bobbing at Tarpon Springs, it now rests above the staircase in their home.

He also made a boat for his friend Nick Faklis, a Clearwater dentist, who said the boat reminds him of the days when he and Hazivasilis were co-captains of the football team at Tarpon Springs High.

There's now a small diaspora of ships he has made over the years, 18 of them out there, and Hazivasilis knows where all of them are. A few remain in his house, but others have gone as far away as Tennessee, acting as ambassadors of his friendship.

The boats he has made in his retirement have changed little from the ones he crafted when he was younger. He still carves a piece of wood for the hull, then sands it down to form an accurate sponge boat replica. He adds details like masts, riggings and sails. A box of old sponges destined for the tiny decks sits in his garage.

His son, Demitri, bought him a Dremel tool kit once, but it's not the first thing Hazivasilis reaches for. He uses tools that put his own hands as close to the project as possible. The boats he has made for Demitri's four sons stay at Hazivasilis' house, lest some youthful roughhousing damage "the armada," as Demitri calls the fleet.

Grandson Nicholas, 7, takes after his grandfather and shadows him everywhere. Hazivasilis recalled one time when the two were checking melons on his property. Jokingly, he knocked on one, telling Nicholas, "sounds good." His grandson responded by picking out his own melon, raising it to his ear, and responding, "Sounds good, Papu."

Through him, the tradition is taking root in a new generation: Nicholas has begun carving his own boat. The small, wooden canoe the size of a soda bottle is kept safe in his grandfather's shed. Hazivasilis couldn't be more proud.

"When he comes over here,'' he said, "the first thing he asks me is 'Are we working on the boat today, Papu?' "

Woodworker's replicas of Greek sponge boats are instant heirlooms 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 12:34pm]
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