Nikolaos Rethymnis, who has been inducted into the Hall of Fame with his younger brother Minas, was a pivotal shipowner of the pre-Second World War era but also a major post-war benefactor of Kassos, the brothers’ island of birth, and their adopted home island of Syros.
For key periods in their careers, Nikolaos located himself in New York while Minas was stationed in London. The formation of Rethymnis & Kulukundis in London in 1921 by Minas and his more celebrated cousin, Manuel Kulukundis, ensured that the Rethymnis family name would be enshrined in Greek shipping legend. But as was the case with virtually all their investments and enterprises, the two brothers were both involved and they enjoyed a harmonious relationship throughout their careers.
The Rethymnis family may have originated in Crete, but the brothers were born on the Aegean island of Kassos into a family of ship’s masters. The family relocated to Syros island when Nikolaos and Minas were small. Both eventually attended British marine colleges and became captains themselves. Their grandfather, Captain Nikolaos Rethymnis, started registering vessels in Kassos from the late 1850s. Their father, Vasilios, was himself a small shipowner. He partnered with Ioannis Pnevmatikos to acquire a first steamship, the Chrissopolis, and it was on this ship that Nikolaos made his reputation as a ship’s master.
R&K was established as a one-stop shop to serve a wide circle of Greek shipowners and on the eve of World War Two it represented about 90 vessels. Early clients and joint venture partners included several Kassos shipowners, Oinoussian owners such as the G. M. Lemos family and Stefanos Lyras, and names such as Chandris, Coulouthros, Inglessis, Marcos and Pateras.
Even as R&K flourished, in Nikolaos and Minas joined with their cousins and fellow Kassiot sea captains Michael Pnevmatikos and Efstathios Yannaghas and together they established Kassos Steam Navigation Company of Syros in 1927. The brothers owned 40% of the shares in Kassos. The new business drew on R&K but the partners also created their own London management unit. Kassos Steam Navigation used the group’s extensive knowledge of secondhand vessels and quickly established a significant fleet of Greek-flag freighters, manned by seafarers from Syros and Kassos.
At the same time, the Rethymnis brothers and partners were not shy about newbuildings. The new 8,000-ton freighter Hadiotis II was delivered by Northumberland Shipbuilding as early as January 1929. The company’s status was underlined by delivery in 1939 of the 9,700-ton Kassos from Sunderland shipbuilder William Doxford. The Kassos has gone down in history as the first motor vessel ever built for a Greek company and it brought the fleet to eight ships on the eve of the Second World War.
The war took a heavy toll of the R&K and Kassos fleets that were operated at the service of the Allies. From the fleet under R&K’s agency a total 25 ships were lost, along with 200 seafarers. Kassos lost four steamships during the war.
Nikolaos settled in New York and for many years was a leading figure in supporting Kassian community activities and helping young Greeks study at American universities.
After the war, the brothers and their partners in R&K and Kassos Steam Navigation set about rebuilding their fleets. The Kassos losses during the war were recognised with three of the 98 Liberty vessels made cheaply available to Greek owners from the US war surplus fleet. These were the James H. Courts, acquired in 1946 and renamed Hadiotis; the Josiah Cohen, acquired in 1947 and renamed Themoni; and the Edward K. Collins, acquired in 1947 and renamed Chelatros.
Nikolaos Rethymnis was known as a traditionalist when it came to ship design, but the brothers’ input was considered crucial to the development of the ‘SD 14’ Liberty replacement design driven chiefly by their cousin Basil M. Mavroleon. The brothers also continued to build ships for Kassos that were superior in quality and fuel consumption. A notable example was the 1954-built Aghia Marina, a 6,498-ton freighter that was the first of three sister ships built in Sunderland.
The brothers were always keen to help their home islands. In 1955, they acquired Neorion Shipyards in Syros and expanded the yard with new installations. They also provided employment, not only by routing their own vessels to Syros for repairs, but also by ordering newbuildings of their own. A first new ship was delivered in 1959. This was a 450-ton vessel, christened Neorion, for trading between the islands. In 1963 the yard delivered its largest vessel, the 1,000-ton shortsea tanker Gerogiannis M. They supported the yard until 1969 when it was sold to the N. J. Goulandris group.
Until the end of their lives, the brothers quietly funded numerous causes such as the Greek Red Cross as well as financially helping individuals, particularly from Syros and Kassos, with education and health care.
Since neither brother had heirs, a Rethymnis foundation was established in Syros. Primarily, the foundation focused on providing health care with priority going to islanders from Syros and from Kassos. Other causes it supported included care for orphaned children from seafaring families and providing scholarships to students from the two islands. Today, funds continue to be dispensed for emergency medical cases.