The island-hopping circus crew reimagining a life at sea

The island-hopping circus crew reimagining a life at sea

The Sea Clowns journey from port to port, bringing their unique act with them wherever they dock. For the ocean-dwelling collective, it’s part of a mission to spread knowledge and laughter, all while remaining committed to an unshackled, freewheeling existence.

A version of this story appears in Huck Issue 76. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

The sun is burning brightly over the crystal waters of the Ionian Sea as three small boats appear on the horizon. They’ve been trying – and failing – to link up ever since they set sail from their respective winter resting places. Sailing without engines and placing themselves at the mercy of the fickle winds, it’s been a gruelling week for the three crews of the Sea Clown Sailing Circus: stopping in safe harbours only at midnight, then casting off at the first break of light. But now the three brightly painted vessels have united at last, a few nautical miles out from their final destination, the island of Paxos. The mood is ecstatic.

Valkirie, painted with blue spirals, weaves between the other two boats, passing so close that the crews can throw tambourines and other musical instruments to each other – which they all begin to play together frantically, hollering as they do so. As Paxos’ small port comes into view, the three vessels race to reach its small mouth first, which works out like a nail-biting game of nautical chicken. After managing to avoid grounding on the seabed or colliding with the huge rocks stacked to protect the port, the three boats tie up and their clown crews disembark. As they begin unloading trumpets, accordions, unicycles and juggling equipment, the puzzled looks on the faces of the locals reveal they’re not quite sure what to expect from this motley band of sailors. But then, neither do the clowns themselves.

For the last 15 years, the Sea Clown Sailing Circus has been following whichever path the winds take it. Each summer, a group of around 20 performers – acrobats, musicians, clowns and jugglers – set sail to perform free shows for locals and tourists on islands across the Aegean and Ionian Seas. From port to port, they never fail to make an impression, drawing huge crowds to their seaborne circus spectacular.

The collective is based in Greece but its roots go back decades and extend across the Atlantic Ocean, with co-founders hailing from Uruguay and the United States. Fred Normal, for instance, was born in Alaska. As soon as he was able, he joined a small “home-made circus” that travelled the length and breadth of America in cars, buses and trucks, performing in major cities such as Chicago, New York and Seattle.

After two years of this nomadic existence, Fred began to yearn for something more. “I wanted to use our youth and our energy to change the world with circus,” Fred explains. “But we were doing exactly the same as everyone else: burning gasoline. So I started to think of other technologies that would allow us to move and I settled on bicycles – which, in the States everyone just sees as toys.”

Fred’s bicycle circus, The Cyclowns, grew as more performers fixed up old bikes, strapped on their belongings and performance equipment, and began to pedal around America. They amassed a rolling armada of bicycles: long bikes, tall bikes, double-stacked bikes and unicycles (for the shows). Fred was able to prove to himself – and everyone else who saw The Cyclowns perform – that another way of living was possible: a transient, communal life, cooking and eating around the fire together each night. They threw free shows in small towns they discovered as they cycled, the kind you’d just breeze through without a second thought if journeying by car.

After pedalling across the US, Mexico and Canada, The Cyclowns embarked on a five-year tour of Europe. In Italy, Nikoleta, a Greek juggler and acrobat, joined the cycling circus. She and Fred fell in love – they would go on to marry and have a daughter, Sirena, who now goes wherever the Sea Clowns go. But before all of that, while peddling along the Croatian coast, Fred and Nikoleta caught a glimpse of the future. “We were riding in the beating sun, against the wind and with no water,” Fred remembers, with a slight wince. “I looked out across the sea and saw a group of sailing boats. Just like us, they were travelling without gas but moving effortlessly across the horizon. Something clicked and I began to dream of a sailing circus. I bought a kayak, carried it on the back of my bike and slowly began to learn about the sea.”

Fred and Nikoleta were taking the first tentative steps towards realising their dreams of a sailing circus. But things really began to accelerate when they met an Uruguayan performer named Alvaro Ramirez at the legendary Rosa Nera squat in Chania, Crete, in 2005. “We said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Alvaro remembers, matter-of-factly. “Because we are this kind of people: we have dreams and we make them reality. The only rule in circus is: safety first. After that? Everything is possible.”

Yet, Alvaro’s early life was anything but dreamlike. His mother taught Spanish and literature to children with disabilities in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. Alvaro’s father, meanwhile, was a doctor who worked in clandestine clinics treating people resisting the military dictatorship, established after an American-backed coup in 1973. Alvaro was born in 1978 and spent the first two years of his life with indigenous people in Jujuy in northwest Argentina, after the security services began hunting his father and the family were forced to flee. Alvaro returned to Uruguay as a toddler but by age 21, both his parents were dead. He discovered that he too was a wanted man and was forced to skip across the border to Brazil.

Those years in Brazil forever altered the course of Alvaro’s life. He lived in Rio de Janeiro and studied at the Brazilian National Circus School (since closed by current president Jair Bolsonaro), where he met clowns and circus performers who taught him about Latin American street theatre and circus – such as Teatro do Oprimido (‘Theatre of the Oppressed’). 

“In truth, the clown is inside all of us,” Alvaro says. “Theatre took me to circus, where I met the clowns who asked me, ‘Are you ready to suffer your whole life for this?’ I said, ‘Cool!’ After circus school, I began to see the world differently: there are no borders, we are one planet and one people. The clown is there to show you nothing matters. Laughter takes you away from the pain of everyday life because when you laugh, you forget.”

Alvaro joined a traditional Italian circus and took on every job available: making popcorn, fixing things, playing the trumpet. Clowning became a means to exorcise his demons, but it was also a ticket to travel the world – eventually leading him to a squat in Crete and an animated discussion with a lovestruck American-Greek couple about how to launch a sailing circus.

Fred and Nikoleta hustled their earnings from performing on the streets to buy their first vessel, which they christened Sourloulou (old Greek slang for ‘The girl who wanders’). They have lived on it ever since and the Sea Clown family has continued to grow, attracting performers from around the globe who share Fred, Nikoleta and Alvaro’s hunger for freedom and a desire to answer the call of the ocean. With no formal nautical training, they have had to learn the hard way; idealism often collides with reality. A reluctance to burn any fuel saw them destroy three engines due to under-use in the early years.

Crews made up of circus performers from different countries – and with vastly different levels of sailing experience – can make for an eventful voyage. “At first, being at the mercy of the waves made me feel fear and paranoia,” remembers Christina Anagnostou from Athens, who performs handstands, acrobatics and plays accordion. 

“Sometimes you have to communicate really fast in different languages. But even when we speak the same language, sometimes we still can’t communicate! They would tell me, ‘Just catch the wind.’ But where is the wind? How do I catch it?! You learn so much, so quickly, about sailing, circus – and so many other things too.” Despite the steep learning curve, after three summers with the Sea Clowns, Christina is studying for her skipper’s licenses.

Today, the sailing circus comprises three vessels, which all have equipment for aerial acrobatics rigged to their masts: the original Sourloulou (a 9-metre sloop), Utopia Quest (a 12-metre, double-masted ketch captained by Arne, a recent arrival from Seattle), and finally Valkirie (an old English sailing yacht from the 1950s, captained by Alvaro). “Other sailors see this old boat and tell me, ‘Why don’t you burn this dinosaur, it’s not safe,’” Alvaro says. “But for me, she’s the safest and most liberating place to be in the whole world.”

Each spring, the boats are pulled out of their winter resting places, any damage is repaired and they are made ready for the season, which usually runs from June to October. In the summer of 2020, Covid-19 put a break on the group’s freewheeling antics. When the police shut down one of their performances, Athenian aerialist Eirini Tarkaziki hung her silks from a tree, climbed above the reach of the hopeless officers and put on a solo aerial show – to the delight of watching children.

In response to lockdown restrictions, the Sea Clowns developed a more limited project for summer 2021: Artistic Winds, confined to the Ionian island of Paxos. Supported by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Athens’ Dinamo Cultural Centre, Artistic Winds’ goal is to bring together the arts of sailing, music, theatre, acrobatics and circus with Ancient Greek philosophy, taking the Allegory of Plato’s Cave as inspiration.

In Plato’s original story, prisoners are chained up in a cave, transfixed by the shadows thrown upon its walls by fire. One prisoner is freed and, after his eyes adjust to the bright sunlight outside, he decides to return to the cave to share his discovery with the prisoners still held inside. But rather than welcome this revelation, the others grow angry and refuse to believe that the shadows are not reality, but cast by unseen figures in the cave. For Plato, the fire is a metaphor for political indoctrination in a nation state.

“We got inspired by the story and created a show around the idea that what we can perceive with our senses is not necessarily the truth,” Eirini explains. “We are chained up by ourselves and by society. We have to break out of our comfort zones, think in new ways and discover the truth about ourselves – and the world around us.” Despite having written Republic over 2,300 years ago, the Sea Clowns feel an affinity with the work and see their mission much like that of the freed prisoner: to seek a more authentic way of life and liberate others through spreading truth – and laughter.

“In most companies, you have a clear hierarchy,” explains Emma Laule, an acrobat and aerialist from Berlin. “What makes the Sea Clowns such a beautiful project is that there is no hierarchy – we create everything together. But that can also make things much more complicated. It’s an ongoing social experiment, but it’s worth the struggle.” 

After an intense, week-long workshopping process in an old school on Paxos, the Sea Clowns take the show to different villages across the island. They use a hanging sheet to represent the wall of Plato’s cave, against which they play with the shadows of contact jugglers, acrobats and aerialists. Fred and Alvaro join hands on giant unicycles, spinning each-other in circles as they launch flaming torches into the air. 

The philosophical depth of the show might well be lost on the younger kids in the audience. But they don’t seem to care: they’re laughing and screaming with joy as they sit cross-legged on the floor around the makeshift stage. One of the many official mottoes of the Sea Clowns is: ‘We live or we die by the hat.’ Judging by the donations spilling out of said hat at the end of each show, the Sea Clowns will live very well indeed.

When all is done, the whole team spends a few nights together on an isolated beach on Antipaxos. Here they unwind and, above all, catch up on sleep. It is during these moments that Alvaro is at his most reflective. “The biggest lesson of all? We are shit,” he says, with a cheeky smile. “We are nothing in the nothing. You don’t have any real control over your life at all. The best you can do is breathe, look at the situation calmly and do everything you can in that moment. Don’t be afraid.”

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See more of Nicola Zolin’s photography on his official website.

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