In the book by Chris Santella, Fifty Places To Sail Before You Die, he and Jon Wilson describe Croatia as a “hidden gem.” Their description was so appealing that we decided to go and see for ourselves. We were joined by our regular racing crew, Dave Usechak and Steve Gaudette.
The four of us arrived at Marina Kremik, just north of Split, Croatia in late April. There were hundreds of charter yachts being prepped and fitted for the start of the charter season, mostly 40-foot sloops with an occasional catamaran thrown into the mix. We found Zoe, our Beneteau 39.3, to be in beautiful condition, fitted out with every conceivable amenity for comfortable cruising.
By the time we completed our chart briefing and boat checkout it was late in the day, so we decided on a short hop south to overnight in Rogoznica. It was the first week of the charter season in an area famous for its mix of flat calms and intermittent high winds. Fortunately, we found plenty of wind ranging from light to strong breezes. For the whole week, we only used our engine to get in and out of harbors.
We had to carefully watch our chart and cruising guide, since the buoyage system is reversed in Europe. It’s not "red-right-returning," but "green-right-returning." The red marks are on the left as you enter a harbor.
As if that wasn't enough, the challenge at our first stop was to tie up using a Mediterranean mooring. This requires picking up a messenger line connected to a submerged bow line, then backing the boat up to a stone quay in a narrow slot between two other boats. Next, you need to secure two lines from the quay to the stern. The lines are then tightened so that the boat cannot contact the quay. Finally, the boarding plank is laid across from the transom to the dock. Sometimes, you need to drop your anchor to hold the boat off the quay.
The maneuver is tricky, because you don’t want to hit the boat on either side, and you especially don’t want to hit the stone quay. Despite one moment of panic when Quinn dropped a bow line, we completed our first Mediterranean mooring. Our reward: an excellent fried fish dinner in a local restaurant, a Croatian specialty.
While digesting our prize we studied the chart, and decided our next stop would be the island of Vis, about 30 miles south of Rogoznica. We began our morning trip to Vis with a favorable wind that turned into a downwind delight and navigated using our entire arsenal of tools: our hand-bearing compass, depth sounder, and GPS. Tying up was a relief. Now experts in Mediterranean mooring, we went to gauge the skill of other new arrivals. It proved to be quite a show, courtesy of the stiff winds.We ended up putting our newfound knowledge to the benefit of a number of other crews. By the end of the day, there were about 50 charter yachts lined up at the quay.
In season, the Dalmatian coast is probably saturated with charter boats, but it’s fun all the same. It’s a veritable Babel, with people speaking no fewer than eight different languages. Most of the sailors are European; we met only one other American boat.
Vis, which was first settled by the Greeks, has passed through Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian hands. The villages are centered on their harbors, a throwback to their fishing or trading origins. They all seem to have one-street that acts as the commercial and social center running along the town quay. Local architecture is a hodgepodge of streets that are paved with stone blocks, just wide enough for the smallest Fiat.
Beneath a skyline filled with red-tiled roofs, we overhead trumpet music drifting down from the second floor of a room near the quay. Leaving behind the comforts of Croatian wine in Zoe's cockpit, the intrepid Topilow, a doctor and a professional pianist as well as a doctor, followed the music to its source and was soon dueting with the local musician.
Three miles into the next day's sail to Saint Klement Island, a pod of 8 or 10 dolphins playfully followed us for a while, jumping just ahead of our bow and diving under our keel. They were as curious about us as we were thrilled by them. After the dolphins left us, Quinn spotted something red dead ahead of us. A quick check of the chart confirmed both our location and the lack of navigational marks. Approaching cautiously, we found a red, 14-foot RIB with a 40 hp outboard engine, awash and adrift. Boat and motor appeared to be nearly new and in very good condition, so we decided to rescue them, even though we knew that this red RIB would mean red tape.