I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but here I am sampling octopus salad. When I grab it’s usually a Bud, but today I’m enjoying a Karlovacko. I usually anchor in monosyllabic places like Gore Bay, but tonight the hook is dropping in Starogradski Zaljev. My chartplotter has always read longitude west of Greenwich, but this screen says 16 degrees east. Where am I?
Croatia, that’s where. Croatia, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Croatia, the once-troubled Balkan nation with a history of unending strife and conflict. Croatia, the fiercely proud country that emerged 20 years ago from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Croatia, with its historic island-studded Dalmatian coast that might be the most gorgeous cruising ground anywhere in the world.
My wife, Jennifer, and I typically sail the freshwater Great Lakes, but along with my brother, David, and his wife, Laurie, we decided to give the Adriatic a try, complete with Croatian wine in the fridge, fresh figs on the cockpit table and a gentle maestral pushing our boat toward yet another stunning island.
We flew into Split, Croatia, from Boston via Frankfurt and didn’t see a thing out the airplane window until we broke out of the clouds over the Adriatic coast. Below us were innumerable islands, ringed with white cliffs and even whiter beaches. The azure water was dotted with sails.
The Moorings had made all our travel arrangements, including transportation from the airport to their base in the tiny town of Marina. The ride took us past olive groves, vineyards and postcard-perfect medieval villages. Our first night’s stay was in a hotel converted from a 500-year-old fortress built to fend off Turkish invaders. It was a short walk the next morning to The Moorings’s office, where the base staff—Marinella, Antonija, and the improbably named Elvis—walked us through an efficient chart briefing and checkout of our Moorings 39.3.
Marinella answered one of our major concerns: understanding Croatian. The Croatian language more or less uses the Roman alphabet, but suffers from a severe shortage of vowels and was spittle-inducing when we tried speaking it.
Not to worry. English is widely spoken, especially by anyone dealing with tourists. Rarely did we have to refer to our dictionary.
Antonija emphasized that winds in the Adriatic come in three flavors. The sirocco comes up from Africa and can blow a sustained 30 knots for days. The bora comes off the Dinaric Alps in Croatia’s interior and can gust to 40 knots without warning. The summertime maestral rises as the land warms during the day and diminishes at night. We were sailing in mid-September, but hoped for summer weather. During the checkout procedure, our boat rocked and the rigging hummed. The staff gave us faintly reassuring smiles; we were going to start our cruise in a sirocco.
Antonija also reminded us that Europe uses the International A System of buoyage, as opposed to the B System used in the Western Hemisphere. So it was “green right returning.” But again, this wasn’t a problem. There are few hazards, the buoys themselves are easily recognized, and the charts are excellent.
Elvis had the hardest job, convincing us we could execute the dreaded Mediterranean moor. All summer on our own boat, Jennifer and I had tried to visualize how the Med mooring system works, backing into a dock between other backed-in boats in the tight quarters of a marina. It did not look easy, but Elvis assured us we would be fine. How he knew that wasn’t entirely clear.
With provisions stowed and jet lag now behind us, we set off late the first day, powering into 3-foot swells kicked up by the sirocco. We hauled up the jib as we rounded the point, then fell off for a 5-mile run out to Drvenik Veli, the closest island to the mainland. There we eased our way into Mala Luka, a two-pronged bay on the west shore with a sand bottom. There were no other boats, and we enjoyed a commanding view to the west. We each hoisted a cool Karlovacko and toasted our good fortune.
Our anchorage may have been devoid of other boats, but it was hardly empty. What looked like gorgeous scenery to us was to centuries of farmers an inhospitable and unforgiving land. Now long gone, they had tried to eke out an existence from the limestone that makes up much of the coast. Their spirit was etched into the landscape. The hillsides were lined with stone walls and dotted with huge stone piles; abandoned stone houses were encased in vines.
The next day brought thunderstorms as the sirocco persisted. We hauled anchor and ran east across the Soltanski Channel, trying unsuccessfully to dodge storm clouds with their torrents of rain. The next island, Solta, had tiny coves on its north side to protect us from these south winds. We peeked into the towns of Necujam (don’t even try to pronounce it) and Stomorska, each with a small quay and whitewashed houses trickling up the hillside. Some of the houses were centuries old, some were built last year, but they seamlessly blended in with one another thanks to their ageless Mediterranean architecture.
As we headed east, the city of Split feathered out on the hills of the mainland to our north, its port disgorging high-speed ferries and more sailboats than we could count. Most of the boats were Croatian, as the people of this once-troubled country make a point of finding the time and money to enjoy their coast.