Cruising

Split Decision

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A thousand islands, a balmy climate, friendly people: Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast knocks the socks of most other cruising grounds

With my wife, Roz, and my old Scottish mate, Patrick, I’d bought tickets on a low-price airline from London to Split. Two and a half hours later we were losing altitude over a fairytale fortress on a tiny island. We’ll sail there for sure, I decided, but we didn’t have to bother.

“Marina Trogir,” I told the cabbie, and within 10 minutes we were boarding our Beneteau 39 from The Moorings directly opposite that fortress. It was as easy as that.

Like many Europeans who live in relatively close proximity to Croatia, I’d never been there and didn’t know much about it. The first thing I learned is that the place has been a melting pot for centuries, with different cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and nation-states shimmering like characters in a hall of mirrors. Second, that Croatia, with its 1,100 miles of indented coastline along the Adriatic Sea from Trieste on the Italian border to Dubrovnik in the south, had a significant charter industry before the 1991–95 war and is once again a flourishing destination for charterers and cruisers alike.

Our boat, Coquette, was literally immaculate, and the provisions we’d ordered were already on board, waiting for us. The only anomaly was that we couldn’t find room for our bags because of all the bottled water piled up in the cabins. Tank water here is perfectly potable, and we’d ordered only a single six-pack. Perhaps they’d heard that Patrick’s grandfather was a distiller, we wondered, or maybe it was just a slip of somebody’s pen. The water was quickly removed, and we bought another case of beer instead.

The cruising area, we learned in our chart briefing, is fascinating and technically undemanding. A string of islands, some populated and some not, protects the shoreline. The channels between them are generally well sheltered and offer smooth sailing in the shifting breeze. In fair weather this begins in the east before breakfast, fades away around noon, then kicks in from the northwest after lunch. The islands lie up to 30 miles offshore, giving a choice of daysailing passages of 1 to 12 hours, to suit the way you feel and what the weather permits. Offshore hazards are either nonexistent or clearly marked, which may account for the remarkably small scale of the charts we were given. I thought this was a joke at first, but after I’d used them for a few days I realized that in these waters you don’t need more.

Our potential stopovers included deserted anchorages and bustling town centers where, as is so often the case in the Eastern Mediterranean, a sense of ancient history prevails. There are plenty of marinas, but on this coast you can lie instead in the center of communities, island or mainland, where the ochre stucco has achieved just the right degree of decay. You shop in tiny food markets with the locals, buying from purveyors who often manage enough English to serve you.

Having arrived late in the day, we began our cruise by exploring the twisting maze of Trogir’s spotless stone alleys in search of dinner. Restaurants abounded. Outside, fish on ice peered at us from wooden barrows, while barrels on stilts promised wild nights within. In hidden courtyards, tables full of happy diners proliferated beneath pergolas heavy with vines. Finally, Patrick heard the sound of a mandolin floating out of a little place in a dark corner. Here, for less than $100, we were served three courses to remember (the wine was so palatable I can’t recall what they were). The music from guitar, mandolin, and vocals was sweet, so we bought the guys’ CD and played it night and day on Coquette as our theme music for the charter.

We didn’t feel too energetic the following morning, so we took it easy in the light air and drifted 20 miles to Milna, on the big island of Brac. There we berthed stern-to in front of a tiny Roman Catholic cathedral whose bells were so imperative that the Angelus drew us in to see what was happening. Women in black were dotted around the huge candle-lit nave. At the altar, fantastically gilded statues spoke of a world different from our own, and soon a young nun began prayers. These were half-chanted, half-spoken, and although we understood not a word, they generated a sense of spirituality that carried us along until the priest finally offered up the host and bade us go in peace.

Later, at a table on the swept street in front of another excellent restaurant, we reflected on the life these senior islanders have seen—the rise and fall of communism, the decline of the secret police, the rise of democracy, then the loss of their young men in the more-recent conflicts. Now they leave church to confront a line of charterboats bringing new and perhaps lasting prosperity. They welcomed us. So did the shop lady who sold us fresh bread in the morning for a cockpit breakfast in the terra-cotta sunrise.

After our visit to Milna, we explored the channels for a week or so. Early on, the weather wasn’t so kind, but it soon settled into the more usual fall norm of 75 to 80 degrees at midday, with cool nights. The islands are generally steep-to, so finding anchorages demands a steady nerve as you creep in looking for bottom. The fact that we could see the anchor dig in at 30 feet helped, and if space was really tight we could always anchor a few boatlengths off, then use the dinghy to run a stern line to a handy tree to restrict our swing.

Homeward bound, we left the island of Hvar early for a spanking reach under the blue mountains to the western end of Solta before the wind dropped. You never know with the sea, and instead of fading before picking up steadily from the northwest, the breeze clocked around until it was blowing 20 knots in our faces. We’d planned our final lunch of local smoked ham and salad on board in the harbor, but Solta was now going to be wide open. The bay of Uvala Tatinja was recommended by the pilot book, but we found that the little space there was (because of the depth) was already occupied. Undismayed, we tried our luck in the next bay half a mile away. This inlet looked less promising on the chart, but we penetrated its recesses until we were sheltered from the wind but still in 60-foot depths. Somehow this natural haven also knocked out the surge that had bedeviled Uvala Tatinja, and we crawled almost to the tiny beach before dropping our hook in total seclusion beneath a small stone house up on the cliff.

We were chilling out under the bimini when a dinghy came off the house’s jetty carrying a young man and his dog. He introduced himself and invited us to lunch. Up at the house, the view of Coquette looked like a travel brochure, and the seafood was spectacular. But it was the colors and the scent of lavender and rosemary that we won’t forget. The wine he’d pressed from his own grapes was a taste from another era. I expect Phoenician traders used to drink wine like this in the time of Christ.

As we sat on the veranda he had built above the sunlit sea, our host described his plans to create a small restaurant serving only fish caught in season and local produce. He also told us how the people here don’t consider themselves Balkan, but middle European, pointing out that the Croatian coastal strip is known as Dalmatia. It was part of the Venetian Republic for hundreds of years, which accounts for the campanile architecture. Finally, he explained how, after a period of reorganization and strife, Croatia’s borders are now stable.

Much later, we made the stiff beat around the end of Solta to run back through the small islands to Trogir. The sun set behind a hilltop monastery as the wind subsided quietly and we reluctantly packed up our gear.

I can’t wait to go back.

Why go
In addition to its admirable cruising grounds, Croatia is chockablock with cities, sites, islands, and parks on the World Heritage list—all worth a visit.
Sailing conditions
Winds are calmest in July and August, strengthening from September on. Beat the crowds and experience the best conditions by chartering in early summer.
Getting there
Access from the U.S. is through major European cities. There are a number of airports along the coast, including those at Dubrovnik, Zadar, and Split.
The Moorings
www.moorings.com; 888-703-3177.
The Moorings has moved from its Trogir base to Kremik to provide easier access to the cruising grounds to the north and south.

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