Saturday, June 10, 2006

Island Hopping

Zagreb, Split, and Croatia's Adriatic Islands

I have had the sailing itch ever since the first time I first awkwardly cruised around Charleston harbor with Billy T. in the Trotmans' Laser some 15 years ago, but it was Jason (a man with no sailing experience) that suggested a Mediterranean expedition towards the end of the OC's path. It made sense to me. I think we both had in mind scorching sun, blue water, white-washed buildings on craggy Greek islands, and a deck full of bikini chicks. As usual, things did not quite work out that way.

Come the start of the OC, neither of us had the necessary paper to hire a yacht, and it was doubtful that we would be able to do enough training along the way. In times like this, I always call on the aid of the irreproachable C. M. Atkin. He had: 1) sailed extensively and lived on his own boat; and 2) was on his way to Sweden to do a masters degree involving complex systems or some such useless mathematical crap. Our original plan called for sailing the waters of Greece in the middle of April, but we jiggled things around a bit to accommodate the end of Mr. Atkin's term (June 1) and the tight requirements of Lauren E.'s calendar. The new plan became to cruise the water's of Croatia the first week of June. All of this was worked out in a barrage of emails stretching from maybe July to March when we finally put down the deposit on a boat. Only the OC's Antarctic passage was planned farther in advance.

People started coming together in Zagreb on the 1st when we made contact with Atkin and Jason's sister, Jackie. That day we jumped a bus down to Split and by the next evening, the entire crew was enjoying their first meal together - a pizza dinner in the remains of Emperor Diocletian's palace. Troy is now resident in Paris after finishing his doctorate in Amsterdam. He invited along a coreligionist German mathematician still working in the Spliffy City called Falk. Katya, a friend of Jason's from LA, came out from Milan to complete The Magnificent Seven. In my usual pushy way, I forced everyone to accept nicknames for the period of the voyage. Atkin went by his nautical title of "Captain". Jason volunteered for the duty of "cabin boy". Falk was deemed too simple for a sailor man and formalized a bit to "Mr. Falk". Troy's arrival with wine in hand assured his transformation into "Dionysus" ("Dio"). Katya's feline Christian name became "Pussy Kat" ("PK") and I was re-christened "The Mate" to identify both my position aboard and generally sociable disposition.

Sometime after noon on the 3rd, The Captain and myself set out to pick up the boat, a journey that should have been simple, but ended up leading unexpectedly up a mountain and through some woods. We finally managed to get to the place (by taxi), but more than a half hour late. Tardiness is rarely a good thing, but it is especially bad when you are trying to convince somebody to give you control of a 100,000 USD vessel. The boat owner did not seem to mind our lateness at all. He ran through the extensive checklist at a good clip and handed over the keys. All of a sudden we went from mild-mannered nerdy travelers to mild-mannered nerdy travelers at the helm of a 36 foot yacht. It took a few days to get over the initial shock that someone was willing to let such a valuable thing leave their sight under our command.

Our Bavaria Cruiser (officially called "Pave", but quickly renamed "The Countessa Von Bleefa" by the cabin boy) was a nice boat geared more toward comfort than speed. The three cabins (one fore, two aft) both slept two people with at least a few inches to spare. The head was a simple design incorporating a shower, sink, and toilet with enough room to be useful but not spacious. The main cabin housed the familiar dining area / kitchen area / navigation area trinity. All of them were well designed and the saloon benches folded out into two more comfortable beds. I had feared that seven would be quite a squeeze, but we were all able to eat, sleep, and lounge with a minimum of crushed toes. Only when we were under sail and everyone was piled into the cockpit did the boat feel crowded, but this was easily relieved by sending a few people forward to hang out in the sun safely underneath the boom. The sailing rig itself was straightforward and incorporated nice-to-have features like self-furling sails and dual-gear wenches.

The charter company supplied us with a suggested itinerary that we planned to stick fairly close to. Unfortunately, no one could possibly supply an accurate weather forecast. The wind in this part of the Adriatic seems completely unpredictable. There were instances where we went from running on a screaming 35 knot bora wind to nearly sitting still with 5 knots in our face in the space of fifteen minutes. Sunny mornings gave way to rainy afternoons which in turn turned into clear evenings. It was frustrating at times, but we managed to keep a pretty full schedule. Days were spent under sail, swimming in secluded coves, snorkeling in caves, on the beach, or walking around wooded hills. Most nights found us enjoying the bars and restaurants of quaint local towns. In one memorable instance, we were entertained until early in the morning by a Polish folk singer that Mr. Falk had dragged back to the vessel. We even went the extra mile to test our anchoring skills and spent a pleasant (if bumpy) night in a little harbor.

As with any expedition, there were a few down moments. The first day under sail saw an outbreak of seasickness, so some crew members started freebasing dramamine. This led to quite a bit of sleepiness. At some times it seemed that Katya was only ever awake long enough to down some nutella and make a half-hearted pass at Jackie. Because the wind was almost always coming from where we wanted to go, there was also the occasional disagreement between those that prefer to sail and those that prefer to make progress. On our first marina departure, we managed to get the keel stuck on some mooring lines. It took about 20 minutes to get things untangled and get on our way. More seriously, there were one or two big gusts of wind that seemed destined to roll us over. In the most dramatic of the pair, Mr. Falk and myself ended up wrestling the boom while Dio tried desperately to reconnect the main sheet block to the traveller. There was a lot of shouting and a bit of adrenaline, but in the end all agreed that there was very little actual danger.

Croatia was a lovely country certainly more Western Europe than Balkans. The islands around Split were dotted with picturesque and accessible villages that rewarded the visitor with little surprises. Although not uniformly friendly, the Croatians were always helpful. It is hard to forget the words of a wrinkled old man who predicted dire consequences to those that ignore the potential violence of the Adriatic weather. We followed his advice in spades when we spotted a tornado only a few hours later and turned tail to run. Because Croatia is more west than east, costs were not as cheap as you might expect. Taking everything together, we ended up spending about the same amount per day as you might on a land-based vacation, but we were not exactly tight with money, so there is definitely room to bring down the bottom line. My first yacht hire experience was a real winner and I look forward to others. The dream is to assemble a flotilla of vessels with sympathetic and like-minded captains to ravage some coastal area. The first step will be to do the necessary training to upgrade myself from tough-but-fair first mate to tyrannical but drunken captain. Yar.


Blogger jason said...

Some other nicknames for your enjoyment:

C.M.A - "Skipper", "Skip"
Troy - "Diocletian", "Dookie"
Jackie - "Boof"

6/13/2006 10:54 PM gmt


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