11 October 2017 – Up and Down Croatia

Durrës (ALB)– Dubrovnik (HRV)

Durrës disappears only slowly in the distance. The wind that was forecasted isn’t in a hurry and barely fills our genaker. A ferry is heading straight for us and doesn’t show any sign of changing course. We feel like a sitting duck. When it’s around 10 minutes away from running us over, Ivar calls them on the VHF. No answer. Just as he tries again, the Durrës port control intervenes. They call the ferry to notify that we are calling them. This time the ferry quickly responds and, more importantly, changes course. Thank you for watching out for us, port control!

During the night the wind finally picks up and we enjoy the increasing speed on a still calm sea. But it gradually becomes stronger, and our genaker increasingly complains about the forces it has to endure. A loud flap, a screaking sheet, even an attempt to tilt the boat. In the middle of the night at 4am, during our shift change when we are both awake, we pull down the genaker and roll out the genua instead. We’re still making good progress towards Croatia, our next destination.

We’ve heard many great stories about sailing in Croatia. Stunning nature, thousands of islands and beautiful historic towns. In combination with the Mediterranean weather, it sounds like sailors’ paradise awaiting us. Yet on Noonsite, the online platform for cruisers, we also read about Croatia’s strict enforcement of immigration procedures, notoriously expensive marinas and many privatized anchorages. We don’t want to get fined or spend too much on mooring fees, so we carefully prepare our travels in this country.

A Croatian welcome?
Croatia is a member of the European Union, but not of the Schengen customs union. That means that we have to clear customs. Additionally, we have to purchase a cruising permit upon entry. “The wind is still fair, where shall we head for?” asks Ivar. “Well, immigration rules dictate that we have to clear customs in the first possible port after entering Croatian waters. And since Cavtat is the first designated Port of Entry coming from the South, we need to go there,” replies Floris. “You’ve got to be kidding” says Ivar, looking utterly confused. “How about some flexibility for weather or unexpected technical events? Shouldn’t it always be the skipper who decides where we go?” Floris continues “Well, the rules are not only clear on this, they are also enforced. I’ve read stories from other sailors that had to pay steep fines for not clearing customs in the nearest Port of Entry or waiting a few hours. The authorities track boats via their automatic identification system (AIS) signals, so there is no escaping this.” Hesitantly, Ivar obliges. “Oh and there’s something else” adds Floris. “We’re only allowed to moor on a designated immigration pontoon, where guys helping with mooring lines charge €15.”

From the harbour Cavtat looks like a charming town sitting on the slope of a hill. The smell of green pine forests fills the air, while we focus on finding the immigration pontoon. As we get closer, a guy on the quay signals us to use our anchor and come with the stern to shore. We begrudgingly comply. Refusing help from the quay guys, Floris jumps on the quay and ties up our lines to the rings. After arranging the paperwork, he’s keen to leave and unties our mooring lines. Noticing our movements, the quay guy is quick to demand money. “What for?” we ask. “For helping with the mooring,” he bluntly replies. “We did it ourselves!” we smile as we leave. “You can’t come back here” he shouts while taking pictures of our boat. Well, we have no intention to do so. What a welcome to Croatia…

Anchoring Challenges
“Free anchoring should be a human right!” Ivar protests when Floris tells him that in Croatia many bays have paid anchorages or mooring fields. It means we always have to check whether we can anchor for free. Our pilot (thank you Saskia!) and an Austrian website would prove to be indispensable.

After a failed attempt to anchor around the corner from Cavtat, where the holding was poor, we find another free anchoring spot north of Dubrovnik. The stunning setting erases our memory of the Cavtat quay guy. Surrounded by pine trees and high hills, the Zaton bay is well-protected, and the anchor holds at the first attempt. Beautifully maintained, pearly white houses line the small harbour. A handful of restaurants and an ancient church complete the idyllic picture. That’s the welcome we prefer!

Up Croatia
A few windless days allow to discover the area and catch up on blogging and vlogging. When SE wind sets in, we sail north along countless islands, small and large. Green forests and beautiful historic towns try to seduce us to stop, but our will to carry on is stronger. We just cannot let this great wind go by unused and only stop to sleep. We anchor in shallow bays or deeper water, where we take lines ashore. The water is clear and warm, so we swim at the start and end of each daytrip. No wonder this is such a popular cruising area.

As we reach the island of Pasman, a thunderstorm catches up with us. Rain pours down, so heavy we can barely see the bow. The fierce gusts make Luci heel over to the point where water enters the gangway. After only a few minutes, it’s calmer again. A quick inspection reveals that the stormy gusts blew off the windex, which shows us the direction of the wind in the top of the mast. It also took away all the wind, so we find the closest anchorage. Ill-prepared for the rain, we’re soaked and cold and need to warm up. For the first time in six months we take a hot shower on board and fire up the wood stove – such bliss!

During the night, more thunderstorms pass over us, signalling the start of autumn. The sound of an approaching airplane wakes us in the early morning. It’s a tremendous wind gust. Luci heels over sharply and gets pushed sideways. A fierce turn, a loud bang, metal on metal sounds. Bewildered we look at each other. Did we hit something? We hurry outside and are relieved that we are still in the same spot. We don’t seem to have hit anything. So what happened? Then we see the anchor chain. The stretching line that eases the tension on the anchor winch has torn. It is supposed to withstand forces up to 9 tons, so the gust really was heavy. After the line tore, some 10m of anchor chain got loose, which explains the loud metal sounds we heard. “Well, at least we know the bottom has very good holding here!” Floris jokes. “Nice way to start the day” Ivar replies.

When the skies clear, we paddle ashore to explore the island. We hike to the top of a mountain and take in the amazing 360-degree view. Countless islands surround us, creating well-protected, inshore waters. Lush and green, the islands create a harmonious contrast with the blue Adriatic waters.

We make our way down to Pasman town, stopping at each fig tree to pick their over-ripe fruit until we have enough to make our own jam. In town we stumble across Matulic, a beautiful store that sells organic food and cosmetics from the island. The young owners, Ana and Krsto, are from the island and enthusiastically explain to us how they make local delicacies such as fig vinegar, mandarin jam, and spicy olive oil. They not only stimulate local, sustainable farming, but are also an inspiration on an island where most youngsters leave for a career on the mainland.

A Venetian Visit
“We can sail there!” Ivar used to say each time Floris tried to excite Ivar to visit Venice for a long weekend. Floris did a Human Rights master there and has always been eager to show Ivar his beloved city. The conditions allow us to sail there on our own keel, just in time for the reunion of Floris’s school. Very pleased with this pinnacle of timing, we treat ourselves to a marina – not that there are any other options – and sightseeing before we are reunited with Floris’s friends from all over Europe.

Down Croatia
Three days packed with social and cultural highlights later, we sail back to Croatian Pula to clear back into Croatia. At the “Q” pontoon there is no sign of money-hungry quay guys, which makes the process hassle-free. Floris swiftly obtains the required stamps, we hoist the sails again and continue our route south, destination Trogir. Half-way we stop in Silba. This densely forested and charming island aims to become plastic-free, and gets help from our partner organization By the Ocean we Unite. Like so many other places in Croatia, we noticed that the public space is exceptionally clean. Yet on the somewhat remoter shores, large amounts of plastic have washed up. The plastic pollution may have originated elsewhere, but we all share the seas and plastic knows no borders. Trying to do our bit, we spend the morning cleaning a deserted beach close to our anchorage.

Happy Birthday in Trogir
The winds are favourable and allow us to reach Trogir in time for Floris’s mother 70th birthday. She decided to celebrate it close to us, and so the whole family travelled to Croatia to join in the festivities. We leave Luci in the marina in Marina, amid a hundred charter boats, so we can stay with the family. It’s wonderful to see the whole family again and to spend time together. Also, the luxury of eating out, sleeping in a large bed and being able to stand upright under the shower is a bit overwhelming. “And there’s a washing machine!” It doesn’t take long before one machine after the other is filled with our laundry of the last two months.

Our stay on land also allows us to see more of Croatia’s hinterland. In Krka National Park waterfalls and streams through forests make for a spectacular display of natural beauty. We wander through the park on elevated walking paths and even go for a swim in the crystal clear fresh water just below the waterfalls. The next day we switch to salt water, as we take the family out on the boat to a nearby anchorage. Everyone enjoys the sunshine and the warm water. When Floris’s brother Johan spots a sunken dinghy on the seabed, Ivar is quick to propose a family activity. “Shall we salvage it? It’s only 5m deep.” Not much later they hoist the dinghy on-board and cut the PVC into pieces that fit into waste bags. Floris’s nephews Luc and Julian are eager to help, too. Infected with the cleanup-bug, Ivar and Julian can’t stop and kayak to a beach. There, they collect more plastic waste than the kayak can fit, so Julian proposes to tow the kayak. With the rope of the kayak in his mouth, he swims back to Luci. That’s the spirit!

Dubrovnik with Friends
All (birthday) parties come to an end, and so we have to bid the family farewell. They wave at us as we sail away from Marina. Another appointment awaits, this time with our friends Feitze, HD and Jeroen, who will arrive in Dubrovnik in a few days. The wind is very weak, which is challenging for our heavy boat. And the crew; we sail day and night to get back to Zaton. Sometimes our progress is less than a mile an hour. Yet our perseverance is rewarded. We arrive just in time for their arrival. We catch up over local beers and spend time hiking, sailing and visiting Dubrovnik. The old town has been restored to full glory after it was bombed in the horrible Balkan War in the early 90s. Although masses of tourists, including us, swarm the city like locusts, we get infused with its charm.

More Ups than Downs
After our friends return home, we leave with a steady northerly wind. Of course, only after the official check out in Dubrovnik, where we manage to sneak away from a quay guy potentially demanding money for helping with the lines. As we leave Croatia, we reflect upon our time there. True, the authorities are strict. Yet if you stick to the rules like we did, there are no problems. The cruising permit and marinas are expensive, but there are enough free anchorages left to make for a very enjoyable stay in breath-taking surroundings. The nature we explored was unspoiled and the people we met were lovely. For cruisers, Croatia clearly has its Ups and Downs!

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