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Shakedown Cruise In Croatia

The April shakedown cruise was our first of the year, after our yacht’s winter layup in Croatia. We had moved Cape Farewell from Port Grimaud in the South of France to Marina Frapa, approximately 18 miles northwest of Split Airport in the spring of 2008. This was after paying several huge invoices for a complete refit at Repco Marine’s Cogolin yard, near St. Tropez. The Caterpillar 3208 engines, generator, and air conditioning were all reconditioned and re-warranted as new, the batteries were shifted, new hot water tanks were installed, fuel tanks were emptied and steam cleaned, and the whole engine room was painted out while it was empty. Cape Farewell was renamed (she had been called Ocean Magnolia) and repainted externally in a blue and white color scheme. Repco Marine together with Caterpillar France did a wonderful job, but when the bill came in I realized that the Gulf of St. Tropez was, perhaps, not the cheapest place in the world to refit an elderly and somewhat dilapidated yacht, originally built in Taiwan in 1990. We had purchased her for an inexpensive price in the summer of 2006 by part-exchanging our 48-foot Whitewater Wolfe, light displacement, and fast motor boat on the internet, through a website called

The crew for our first cruise of 2011 consisted of my wife, Andrea, my long-term sailing friend Andrew Norton, and me. Andrea and I have been cruising in motor yachts since I came ashore from my professional seagoing career in the British Merchant Navy and subsequently the Royal Navy in 1971. Andrea hails from Perth, Western Australia, but has lived in England ever since we were married. When we’re not cruising, we live in West Sussex, in the south of England about 2 miles from where I was born.
After arriving at Zagreb on time from London Gatwick Airport, the Croatian plane from Zagreb to Split was more than an hour late that Thursday night. Our faithful taxi driver, Josko, eventually delivered us to the marina just after midnight.
Our boat, an Ocean Alexander 54 trawler yacht, had been put on pier two for the season. There was a varnished piece of marine plywood, which was fitted into a short aluminium ladder section that the staff had left for us to get aboard. It slid on the rungs as I stood on it, and I arrived in the cockpit like a skateboarder with a bag in each hand. We have a hydraulic stern gangway on order from Italy so this was only a temporary solution to the problem of boarding over the stern. In Croatia, boats are Med-moored, stern-to with pick-up ropes connected to huge, submerged concrete blocks, wound tight over the bow. In some of the more remote ports, you still have to drop the anchor well off the berth and back up on its stern onto the dock.
It was a still, clear night, with a warm breeze from the olive groves coming off the land, and every stellar constellation clearly visible. We could hear a rowdy party in progress across the bay in the old part of Rogoznica. In our saloon there was a bottle of red wine on top of an encapsulated note, which read: “Dear Andrea and David, welcome home—Team Marina Frapa.” The marina had made up the bunks with clean linen, so we unpacked, did a few necessary electrical things to bring the boat alive, went to bed, and slept like logs until the following morning.
Croatia is the most beautiful cruising area in the world, with the kindest and most friendly people, but the bureaucracy is still in the communist era. We were required to get stamped permission for the crew to be on the boat with names and passport numbers from an employee in the marina’s reception, whereupon they released the ship’s papers (without which we couldn’t sail) to us. We had to find our way to the Harbour Master—a mile away around the bay in Rogoznica—to have the crew list stamped, to check that the annual vignette was up to date, and to pay any tourist tax dues. The captain of the marina kindly offered me a lift. He’d just retired from command and we swapped sea stories while we were together in his car.
Having completed enough paperwork to send the Queen Mary on her way, we sailed about midday for the little port of Maslinica, an inlet on the western end of the island of Solta, 15 miles away. It was flat, calm, and warm—ideal spring weather. I opened up the engines to blow out the soot, worked her up to her maximum speed of just over 20 knots, and then throttled back to our normal cruising speed of a steady 11 knots. We backed into Maslinica’s stone quay under the ancient castle (now a very smart, German-owned hotel) around half past one, and adjourned to Ivan’s taverna for a lunchtime drink. Ivan is an old friend who has property on a remote part of the island. He was a major in the Dubrovnik militia during the war in the 1990s. He was wounded three times, “all on my own country’s ground,” as he put it.
The next day (Saturday), we sailed south in calm and sunny conditions to the island of Vis, 21 miles away. It was a real joy to be up on the flybridge in the fresh and unpolluted air. Vis was barred to visitors by the military until 1989 and is less developed for tourism in consequence. It has been owned and colonized by the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians, French, and British in its time. During WWII the Italians took it over until 1943 when the British came and built an airstrip.
We took a taxi ride around the island to Komiza, a little port on the island’s south side from where a group of expert fishermen emigrated to San Pedro in California and founded a large fishing fleet. Franco, our taxi driver, told us he had once visited the fishing fleet there. He was surprised to find that the American deckhands on their fishing boats all communicated with their skippers in Croatian.
The island has a half a mile high mountain from which we could see all the Croatian islands within 40 miles, including Lastovo, where we were going next. On a clear day you can see all the way across the Adriatic to Ancona in Italy, 95 miles away. Vis commands the Adriatic, which is why it was a strategic military base for so long. Vis harbor is almost totally enclosed and has two stone quays for yachts at Viska Luka and Kut. It is only spoiled by the huge Jadrolinja ferry from Split, which berths twice a day, turning around with a great wash and making all the yachts gyrate wildly and burst their fenders. It is the only subsidised ferry service that keeps the offshore islands alive. We stayed for two nights to give Andrew the opportunity to experience Vis, since this was his first visit. Dinner was in a stone-floored tavern with all the permanent residents drinking local wine, smoking, and gossiping loudly and incomprehensibly at rough wooden tables, all served by a startlingly beautiful young waitress with a cigarette, a happy obliging smile, and good English. One thing about the Croatian islands is that everyone knows everyone else and there is little crime. We never feel the need to lock the boat up when we go ashore.
On Monday, we sailed 40 miles southeast to Skrivena Luka (Secret Harbour) in the island of Lastovo, the outermost inhabited Croatian island. There are only 800 permanent residents on the island, although it is crowded with hundreds of boats and several thousand tourists in the short summer season. With the wind behind us it was a pleasant ride, but we had to steer by hand. No autopilot known to man copes very well with a following wind and sea. This was a new port for us. It turned out to be a large lagoon with a narrow entrance hidden from seaward, marked by a little red light tower on the port side.
We backed up to the Konoba Rosso restaurant, which had a business-like pontoon with water, electricity, and bow lines. A charming waiter named Toni, complete with bow tie, ponytail, and dark stubble assisted us. He was in his mid-30s, born and bred on Lastovo, and aspired to become a classical trumpeter. After enjoying drinks in the sun, under the sweet-smelling pine trees, we ordered dinner. Toni brought out a magnificent fish, of some local and unpronounceable species, still alive, for us to share that evening. As we headed back to the boat along the pontoon, the night was still and clear with a waxing moon. A few lights were on around the scattered houses in the bay. We limited ourselves to black coffee on board and one small glass each of a local product that someone had given us on a previous trip called Oarahovac (described as “Green Walnut Liqueur”) and went to bed early.
We decided that this was such a charming place that we’d stay another day. Marchello, the owner of Konoba Rosso, drove us the 3 miles into Lasovo town in his little Renault. He remembered that the journey took him all day as a child, before the road was built, leading a donkey with pannier bags on its back. Built on an inland hill, Lastovo town was fortified against raids by generations of Mediterranean pirates. Fine old stone houses dotted the slopes, accessible only by steep stone steps, but many of them derelict. In contrast we saw some dreadful 1970s concrete apartments in the town square, left over from communist days, all gradually splitting apart as the iron reinforcing bars in the concrete rusted and expanded in the salt air.
Dinner that night, at Konoba Rosso, was lamb cooked in a peka, a traditional dish of lamb chunks, potatoes, and onions, cooked under an iron cover. Smoldering brushwood and hot ashes are heaped on top of the cover and the whole thing slow-cooks for two or three hours. Washed down with Latsovian wine it was delicious. We supplied a couple of eggs from the boat’s stores and the chef treated us to marmalade-filled pancakes on the house.
As we returned along the pontoon to the boat the sky had become hazy with thin clouds. There was a halo around the moon and a moderate wind had sprung up. The forecast was for a Bora, a strong, cold, north-easterly wind, much feared in these parts. Sure enough, by Wednesday morning, it was blowing a full gale with gusts of 70 knots with spray and spume being blown across the pontoon and lowering black clouds marching across the sky like an advancing army. We unanimously decided to put out springs, tighten the forward lines with the windlass, and stay put, instead of venturing out to the open sea as planned.
In the evening, the clouds cleared and the wind dropped and backed to the northwest. Three Croatian charter yachts came in and berthed on the pontoon, manned by big crews of middle-aged, grizzled men from Kazakhstan. From the amount of drying oilskins and bedding lashed up to their rigging, we could see that they had had a rough trip! That night, we enjoyed lobster and octopus salad in the restaurant, served by the faithful Toni. The bar was full of 30 or so unshaven Kazakhstani sailors in strange, knitted pullovers and bobble caps, busily puffing on cigarettes, and jabbering emphatically with wagging fingers, trying to drink the place dry.
We sailed Thursday at 0830 through the narrow passage to the west, passing the wooded slopes of the uninhabited Mrcara Island, and then northeast around the eastern tip of Korcula Island, past the resort town of Lubarda and on to the ACI marina next to the medieval, walled town of Korcula.
There are 21 ACI marinas in Croatia, which all offer full services, full security and are efficiently run, although rather expensive. Our two days and nights alongside, off-season, cost us 1,470 kuna or around $490 US. We thought $245 per day was rather a lot for a tight, stern-to berth for a 56-foot boat. Korcula is reputed to be the home of Marco Polo, although the building he is said to have inhabited is only a small ruined tower.