The 2016 ASA Flotilla in Croatia was organized by Sea Safaris Sailing School in Chicago with Capt. Jean De Keyser and his wife, “Admiral” Mila, as the experienced flotilla tour guides.
Often the first charter experience of newly minted bareboat charter certificate holders is with one of the many charter companies in the Caribbean or Florida but there are many other exciting destinations waiting to be discovered by our enthusiastic new seafarers.
One region that is mostly overlooked by American sailors is the Mediterranean but many rewards and unforgettable vacation memories await those who decide to sail these waters.
The Mare Nostrum of the Romans offers a wide choice of destinations, from Turkey to Greece, Italy, Croatia, France and Spain. Whereas most of the charter vacations in the Caribbean are taken in the winter, the Mediterranean is a summer destination.
The Adriatic Sea was, for me, one of those places that always sounded incredibly far-off and wonderful, not quite real, a magnificent realm that I would probably never get to see. Its waters are steeped in history and legend. Strategically located between Italy and Greece, they were a focal point of the classical world, sailed by everyone from Odysseus to Julius Caesar to Marco Polo. Continue reading
This blog is about ASA’s 2012 Croatia Flotilla. Dubrovnik to Split, September 2012.
“Every fish should swim three times,” goes a Croatian saying. “First in the sea, then in olive oil, and finally in wine.” The residents of the Dalmatian Coast live by this creed, and their cuisine, a divine fusion of Italian and Greek styles, demonstrates why.
Of all the delicious repasts we ate during the 2012 Croatia flotilla (and there were many), one stands out in my memory, not only as a meal, but as a unique experience that you can only get while sailing.
It began, as so many sailor tales do, with foul weather. We had made a long and exhilarating crossing through spitting rain and heavy seas from the island of Vis toward a town called Milna, where we planned to get a berth in the marina, take a long, hot shower, and open a few bottles of well-deserved local wine. But Neptune had other ideas–the storm had forced so many boats to Milna that the marina was entirely full, and a long string of boats was being turned away. We needed a new course of action, and with nightfall coming, we needed it fast.
I regret that I never set foot in Milna, which is supposed to be a lovely place, but where one door closes, another opens. Jean de Keyser, our skipper and flotilla leader, studied the chart and located a deep, sheltered inlet a few miles away. What a stroke of luck that turned out to be. When we arrived, the rain had abated and there were a number of mooring balls available, which immediately made our lives easier. There was also a young guy fishing from a small skiff. We didn’t know it yet, but this was Leo, and he was catching our dinner.
It was a beautiful, serene little cove of wooded hillsides, but there was nothing there, virtually no sign of civilization, except for a few stone shacks on the hillside, and a sign advertising a restaurant called “Smrceva.” No one traveling by ferry, tour bus, rental car, or even on foot would be likely to find this place. The only reliable access was by sailboat. I was skeptical, but what choice did we have? It was time to dinghy ashore and try our luck.
This turned out to be the best decision we made in the entire trip. As the only diners, we were greeted by a young man named Neno and seated in an open stone shelter with a view of the bay through pine trees. It was not a refined place. There was junk piled in the corners, and a family of kittens living in the disused fireplace. Neno explained that they had no menu–they would cook whatever was available and bring it to us one course after another, along with some local brandies and as many liters of wine as we could handle. “Okay,” we said, “bring it on.”
It began with baked scallops on the half-shell, and just kept coming: Risotto, grilled calamari, sauteed potatoes, and finally, the piece de resistance, the grilled fish that Leo had been busily catching when we sailed in. The fish had swum in the sea, it had swum in olive oil, and now it was time for that third and final voyage.
When the meal was over, Neno invited us into the nearby home to see their massive collection of family artifacts. He told us that Marino, the owner, had been a famous soccer star for Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and showed us pictures of him lining up to play Germany and shaking hands with Yugoslavian president Tito. (As he was talking, we could see Marino bustling around outside, keeping the place in order.) They even had us watch TV with them for a few minutes. The local Croatian news was on, and with minimal English they tried to explain the headlines to us through mime. I don’t think any of us understood much, but we appreciated the effort anyway.
It was pitch black as we returned to the dinghy dock, Neno lighting the way with a series of hand lanterns. By the time we were back on board, it was clear to everyone that things had worked out exactly right, and we had just had one of those special experiences available only to the cruising sailor. That’s the adventure of a flotilla–you have a plan, but when circumstances change, and you are forced to improvise, that’s when some of the greatest discoveries are made.
This is a story about ASA’s 2012 Croatia Flotilla. For more info on upcoming ASA sailing flotillas, click here.
Sailors (and tourists of all kinds) have beaten a well-worn path through the Mediterranean, particularly in places like Greece, Italy, and Spain. These are the world’s most ancient sailing grounds, and they richly deserve their reputations for beauty and splendor. But Croatia’s a bit different. Having only been open to tourists for about 15 years, following virtually 800 years of war and strife, you might expect the place to be a bit rough around the edges. But it’s actually quite the opposite–Croatia has a vitality, hospitality, and magnificence entirely its own.
You won’t find the bright colors and baroque flourishes of Italy, or the spectacular blinding white domes of Greece. Instead, as one local told me, “In Dalmatia it is all about the details.”
You will encounter jumbles of cascading orange tile roofs, and walls whose masonry spans 2,000 years: Originally built by the Romans, augmented in the time of Marco Polo, given a few Renaissance touch-ups, and perhaps reinforced by a tradesman yesterday. Immersing yourself in this rich historical tapestry is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Croatia.
So, when it comes to the architecture and culture of the Dalmatian coast, what should you be sure to see? Here were my favorite highlights, discovered on the 2012 ASA Croatia Flotilla.
Dubrovnik City Walls: Nicknamed “the pearl of the Adriatic,” this is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination. And it’s not hard to see why. With a huge, well-preserved “old town” district dating to the 15th century, the streets are pretty much as they were when Dubrovnik was a powerful Mediterranean city-state, rivaling Venice. Walking the city walls is a must, well worth the 70 kuna price (roughly $12). From the battlements you’ll get numerous stunning views of the town and the sea.
Moreska Sword Dance, Korcula: “You sit here,” the usher said, guiding us to the front row, “maybe you get broken nose. Maybe you lose tooth.”
If you make it to the island city of Korcula, you’ve simply got to see the Moreska Sword Dance—it’s the only place in the world where you can. The performance is elegant, violent, and real—not for the squeamish. Swords clashed and occasionally their broken blades hurtled into the audience, hence the warning (or perhaps invitation?) about getting a broken nose. By nightfall, blood had been spilled by performer and spectator alike, though no one was (seriously) hurt.
The dance recounts the battle between two kings for the love of a beautiful princess, and performing in it is a centuries-old tradition among the youth of Korcula. Shows are held on Mondays, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
Spanjola Fortress, Hvar: Another place for astonishing views. Abandoned for centuries, left “for the fairies to dance in at night,” there’s a spooky thrill to exploring this hilltop fortress. The hike up takes some work, especially on a hot day, but you’ll be glad you did it. From the walls you can see all of Hvar Town, plus the almost tropical-looking Pakleni Islands and the sparkling Adriatic. They’ve got a cafe up there, too, so you can kick back and relax.
Diocletian’s Palace, Split: No trip to the Dalmatian Coast would be complete without this landmark, once the home of Roman emperor Diocletian. It lies at the very heart of Split, and the city has been growing around and inside of it for 1,700 years. The palace is an entire town to itself, and full of oddities from various time periods. There are sphinxes taken from Egypt, fully intact Roman catacombs, ramshackle medieval houses, and the world’s smallest Christian cathedral, in what was once Diocletian’s mausoleum. There are “klappa” singers who perform in the rotunda with the polyphonic voices of angels, frequently reducing their audience to tears.
There’s so much more to see, of course, and more details than I could possibly describe. This should give you a taste, but the rest you’ll just have to see for yourself. Stay tuned to ASA social media for news about our next Croatia flotilla!
This is a special guest blog by Captain Jean de Keyser, who led ASA’s 2011 Croatia flotillas and operates Gulfcoast Sailing School, an ASA affiliate in Punta Gorda, FL. You can read Part One here.
As the first ASA flotilla came to an end on September 3, the participants for the next week’s event had already started checking in at the Trogir Palace Hotel. Mila was on hand to welcome them and to help them get settled. Everybody was in great spirits and looking forward to the upcoming trip.
We decided to change the itinerary and, instead of heading for Primosten for our first night, we headed for the familiar village of Milna. We could have chosen another port but, from experience, we know that everybody loves Milna! Like the previous week, we docked at the ACI marina and all four yachts tied up, side by side.
On Sunday morning, we took some of the participants to Josip’s wine cellar where they could buy some of his family’s local production. Steve, Gwen, Gary, Charlotte, Mila and Dirk, crew members on Ana B, sampled Josip’s wares and before we knew it our boat had some extra cargo hidden in the bilges.
Around 10:00AM, we sailed out of Milna harbor and headed for the Splitska Vrata pass between Brac and Solta islands and started sailing westward along the south coast of Solta. We stayed close to the rocky shore to enjoy the beauty of the cliffs. The nice thing about sailing in Croatia is that, even when you get close to shore, you are still in deep waters with very little risk of running aground.
The anchor was dropped for lunch in a cove on Drvenik Mala island at around 2:00PM and, a refreshing dip in the Adriatic later, we sailed on to our next stop in Primosten.
That night in the bay of Primosten, we cooked on board and Ana B got transformed into a night club and disco with some wild music and even dancing. Thanks to Dirk, we even had psychedelic lighting on board. Quite a few of the wine and grappa bottles were sacrificed to Bacchus that night. I am quite sure that this was the first time ever that the sounds of Zydeco music reverberated over Primosten…..
While checking the anchor during the night, we could see lightning in the distance and, by the time we got up, lightning flashes followed by loud thunder claps were hitting the mountain sides of the bay.
Sara, the Beneteau 37, crewed by Brook and Ella from Alaska and Scott and Lori from Montana, had dragged her anchor and was now quite a distance away from Ariana and Ana B.
Suddenly, two lightning bolts struck on land, almost at the same time, and started two different forest fires. Fanned by the strong wind these fires were soon threatening houses and, from our vantage point in the bay, we had an excellent view of what was going on. We saw fire trucks racing up the slopes and soon ashes started falling on our boats. A small skiff made the tour of the anchored yachts and recommended that we leave immediately as firefighting planes would be using the bay to take on water to douse the flames
Before long a modified crop duster on floats flew low over the water, landed, filled up and started a slow take- off to drop its load on the fire. It flew right over our mast and too close for comfort. We saw it making its aerial ballet approaching the fire and saw the water being sprayed over the forest. There was no way this small plane could handle this by itself but soon two larger Russian-made Antonov seaplanes joined the dance and, with all these planes buzzing close overhead, we decided that it was definitely time to leave!
On the way to Sibenik, we reached the narrow channel between Zlarin and Drvenik islands and Ana B crew member, Gary Lee, smoothly steered our yacht through the gap. Once out of the wind shadow of Drvenik, we reached the entrance of the Sveti Ante pass that leads to the river and Sibenik.
This pass must have been a death trap for any invading naval force as it is narrow and protected by a fortress and high cliffs on either side. The late communist leader of Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito, had tunnels carved out inside the cliffs from where fast torpedo boats could intercept and destroy any invader.
On the other side of the pass Sibenik appeared with its old fortresses and cathedral. We by-passed the city and went upriver towards Prokljansko Jezero, a large lake located between Sibenik and Skradin.
Along the way, we saw several mussel farms. One of them is owned by a man named Zoran, whom I had met on a previous trip and I called him with the request that he have 20 kilos of his mussels ready on our way back from Skradin. More on that later…..
Wednesday morning we headed to the absolutely gorgeous waterfalls which are located in the Krka National Park. We had to take the park ferry to bring us there and, a short trip up the river later, we docked at the entrance of the park, paid our entrance fee and started our walking tour around and above the falls. Hundreds of small falls, ponds and creeks feed water from higher up to the majestic falls and, in all these ponds and creeks you see thousands of fishes. The water was unbelievably clear.
Only two days left and we still needed to get to the Kornati Archipelago. To the blaring sound of the Ride of the Valkyries (Apocalypse Now), we left our dock and steamed downriver back to Sibenik and the Adriatic. Along the way, we stopped by Zoran the Mussel-man and picked up our twenty kilos of freshly harvested shiny black bivalves.
That evening we brought five kilos of mussels to each yacht and organized a mussel cooking contest. Each boat had to come up with its best recipe. Soon all crew members were cleaning mussels, removing the beards, scrubbing them and getting them ready for their last hot bath.
Ana B being at a mooring ball, we had decided to clean the mussels on board and prepare the ingredients for the recipe but to do the cooking on one of the boats at the quay. Dirk and I concocted our “top secret” preparation and, once on board of Sara, we cooked our mussels while listening to the Bolero of Ravel. As if by miracle the mussels opened right as the music reached its climax and we knew that we would serve the best mussels of the contest.
Judging and consumption of the mussels was done in a local restaurant on the waterfront. Ella Goss and Gwen Risner had made a deal with the owner that we could serve our culinary wonders but that we would drink his wine and beer and buy his bread to dip in the sauces. He also sold a few pizzas and ice creams.
After much tasting and re-tasting, the verdict was that there was a tie between Ana B and Sara but, as Ana B was the lead flotilla boat, the corrupt judges decided that we could not get any of the prizes, such as a subscription to Latitudes and Attitudes magazine, sailing DVDs, sailing gadgets, etc.
We sailed on to Rogoznica is a cute little town on a peninsula inside the bay that bears the same name. Marina Frappa is located across from it and is one of the best equipped marinas in the Adriatic. Our 49’ yacht was dwarfed by huge mega-yachts with ports of call like Gibraltar, St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida), Georgetown, Panama and so on. The facilities in this marina are absolutely superb and they have a choice of several restaurants, bars, a swimming pool and much more.
Friday has arrived! This means the end of our second week flotilla is in sight. It sneaked up on us way too soon, but we had to return to Marina Kastela. Good bye, Marina Frappa and see you again, hopefully next year. Dirk who, with Mila, had gone on a discovery mission of Ciovo Island near Trogir on the day before the start of the charter, suggested that we anchor near a small resort in Uvala Duga, a cove on the south side of Ciovo. It was a beautiful anchorage, ideal for lunch and a swim after which we hoisted the sails for the final leg to Split and Marina Kastela.
Saturday morning meant check-out time and return to the Trogir Palace Hotel and before you knew it, all our crew members and new friends left for home or for their next destination.
We have lost our sailing hearts to Croatia and are already planning our next flotilla for 2012. See you there?
This is a special guest blog by Captain Jean de Keyser, who led ASA’s 2011 Croatia flotillas and operates Gulfcoast Sailing School, an ASA affiliate in Punta Gorda, FL.
On August 26 crew members from all over the U.S.A. gathered in the Trogir Palace Hotel located just outside of the stunningly beautiful medieval city of Trogir, Croatia.
A spread of Dalmatian specialties consisting of cured ham, local cheeses, salads, wines and delicious bread awaited them during this initial meeting of the first week’s ASA flotilla, the first of many delicious Croatian meals to be had.
ASA members from Florida, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Maryland had traveled all the way to this historic part of Europe for some great sailing fun along the Croatian coast on four yachts. Captain Jean De Keyser and First Mate and wife, Mila, gave the sailors their first briefing on what they could expect during this trip and provided lots of interesting information about the itinerary, local islands, marina facilities, docking, administrative procedures in each port and on provisioning during the week.
At around 12:00PM the following day, we made our way to Marina Kastela, a very large and modern charter base where several charter companies operate from. As most charters in Croatia start and end on a Saturday, the base was swarming with people from all over Europe and the U.S. It was like a marine version of the Towers of Babylon where, without a doubt, well over twenty languages could be heard.
The first yachts started leaving the marina at 3:30PM and headed for our first stop, the village of Milna on the island of Brac (pronounced Brasj). Upon our arrival at Milna, our skippers and their crews got their first taste of the Croatian version of Mediterranean mooring. The fact that one of the dockhands of the Milna marina was not very diplomatic made for some tense moments, but Capt. Jean advised the skippers to relax and ignore his yelling, and soon all four yachts were safely ensconced in their berths for the night.
At 6:00 the following morning, we were roused from our deep sleep by the bells of the church across from the basin. After breakfast, a short chart briefing and once we had recovered our boat papers, we set sail for our next destination, the island of Vis.
During the Cold War, when Tito was the communist dictator of Yugoslavia, this island was off-limit to foreigners and non-residents of the island. It was a secret military base and its mountains have countless tunnels in which the armed forces could hide in case of an invasion. Sailing along the coastline of Vis, one can still see many bunkers from where Tito’s forces could lob artillery shells on any would-be invader.
After about four hours of sailing we entered Rogacic Bay and anchored in front of the abandoned submarine base which was featured in the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. Everyone went for a swim or motored with the dinghies inside the submarine tunnel. The waters there are so clear you could see an octopus swim at the bottom.
We had lunch on board of our yachts. Our lunch typically consists of bread, cheese, “prosciut” ham, a salad of lettuce, tomatoes (they are super delicious here!), mozzarella and basil with olive oil and vinegar; all this, of course, generously accompanied by the delicious local wines.
After another refreshing swim, we headed for the port of Luka Vis and, another short sail later, docked across the harbor from the ancient little abbey.
One of the highlights of this itinerary is the dinner in a vineyard, high in the mountains of Vis.
Years ago, we discovered this family owned restaurant where they serve the most unbelievable lamb dish, prepared under the so-called Peka bell. Imagine…. generous portions of lamb, potatoes and tomatoes cooked in a dish covered by a bell on top of which hot ashes are piled. After two hours of slow cooking the food is served, accompanied with lots of bread to soak up the juices and with bottles and bottles of the wines produced in that same vineyard. Bise(Bee-Zay), the owner of this place had us also sample other local delights, like carpaccio of sardines, a variety of cheeses and fried zucchini flowers. Let us not forget the various homemade brandies!
Monday morning the “blue cave” on the island of Bisevo was waiting for us. We had a few hours of exhilarating sailing ahead of us and, one after the other, all boats anchored in the cove of the blue cave.
Suddenly, this 40’ yacht with a Polish flag entered the cove under full power and looking for a place to drop the hook. He decided to try his anchoring skills quite close to our boat which allowed us to see that the skipper was buck naked………. Not a pretty sight. Fortunately he anchored a bit further away and donned a speedo. Still not a pretty sight…….
Soon the dinghies were dropped in the water and we made our way to the blue cave and, of course, we had to swim in the electric blue waters. A magical experience!
Tuesday morning saw us heading towards the island of Hvar. We had some fairly decent winds when leaving, but soon the water became glassy calm and we had to leave a larger carbon footprint behind us. That afternoon the wind picked up again and we tacked our way up the channel while playing chicken to see how close we could get to the cliffs on either side of the channel before shouting “Hard A-lee!”
That night in the glamorous city of Hvar, which has become one of the places for the glitterati to be seen in Europe, we had an evening happy hour onboard Lejla, the ASA yacht of Dr. Kevin from Oklahoma. While enjoying a good drink and some appetizers, we saw this guy walking the docks looking for a doctor. One of his friends had dislocated his shoulder. Fortunately for this friend, we had Dr. Steve from Orlando in our flotilla. Apart from being an experienced sailor, he is a skilled orthopedic surgeon and in no time he reset the shoulder of this young man. Quite a crowd was swarming all over the place when he performed his healing wonder and he got quite a loud applause when the bone popped back in its joint. If he had been a bullfighter in Spain, they would probably have given him the two ears…..
The week was now in full swing and on Wednesday morning we motor-sailed to Korcula. Legend has it this adorable city was the birthplace of Marco Polo. You can still visit his house and climb the attached tower from where you have an impressive view of the city and the surrounding area. Of course, the nearby Marco Polo gift shop will gladly sell you souvenirs bearing his name and likeness. Wandering through the narrow streets you realize that you are walking on cobble stones that are centuries old. If only these walls could speak but, fortunately for me, some of them have been remodeled to accommodate ice cream and gelato shops. Civilization and progress are beautiful things indeed.
Sunrise brought us into our last sailing day of Friday and we sailed our way back to Marina Kastela with a stop in Milna where the skippers got to practice the “Diesel Dance” or “Fuel Waltz”. Before heading back to the marina, all yachts must be refueled and, as there are not that many refueling docks available, skippers must get in line and have to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding yachts while maintaining their position. This requires some deft maneuvering and it results in a few tense moments but, in the end, all of our boats got refueled.
Three of the yachts’ crews opted not to return to Marina Kastela that night. Capt. Dr. Kevin and Capt. Dr. Steve decided to spend a last night in Milna. The boat crewed by ASA’s very own Brenda Wempner and her shipmates decided to head for one of the marinas in Trogir but the lead boat, Ana B, needed to be back in Marina Kastela that night. On the way back, we had a nice last and refreshing swim in a cove outside Milna.
All ASA chartered yachts were in Marina Kastela in time for the check-out on Saturday morning and, before we knew it, the first ASA flotilla week of this year was over. Effusive good byes later all crew members prepared to travel back to the U.S. Only the ASA crew on SV Larisa and Capt. Jean with First Mate Mila stayed on for the second week flotilla.
This has been a wonderful week and we got to know some very special sailors whom we now call Friends. We do hope to sail with them again at some point.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
Continuing “Croatian Tapestry”
The builders of Korcula were excellent urban planners. Inside the walled city the narrow alleyways feel mazelike, but in fact they are laid out in parallel lines with only a couple cross streets running the entire length. The ancient builders positioned the streets this way to take advantage of the seasonal winds: Warm Sirocco breezes are the city’s natural air conditioning in summer, while the cold northern Bora Boras, coming from the perpendicular direction in the winter, are blocked out.
Our passage back to Milna from Korcula gave us first-hand experience of the biting Bora Bora, beginning at 8am. After a lovely sunrise, it began to rain by the time we collected our boats’ papers from the reception office. I had (very stupidly) elected not to pack my hefty foulies on this trip, thinking ah, it’s the Adriatic–any weather we might see will be nothing compared to winter in the Pacific Northwest! Well, that was true, but I still wished I had my foul weather jacket as we headed out into the wind-tunnel Korculanski Channel. I settled instead for garbage-bag couture.
Due to the snarly weather, we had agreed on a radio protocol: every hour on the hour we would check in and report positions. Having the rest of the fleet close by was certainly a comfort when we hit weather–one of the many perks of flotilla sailing, I realized that morning. It was a bit of a bucking-bronco ride, especially on our little boat (the smallest in the fleet). One of the neighboring big boats even hung back near us to make sure we were fine (thank you Hedda Gabler!!)
We skirted the edge of a distinct squally-looking cloud bank, and hugged the southern coast of Hvar. Though the forecast predicted strengthening conditions throughout the day, the winds were tempered in the shadow of the island, and the waves settled significantly by the time we motored in to Milna. Everyone was wet and aching for a hot shower, and luckily for us, Milna had the BEST showering facilities. I really think there may be nothing more satisfying in life than a hot shower after a cold rainy sail.
We congregated for dinner at a restaurant that sat just beyond our med-moored sterns. The catch of the day was a grilled steak from a 50-kilo tuna. Even the resident kittens got a fresh chunk! Freshly dressed and warm, with a roaring outdoor grill wafting the savory fragrance from the biggest tuna I’d ever seen, I was prepared to sleep soundly under the patter of rain on the cabintop.
As we motored away from Milna to return our boats the next morning, I was glad we experienced a little weather on the trip. Weather makes the food taste better, the beds more comfortable, the showers more spa-like. It made me feel like we’d properly “done” the Adriatic. So we piled into busses and returned to our villa in Trogir having been baptised by that jewel blue sea. I took away the warm flavor of bijela kavas, unlabled bottles of home-pressed olive oil, a thousand stunning photographs, and some med-mooring tricks up my sleeve.
(Oh–and I also took home a sparkling little ring on my left hand. You never know what’s going to happen on an ASA sailing flotilla ladies and gentlemen!!)