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The closing advice from our Coastal Skipper practical in 2016 was that we needed to get out and sail without an instructor. We wanted to, so badly. Our confidence was high and we were ready.
Unfortunately, chartering a yacht is EXPENSIVE. After two trips to the Caribbean in two years to take our three RYA practicals, we were cleaned out. We couldn’t afford to charter without sharing the cost, but we just couldn’t persuade anyone to join us. It was really important for us to have some sailing time to keep our skills, so we needed a new approach.
One of Ailsa’s friends had done a cabin charter holiday in Croatia, so that was our starting point. It was a country we’d heard great things about. We’d noted that some of our former course-mates were just sailing for fun, so that was in our mind. In the end, we decided a week on a Seafarer Sailing training yacht, without actually taking qualifications, would work. I went back on the advice we’d been given, but it was affordable and we might get some extra learning in. Unlike our other training yachts, this was part of a flotilla, so it meant we’d get a feel for the flotilla experience too.
Dubrovnik and beyond
As usual, we added some tourist time to our sailing plans. We had a couple of fun nights exploring Dubrovnik before an epic bus journey to Split. We were trying to save money, so ended up bussing much of the lower coast of Croatia. This isn’t something we’d recommend. Despite booking months in advance we found ourselves without seat reservations and having to pay extra on the spot for our luggage.
We join Ailsa’s diary after bussing from Dubrovnik to Split and having an afternoon exploring the town.
Šibenik in style, eventually
At the bus station in Split we collect luggage, I change into shorts and we get more water. The bus is late, and there’s a scrum to get on. The driver is pushy and rude loading our luggage (an extra charge again). We get turfed out of any seat we try. Despite our tickets suggesting free seating at the back of the bus, people at the station seem to have reserved all the seats. I end up beside a man-spreading old man who stinks and talks to himself. Colin ends up sitting on the steps of the middle exit because the guys in the back row refuse to acknowledge they’re taking up an extra seat. Thankfully after half an hour lots of people get off and we can sit together.
We’re barely off the bus in Šibenik before we’re in a private water taxi to Zaton, which is perfectly timed for the sunset. It’s a great way to shake off the day of busses.
Many meetings in Zaton
When we arrive at Marina Zaton it’s eerily quiet. We find the training yacht, Vestavagoy (a Harmony 42). Nobody is on board but there’s a phone number. Colin manages to call the instructor, Alan, who is at a restaurant in the small town nearby. We start walking without me even having the chance to use the loo but thankfully it’s only a 15-minute walk.
At the restaurant, we meet Alan and the other couple, Cath and Tim from near Bath. Our food (a huge mixed grill) has arrived when the final guest arrives. Hans is a very tall young architecture student from Luxembourg. All three have booked on to take Competent Crew, but both Tim and Hans have some experience. They are hoping to end up with Day Skipper if they can cover the ground. Tim and Cath have chartered a yacht with their family for the following week – Tim’s qualification status will have an impact on their need for a skipper.
I’m mildly horrified when Alan reveals he operates a dry boat, which means we don’t take alcohol on board. Thankfully we’ll be eating in restaurants each night at least. Such a change from our beer locker in the BVIs! After dinner we walk back to the marina, unpack, shower and get to bed as quickly as possible. We know we have an early start after all.
Day 1 – Zaton to Tribunj
We’re awake around 7, just, and it takes until 8:30 to get us all fed and have a look through provisions. We have a rota for cooking and cleaning which is new to us. We head to the flotilla briefing at 8:30 to find out the overall plan. After that, spend the next few hours going over a boat briefing and basic sailing info.
It’s around 12:30 when we set off. We stay under motor at first until we get out of the channel which separates the river Zaton from the sea. Once into open water, we have some sandwiches for lunch then we raise the sails. It’s a fair but not challenging wind, ideal for day one.
We arrive at Tribunj at around 16:00, as all the other flotilla boats do. In the BVIs we mostly used mooring balls and in Grenada we anchored. Croatia is a change again – we’ll be mostly mooring stern-to. We have an abortive stop whilst trying to moor against the old town walls, but make it in fine the second time.
After we tidy the decks and have a cup of tea, Colin and I find the supermarket for biscuits and diet coke. I shower when we get back, and then meet Colin at the bar we are literally right beside for a beer. We all go to the flotilla punch party then head to the restaurant we’re all eating at.
Dinner with a face
The meal is a terrifying plate of fish. We both love fish but not when it looks back at us! The company is good – it’s so strange to have people to talk to beyond your crew-mates. The bill a terrifying 300 krona (£24) each just for the mains. We didn’t see the prices before choosing to join the meal so its a shock. We feel even sorrier for Hans who is on a tight budget. Being in a restaurant has meant we’ve missed a special donkey festival taking place – we’d rather have had cheap street food and seen that.
Back at our boat the neighbouring bar has become party central. Earplugs in, we sleep.
Day 2 – Tribunj to Sali
We wake up before 7 and get straight to getting ready. The aim is to start preparing to set off at 8:30. We mostly succeed.
Over the day we sail 39 miles, so it’s a long day. I have some trouble with gusting wind at the helm and Hans starts telling me what to do. This really grates as I’m more qualified, and I don’t take well to mansplaining. Colin makes lunch (tuna and rice wraps) which we anchor to eat. The plan was to stop long enough for a swim, but the anchor doesn’t take. By the time we get it back up, we’re ready to move on. I keep a constant watch for dolphins all day with no joy.
We moor up to a town quay in Sali with more success than the day before. After filling our water tank (slowly) we have a beer then use the shore showers, a long walk away around the harbour. We head out to dinner quite late and end up in a bizarre place. The waiter seems reluctant to serve us the pizza on the menu, and generally screws up. They assure Hans the courgette pizza is a weird margarita, and it finally transpires its Cath’s veggie pizza. Thankfully we aren’t charged for those pizzas or one of the beers. We get ice cream as we walk back through town. Back at the boat, a bar across the harbour is making a racket.
By this point, we’re feeling strongly that if flotillas involve stops like these we much prefer the quiet Caribbean mooring balls.
Day 3 – Sali to Kornati
Another pretty prompt start. We realise the water we topped up with the night before tastes distinctly dodgy so we refill our tanks. We’ve seen the harbour tank being refilled – we suspect we got the dregs before it was filled. As a precaution, I start to boil water for drinking.
I happily get going on deck prep now without any instruction. It’s reassuring that everything has become second nature. As we motor sail (the wind is low) I boil eggs and potatoes for lunch, which I’m incredibly proud of. It sounds trivial, but it means being comfortable with two pans of boiling water and draining spuds underway.
Kornati National Park
We stop at a pretty mooring field, allowing the others to try lassoing a ball. This is another new technique for us – in the Caribbean, the balls can be caught with a boat hook. In Croatia, they are enormous and need to have a line thrown over them. Today at least, there’s time for a swim and an ice cream from a boat vendor. We continue on motoring to explore the national park a little, which is flat and scrubby looking.
It’s not all exploring; I take the helm to steer us out of the national park whilst Alan explains the points of sail to the students.
We heave-to, and enjoy a late lunch after a jump in the sea to cool off, all the while essentially drifting. The rest of the day is slow motoring and light sailing, with a little distant dolphin spotting. I even get a chance to lie on the upturned dinghy on the deck to sunbathe. We’re definitely far less active this week, partly as we’re a busier boat, and partly as we’re stepping back to let the others learn.
Quiet, at last!
We head to our mooring for the evening at Murter, in the national park. We’re lucky that a yacht is leaving just as we arrive – the pontoon which we get on to is free but anchoring is 1000kn a night. It’s a nice calm place with just one restaurant. We can even enjoy a swim, and Colin and I learn that using the stern of Vestavagoy as a slide is great fun. At one point I hear Cath squealing – a little octopus is trying to wrap itself around her ankle! I don’t see anything too exciting, just a few sea cucumbers. At least, that’s what I hope they are, not everyone is using a holding tank.
We have a couple of beers before dinner. I enjoy the first really delicious squid (grilled) I’ve ever eaten. We chat briefly to other people on the flotilla before an early night which sees us in our berths by 22:15. I’m so excited to not be beside a noisy town quay bar!
Day 4 – Kornati to Šibenik
For the first time this trip, I’ve woken up sweaty and overheated in the night. It was just like being becalmed in the BVIs. Apparently it actually got really gusty at one point, and far from dead calm. I feel tired and dazed. The morning passes in a blur of motoring, with a stop late morning on a mooring ball for a swim. We see dolphins at a distance for the third time.
Drills and downtime
We sail on a beam reach for the afternoon, glad to finally have some wind. Shortly after 3 pm, we stop for a late lunch and a long rest to prepare for night sailing. Catching a mooring ball and adding an extra rope is a farce. It takes four of us. At least I think I’m taking an active role – I’m sitting on Colin’s bum to stop him going over!
The students do their dinghy drills, and after lunch, I sunbathe and have a quick swim. After a shower, I sit in the cockpit enjoying the breeze for a while. Colin ferries the others ashore one by one in the tiny dinghy. To my delight, he returns with drinking water and ice creams. I manage a short doze, but not as much as I should. We watch a beautiful sunset together, then eat pasta that Tim has prepared.
We get our life-vests on and go through the plan, setting off just before 10 pm. We won’t put the sails up as there are too many hazards to avoid. The waters in Croatia are far busier and more complicated than in the Caribbean.
The passage takes us 3 hours, and I struggle badly with staying awake. I can just about manage to spot lights, but the motor is soporific. There are no shooting stars unfortunately, not like in the BVIs. The newbies are amazed by night sailing. I love it to an extent, but it’s not a magical night. After sailing on a dead run under a new moon sky, filled with a blanket of stars, this doesn’t compare.
Back in Šibenik
When we arrive in Šibenik we aim to tie up stern-to on the town quay in front of a big hotel. The quay is much larger and much quieter than we’re used to. It’s a struggle to get our lines straight, with three attempts to come in straight. By this point it’s 1.15 in the morning. It’s all quite surreal, but we eventually get secured.
I’ve woken up in the process of mooring and all of us, except Hans who is ready to sleep, go in search of beer. Unfortunately, the bars are all closing or closed, but there is a garage where we can buy beer. We end up drinking and eating crisps on a bench at 2 am which we won’t forget. We’ve chosen a spot beside a giant superyacht – from the quay, Vestavagoy looks tiny beside it.
We finally get to bed at 2:30 and I fall asleep immediately.
We don’t sleep nearly as long as we need and are up by 8. Colin buys more coke and water and we use the mosquito-filled bathrooms of the hotel.
As we discuss the day’s plans the giant superyacht beside us leaves – it stinks! So much exhaust. We cast off, and then run through mooring alongside before setting off. We motor upriver, passing beautiful scenery, to the lake. Once we’re there we raise the sails and have time to go through points of sail and tacking and gybing.
As we anchor in a small bay, we see a yacht drive by. The elderly skipper is totally naked. Just totally comfortable at the helm, not a care in the world. We swim in the warm water and eat lunch. The final bit of coursework for the students is to practise man overboard before our final motor back over to Zaton Marina.
Back to Zaton
We clear up the boat and set it filling with water before I set to packing. When I’m finished it’s still too hot to shower. Colin and I have a beer while the others have their final debrief. It turns out that all three leave as Competent Crew. It seems this was Alan’s expectation all along which we hadn’t caught. We conclude they had very thorough Comp Crew training at least!
After showering we make our way into Zaton for dinner at Konoba Feral, which is where we ate the first night. Cath and Tim, who had gone into town to check in to an apartment, meet us there. We stay on for a drink with a crew member from the lead flotilla boat, and get back to the marina and bed at around midnight.
Goodbyes, and heading North
It’s a prompt start, and we’re up at 8 am. After finishing packing and getting Alan to sign our logbooks we seek out a taxi. It turns out there’s an hour’s wait, so we say goodbye to Alan and head to the cafe with Hans to have a drink while we wait. Hans travels into Šibenik with us and after taking our bags to left-luggage we say goodbye.
Colin and I spend an hour wandering around the old town, which ends with a fuss for a very friendly cat. From Sibenik, we travel on to Skradin.
The tourist bit
We had a lovely night in Skradin. Aside from doing laundry and sleeping, we had time to explore. We mountain biked to the incredible Krka waterfalls, and went back by ferry the next day. We saw a stunning sunset. We talked to a lot of cats. We ate a lot of pizza.
After yet more horrible busses we made it to Zadar for a night (we were unimpressed). We then flew up to Pula in the North. We stayed in Poreč and spent a few days exploring by car. As with much of Croatia we weren’t blown away. We expected something between Greece 30 years ago and Tuscany. What we found was an area completely overwhelmed by tourism. Everything was very overpriced. That said, we did love visiting the ruins of Dvigrad and spelunking in the Pazin gorge. We also had a very enjoyable introduction to Venice on a day trip.
Reflecting on Croatia
Our experience of Croatia was very different from sailing in the Caribbean, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t underwhelmed. It shows in Ailsa’s diary entries, the enthusiasm wasn’t there. Some reasons might be:
- We are used to the Caribbean, in the off season. The Med in high season is worlds apart. It’s just so busy.
- When you’ve gotten used to dinner in the cockpit in quiet anchorages, mooring stern-to beside a busy bar in a town then eating in a loud restaurant feels overwhelming. We just preferred the peace of the Caribbean.
- To our eyes, Croatia just wasn’t that pretty outside the cobbled towns.
- Flotillas are not our thing at all. Our group would probably have liked to be in quieter anchorages and eating on board, but were restricted to the flotilla schedule.
- The cost of being in Croatia ended up being just as much for 2 weeks as it would have been for 3 weeks in the Caribbean – we hadn’t realised just how expensive eating out there is. Hans often ended up back on the yacht eating pasta, because the flotilla restaurants were too expensive.
- We wouldn’t sail on a training or cabin charter yacht where the saloon is used as a bunk again. A crew of 5 on a 42ft training yacht was a little too cramped.
- One of the biggest joys of learning to sail is cracking open a beer as the sun sets after a hard day. Dry boats are not our thing.
We did love Dubrovnik and Skradin, and the sheer number of friendly cats in Croatia. On the sailing front, the standard of training we had was very high and it was good to learn stern-to docking. Overall though, it just wasn’t the fit for us.
So, beyond learning that we prefer Caribbean sailing and that dry boats aren’t fun, what did we learn in Croatia?
We learned that we were ready to set our own rules, and have our own schedule.
We started to hatch grand plans, and tentatively booked a bareboat charter and some land accommodation for the BVIs the following year.
Then Irma happened…