Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Windy Obsession

Sorry folks, but once more, bad news is in the making. We appear to be on the verge of another in this current string of ridiculously long-winded posts. That reminds me, wind will be a common theme as well. See, last Saturday after enduring an arduous ten-hour drive from Trieste, Italy to Brodarica, Croatia we made the short ferry trip to the quaint island of Krapanj, where we would embark upon a week-long flotilla around the islands and inlets of the Dalmatian coast, mostly between Sibenik and Zadar, both of which were targeted by Serb forces during the 1991-1995 conflict with Croatia.
Half an hour after arriving in Brodarica, we finally made it to the tranquil pontoon to which our home for the week, Sea Monkey, was docked. As is the norm, establishing diplomatic relations with our neighbours didn’t happen instantaneously. That said, we established a lively conversation with the waiter at Hotel Spongolia. The food was similarly lively, metaphorically not physically.
The metaphor wore off the following day. Aside from our skipper, Matija and hostess, Zana, the lead crew seemed worrying lackadaisical, passing over the technical briefing with all the depth of a conversation with John McCain. Further inciting fear, our personal skipper for the day, Rinko seemed to share the careless attitude of our mechanic. Whilst clearly a competent sailor, he was too intent on proving this, loath betide if he let one of us touch the wheel. Admittedly these were 25 knot winds we were dealing with, but he reacted with shock and awe when offered sandwiches and biscuits and proclaimed, “We do not do that in Croatia” when a cup of tea was bestowed upon him. Indeed, he only succumbed to conversation upon discovering that we are relations of “favourite NBA player,” Steve Kerr, better known as fellow white token to the Croatian Sensation himself, Toni Kukoc.
As Rinko basked in the realization that he was kinda, sorta in the presence of greatness, we narrowly avoided an ugly collision with an overworked water bomber before working our way up the river Krka to Skradin, a few kilometres downstream of the aptly named Krka falls. Poor Rinko was obviously desperate to flee the Sea Monkey, so after some vague manoeuvres that apparently constituted mooring practice, he jumped ship before that gangplank was even in place, leaving us to explore Skradin with the rest of humanity. Over the next few hours, the rest of our flotilla would arrive, leaving us to bathe in the murky waters of the marina. A strange day it was, we were left with no clue what to expect the next day. I woke fitfully just before 7am the next morning, panic-stricken and eager to depart for the Krka Falls. Alas, the pillow in my mildewy berth seized the moment and it would be another 2 hours before I would wake up to a sumptuous breakfast of very plain drinking yoghurt and cries of, “get ready, Johan, we’re gonna be late!” A quick sprint to an Italian-dominated toilet block and I was ready to go. The ferry to the falls wasn’t, but we did eventually reach our destination at around 10.30. There was something oddly Chinese about the whole thing; mass tourism off the beaten track, essentially. Still, the scenery was amazing and I felt nothing but unadulterated agony when I looked down and saw cargo shorts, not a bathing suit, hugging my thighs. Unfortunately they would miss the opportunity to plunge into the refreshing waters of the falls.
Soon enough, another Chinese feeling, of shallow awesomeness began to cloud our minds so we decided to make for the ferry back to the all-too-bright lights of Skradin and escape to tranquillity at Zirje, a large island 10 miles southwest of Sibenik. Winds were gusting up to 17 knots well inland so a sense of apprehension filled the bowels of the Sea Monkey but fortunately the wind died down in the Sibenski Kanal, making for a tame passage towards our mooring point at Stupica, an area of Zirje known to be infested with mines. So tranquil were the winds that we had to motor almost 5 miles of the sea passage although we were thankful for the calm seas when we had to venture out once more from Stupica to empty a precariously full holding tank. Cries of horror rang out as I turned the release valve. Worried, I hurried up to the transom and saw a putrid yellow smudge in our wake. Surprisingly, naivety was in good flow half an hour later as we dove into the water barely a mile from that traumatic sight
Later that night was the hallowed punch party. A non-violent affair, I discovered that Croatian regard for drinking regulations is as nonchalant as that of its Western European counterparts, serving up hefty cups of punch to us 16 year olds. Fresh fish with an applesauce-like potato dish brimmed on the table but the meal culminated in a fish eye eating contest, not something that bares going into too much detail about. Through a mist of alcohol and darkness, we somehow managed to seek out the Sea Monkey. Miracles were all around as we even managed to board the boat in what traffic police would most definitely define as an intoxicated state.
Fearing the aforementioned winds would pick up towards midday, we scampered out of Stupica, still oblivious to the mines lying in the hills above us. The wind-induced terror was so intense that we even set out in convoy with another boat, Musling II, the pronunciation of which was in question all week long. This proved to be a loose relationship for intentionally or not, a half mile separation boundary was maintained although the VHF crackled along throughout the voyage.
The winds never did pick up but instead a pleasant 15 knot wind blowing up the Kornati-kanal helped us make good time past the fishing boats further up Zirje and into the aforementioned waterway. The Kornati islands were true to guidebook form, offering a paradoxical stark beauty. Several times, I found myself thinking that it seemed too weird to be natural, some waterside tourist attraction. Hopefully some photos will be in order to illustrate my belligerent attempt at description, but anyhow all was fantastic until we reached the tricky open sea passage to the north of Lavsa Island, through which we would have to venture to reach Piskera marina, wedged between two of the 400 Kornati islands.
15 knots on the open sea proved to be a much greater force than the same windspeed in sheltered waters. Tossed around like a rubber duck, I counted my blessings between swells. I must have been counting them too quickly for as we trundled towards the marina past Musling “Muesli” II, 5 German speedboats emerged from as if out of nowhere and swept past us into an already crowded mishmash of wood and metal. God had mercy on us and with our faithful lead skipper, Matija, delivered the news that Pontoon 5 had been reserved for the hardy seafolk of the Sunsail Kornati Flotilla. And a few French motorboat babes. The more the merrier, non?
Shock, awe, Zana and more welcome news greeted us on the pontoon. Despite our lethargic pace along the outside of Zirje, we had “beaten” our “competitors” into Piskera, although by this time, Muesli was close on our tails. I’ll leave it up to you to intuit exactly what this meant. Anyhow, the heady heights of kayaking and snorkelling cast our minds from such silly thoughts as competition. The aquatic life wasn’t as interesting as the previous night but the warm, diesel-laced waters made up for it. The news that more fresh fish awaited us at dinner went down just as well, but the 1015 Kuna price tag wasn’t quite as well received. It was a good meal, but £100 pounds for a fish dinner would seem extortionist even at Loch Fyne.
By this point, the entire flotilla had made it past the harrowing Lavsa channel, meaning that the marina was near capacity. Sitting just over the hill on the exposed side of Piskera Island, I would have no idea that several hundred yachts and motorboats, along with their inhabitants lay just a few meters behind me. Indeed, it all seemed a world away as I gazed towards the shimmering light of a distant Italian lighthouse, discussing just that notion.
That brief, na├»ve foray into philosophy came to an abrupt end, dazzled by the bright lights of the marina but soon enough the brainpicking was back in full flow, this time trying to grasp some deeper, firsthand knowledge of the Balkan conflict. Bear in mind, this was onboard our very Croat lead boat, Pinta. Essentially all we nuanced out of it is that nothing too major happened in Zagreb. However, as Coldplay professes, all was not lost. We discovered Roman Coke, a lethal mix of some sort of spirit and…cola. It was under this uninhibitance that we discovered that Matija hates pasta, but “bearded guy” preferates it. Yes, he also preferates rice. Want more juicy tidbits? We also gleaned the fact that he works for a company that installs highway railings. Still, the night was about Roman Coke. Well, pancakes too, but that’s another story. Moreover, 25 knot winds apparently beckoned once more, so a healthy dose of sleep was in order.
A strange thing happened that night. Once more, the forecast winds decided not to pop by, perhaps fearing the reaction of a few hundred crewmates the next day. Instead, a mere 10 knots blew northwest, making sailing back down the Kornati Kanal, making sailing nigh impossible. On the plus side, I skippered the boat for the 8.5 passage back towards Zirje. Hoping that higher winds would fill our sails to the south of the canal, we pulled up the sails. This proved relatively futile for our speed never made it past 3 knots and was rarely close to that. Combining the low winds with modest swells coming in off the Adriatic made for uncomfortable conditions. Even though the wind eventually died off to the extent that 5 knots was a gust, taking the sails down as we lumbered towards Krapije, our destination for the night, proved a difficult task.
Any sail-related hindrance was absolutely worth it once we made it into Krapije harbour, where once again Sea Monkey and Musling II made a one-two finish. No marina to speak of, just secluded anchorages overlooked by rocky hills and a gentler sunset. As you can guess, once we managed to anchor according to the wishes of a certain Austrian boat, the water beckoned just as it did back in Zirje. Just as our surroundings were perfect, the water was not so cold that it was bracing, not so warm as to be stifling. “Is Krapije Croat for Paradise?” was a thought that crossed my mind.
The pristine peace was disturbed as Coconut Moon, another flotilla member made a spectacular entrance, steaming in at 5 knots with mainsail up. Not surprisingly, the lone crew member aboard the 37ft boat could be heard yelling, “trop vite! trop vite!” The drama mellowed quickly, although the errant mainsail remained hoisted. We thought they may have succumbed to a similar predicament as ourselves: our hoisting sheet had snagged on a protrusion in the mast, a problem that was solved at the cost of a toenail.
The crowded lucky-dip box that is my brain didn’t have time for such frivolous worries. Dinner beckoned as did a landlubbing trip to the town of Krapije. Along with the hardy crew of Wind Magic, we searched (successfully it may be added) for ice cream. We really struck it lucky. Not only did gelato meet our lips, but the glorious sight of Michael Phelps swimming to the success captured our salt-encrusted gaze. Our period of golden happiness however was short-lived. On the short trip back to Sea Monkey, the outboard failed, leaving the troubled back of my dad to row us the remaining several hundred meters. Luckily, some more fuel remedied the engine problems. Ultimately, it simply wasn’t possible to harbour any negative sentiment towards Krapije.
Having left Pinta for our two days of free sailing, we didn’t have a forecast for the following day, leaving us feeling comfortably in the dark. How right we were. The big guy once more had mercy with us. The winds struggled to breach the 7 knot barrier. Admittedly this lack of proper wind was getting rather dull, so it was rather exciting to have a German jetskier roar up to the stern and ask for directions to Krapije, to which we pointed vaguely behind us. Still, the winds had deserting us for good, perhaps saving their strength for one final hurrah so the prop speed scurried towards 2500 rpm as we steamed towards our lunch spot at Tijat, a small island roughly between Vodice and Sibenik.
Although not exactly a secluded anchorage, Tijat provided pleasant, calm water, perfect for its intended purpose of a place to swim and lunch. However, just as the final crumbs were being washed overboard, a transmission came in on the VHF from Pinta, saying that a large yacht had taken up all the berths at our initial destination, package-resort bound Vodice, so they were diverting to Zlarin, a mere 3 miles from Tijat and reputed to be a calm, quiet village with the added luxury of water and power hook-ups.
The short crossing allowed me another chance to take the helm, but as we entered the harbour something odd struck me. Two of the Zagreb tagalongs had been swallowed by an annoyingly…large, young blonde. Still, the legendary bearded guy remained but more to point, our supplies were running low, meaning such shallow thoughts could wait.
Frustratingly both the Jadrolinija ferry office and mini-market were closed, so in a desperate attempt to waste time, we pounded concrete (walked) for the remaining hours, passing by a so eloquently named, German, gasthaus. (Nazi connotations, anyone?) A pleasing change, the town definitely was not under siege from plagues of rather…hefty, shirtless tourists. The sprawling bellies were replaced by sprawling summer homes, a quiet fishing harbour and remarkably narrow backstreets, on one of which the market sat.
By this point, we had somehow made it through the hour and a half until opening time, so we embarked on another flight of fancy to the market. Kindly, all of humanity decided to guide us through the process, so the shelves were dwindling along with the check-out attendant’s smile once we made it out the door but all the same, we got more or less what we needed. A sumptuous dinner of I-can’t-remember-what appeared from the bowels of Sea Monkey several hours later, swiftly followed by another perilous search for ice cream, this time with the dairy-starved folk of Musling II and Servanto joining the hunt. It took a circuit of the town but eventually we laid eyes on a gelato stall lurking next to a marina-side restaurant. The ice cream wasn’t up to scratch with that of Krapije but having an actual town to look around, complete with tucked-away church, made it worth it. What’s more, thoughts on delicate differences in ice cream tastes tend to evaporate faster than Usain Bolt can run the 100m when the news that 40kt winds await is delivered.
Prior to this haunting report, we had heard forecasts of 25kt winds which ultimately failed to materialize, and when we rose to sea the flags sitting collapsed, naturally the big guy had taken mercy on us. Nah. Hell no. Once we rounded the northeastern tip of Zlarin Island, breaking waves crashed into the side of the poor Sea Monkey, her storm jib filled with 30kt winds. The sheer angle with which some of the foolhardy, fully-sailed boats were heeling had my heart in my mouth.
To make matters that much more inconvenient, the wind was blowing directly in our faces, meaning that a lot of tacking was required to go anywhere. For the uninitiated, tacking involves bringing the sails around to the other side of the boat by turning through the wind; a manoeuvre that can cause capsizes in dinghy sailing. You get the point, tacking in winds that ended up topping 35kts wasn’t much fun. After around an hour of waves and fear jolting the boat as it made little progress towards Krapanj, the call came in from Musling II that they were abandoning plans for a day’s sailing and motoring into the harbour.
The steadily increasing windspeed caused the waves to grow, so as we were being buffeted around we turned around and headed for Krapanj whilst I hauled in the storm jib, somehow acquiring an elbow gash and a rope-whipped eyeball in the process. 10 minutes later we turned around once more. In all the chaos, Dad had misinterpreted the GPS display. We were wondering why all the other Sunsail boats were going the other way.
Taking care to avoid the precariously shallow waters off the island, we turned around the southern tip of Krapanj an hour later. The winds dropped off by 10kts and the waves subsided a little. All the same, 10 boats waited to be moored, with only two local skippers to lead the way, so it was another 40 minutes before we were furiously yanking at ropes to secure ourselves to a remarkably calm pontoon. As per the norm, we were treading delicately over pebbles on the way to the beach within seconds of being secured. Due to the stormy conditions, the water was a little cooler, which in all honesty was refreshing and helped down the staple lunch of chocolate sandwich cookies. By now, the winds had picked up to 30kts in our oh-so-sheltered harbour. Contemplating boarding the pontoon, let alone any of the yachts was a life-or-death decision. One foolhardy skipper had been thrown from the gangplank and into the furiously churning waters below. White knuckles gripping onto the stern, he was tugged to the relatively safety of his cockpit. It wasn’t all bad. The swells crashing into the boats also passed by a concrete dock which jutted out into the channel, which meant that if you timed it reasonably well, you could dive into the top of a wave and be swept into the beach a little downwind of there.
That is how we entertained ourselves for the hours preceding the farewell dinner, diving into the perilously shallow waters (tombstoning, I believe its called), exacting the art of scurrying between island, pontoon and boat at exactly the right lull in swells and laughing at those unfortunate souls who found themselves deposited in the sea. A merry time it was, even if our nextdoor neighbours’ gangplank was snapped like a twig.
Although it seemed an eternity, the winds died down to the low 20s by 6pm, leaving us time for a beer, some hors d’oeuvres and a game of Uno before sauntering into Hotel Spongolia for dinner, seated, because we’re a bit Dutch, with the two Flemish families. An awkward silence followed, but eventually we got to talking, in a mixture of incomprehensible Flemish and English. Still, we learned that one family lived in just any suburb of Brussels, but a very important one. Desperately, I tried not to crack a smile. Bluntly put, I failed.
Anyhow, the slightly tepid food arrived, giving us an excuse to break off negotiations. The minutes span by and were soon followed by our fellow flotilla-ers, leaving a raucous last chat with the Pinta Peeps, where we discovered that we were their favourites. We had such a mirth-filled 10 minutes that as we walked to the nearby ice-cream parlour, Emmanuel galloped up to us and kindly reminded us that our tab sat unpaid. Once the matter was resolved, we strode on through a trattoria, past some stray dogs, loaded up on gelato and wandered on, eventually stopping at another finger pontoon reaching out of the southern tip of Krapanj.
Everyone, the whole island it seemed, was feeling drowsy so we clambered through our waiting suitcases and let REM, dreams to you and me, descend. No doubt soon enough they would be filled with memories of this amazing sailing trip.

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