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Dalmatian Dalliance

The coast of Croatia beguiles an old friend into another voyage.

October 4, 2007
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If your resolve is to curb your appetites, do not cruise in Dalmatia. Certainly not aboard Campai. And, if cultivating self-abnegation, pray for bad weather when you go there. Maybe, to fortify your disillusionment, there’ll even be another war-civil, or international. The Croats (and the Serbs, and Slovenians, and Bosnians) are practiced in warring, aggressive and defensive. After the last world war, Marshall Tito took over the Balkan peninsula, superintending the geographical amalgam that only a few decades earlier had taken to calling itself Yugoslavia.

He ruled over it with a 200-proof iron hand. Post Tito, there were more bloody episodes. In the most recent of these, and the bloodiest, Serbmaster Slobodan Milosevic figured. In 2001, Milosevic was dragged off to The Hague, to be tried as a war criminal. If he contrives to keep doing it at the rate at which he has succeeded in the past couple of years, he’ll get one day’s judicial delay for every Croat he killed in 1991-92. That would leave him prattling away in the courtroom maybe after Dalmatia has generated yet another historical carapace. This one would lie over the Communist, the Nazi, the Italian, the Austro-Hungarian, the Turkish, the Venetian, the Illyrian, the Roman, and the Greek.

But meanwhile, Dalmatia lives, its people showing signs of strength and resiliency-20,000 moved in a single year to the prospering island of Vis, once forbidden to outsiders. Along the Adriatic, the natives live and work over a coastal distance of 300 miles, from Trieste in Italy to the sometime ur-Marxist state of Albania, the Greeks’ western neighbor. Those Croats we came upon seemed anxious to accommodate visiting yachtsmen. To display their hospitality, bear in mind, they have at their disposal a thousand islands, a half-dozen deep water ports, and some of the best fish in Europe.

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Ten years ago we did a cruise off Dalmatia; a second cruise, a mere two years ago. “We” are Van and Bootsie, and Alistair and Sheelin, and Pat and I. But this time my wife had had an accident that kept her, forlorn, at home. From Van Galbraith we would continue to learn about world affairs. He runs into world affairs every working day, living in Brussels where he represents the U.S. Department of Defense. He retired from business, served as ambassador to France (1981-84), and has sailed with me several times across neighboring oceans. Alistair Horne began his illustrious career by sharing with me, as 16-year-olds in boarding school, a room. How else account for the learning, the eloquence, and the industry that have led to worldwide acclaim of him as a historian? The three couples seek to share close company, and where better to do this than on a sailing yacht?

So, then, we are at sea on the 72-foot cutter Campai, and would touch down, on 10 consecutive days, at Dalmatian towns and off green, rocky islands, diversely configured. The treatment of tourists reflects the amiability of the Croats and their pride in their churches and piazzas and eateries. But pre-eminent is the natural wonderland, waters so clear you sometimes need to blink, looking down on them.

We cruised in September, so the weather-odds were with us. But you must not take the weather in the Adriatic for granted. There are (we escaped them this time) the sudden thunderstorms, unforeseen by even the finest barometric calibration. These will last a scary 45 minutes, swinging off lee shores in 50-knot winds. On September 1, as we set out from Venice at midday on a southeastern haul, the sky overhead was dusky. It is hardly necessary, planning a Dalmatian cruise, to depart from Venice, but then when is it unnecessary to spend a day and night in Venice?

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We traveled in a stiff northerly the 55 miles across the Adriatic sea to Rovinj. That day was cloudy, but on the nine succeeding days the sun overhead was unchallenged, some days bringing on near torridness in the noon hours, but cooling always at nightfall to just the animating temperature you are ready for after noon heat. On the matter of agreeable temperature, great stress is placed on this aboard Campai. The master cabin, the saloon, the cabin with the double bed, and the third cabin, with the over and under bunks, are each one cooled to your own specifications. Captain Bruno Herregads, as sailing master, is near unique in my experience in not begrudging you full use of the generator. It is quiet, it is there, and it transmits its all but noiseless energy up through the ship’s arteries using a mere 1.5 gallons of diesel fuel per hour.

The boat itself, built of aluminum and designed by the renowned Ron Holland, earns admiration for its deportment at sea but also for the stem-to-stern finish of it, the sparkling teak floorboards, the roomy saloon with the downy reclining cushions, the snug (though annoyingly inaccessible) cockpit, and, not least, the adjustable reading lights. The service is commensurate. After six days I found myself saying apologetically to second mate Melissa that I really did not need her to pat down my bed four times a day, after every time I sprawled on it to nap or read. She is pretty and soft-spoken, an Australian raised in Hong Kong, quiet as a mouse, omnipresent when you need her, gratifyingly absent when you don’t.

Attention of that kind is quickly seen as the tradition of Campai, under Captain Bruno and his wife, Kate. They warmed up on that vessel by sailing it nonstop from Capetown to Barbados (“Did you look in on St. Helena? “No, actually, but we went by it) soon after its acquisition in 1999 by its present owner, a New Englander.

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The boat looks shelf-new every time you look about, as Melissa is there reminding you that maybe you want something to drink. I think back to the sheer sprawl on boats I four times skippered across oceans. Could even the imperturbable Melissa have coped with Sealestial in mid-Pacific, through the storms and rain and heat? Aboard Campai, I shut out from memory that aspect of those 30-day ocean cruises, even as, 40 years ago, I put yacht racing out of my mind, exhilarating as both undertakings were. It’s amazing how grippingly comfort can corrupt you.

It’s not so hard to be made comfortable on SUV-built motor cruisers. To manage it on a single-masted 44-ton sailboat which will bend to the wind at 7.5 knots in a 15-knot breeze is something else. It’s hardly as if, aboard Campai, you were protected from organic strains. On the first leg, I wasn’t able to manage, for the steepness of the heel, to lie on my bunk, and twisted about in search (unsuccessful) of a lee board. I settled by going on deck and requesting an additional reef in the sail.

Our plan was to journey about northern Dalmatia as best we could in 10 days, moving at a leisurely pace, in 8- to 10-hour days. Rovinj, the first stop, is on the Istrian peninsula, and if you never ventured further, you’d have a pretty comprehensive expression of a coastal Dalmatian city. It gives a heady taste of everything Croatian-colorful markets, ancient buildings, cobbled streets, art and, especially, artists. Artists flock here, whence the references to the “Montmartre of Croatia. The city center is dominated by a baroque church, St. Euphemia’s. There rests, one hopes reposefully, the martyr who was thrown to the lions by Diocletian, in the Constantinople hippodrome, after preparatory torture, in the waning days of pre-Christian Rome.

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We slept peacefully in Rovinj. I wondered, fleetingly, how our predecessors had slept in this harbor eight hundred years ago, tied up to the shore in the singing-dancing-fighting days of the Venetian hegemony with maybe Marco Polo, born nearby, looking on. It was good, on waking, to see that the wind would carry us along our way, coming in abeam. We would pause at midday for lunch and a swim. You will always find lee when you need it, cruising in Dalmatia, and the islands are discretely interesting, some of the coves seductive. No wonder every country in that part of the world fought for so many years for the right to hoist the national flag.

We would travel on down to other memorable harbors, some of them in sites near unpronounceable in English (e.g., Malibrijunj), passing by the islands of Cres and Losinj, pausing ad lib for swims at noon and in the late afternoon, arriving then at Mali Losinj. After walking extensively about, we made our way up a narrow road to a restaurant allegedly special. Reservations were advised, inasmuch as this was still the tourist season.

Two things about that restaurant are worth recalling, apart from the indifferent food. The first, the mood-killing incandescent lights overhead, bathing the 12 dining tables. They’d have been appropriate if you were stopping by to have your appendix removed by a doctor with sagging vision. The second-extraordinary, in a part of the world that covets its wines and boasts of the variety grown in the region-was the flat and repellent red we were served. On asking for the wine list, we were told that the whole of the restaurant’s inventory, other than what we had tasted, was a single Merlot. On tasting it we were induced to gallop through the main course, pass over dessert and coffee, and hobble over the cobble stones, through the bustling nightlifers, pausing for ice-cream cones, then on to the dock to our beloved Campai, going below, drawing breath, and flashing on a movie, one of 100 kept aboard and offered by the bountiful Campai.

It featured Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The great tale was of these two protagonists in life-and-death contention with the heartlessness of their callous employer, the CIA. The plot moved quickly toward a climacteric: Brad Pitt is in chains in China, his beautiful face mangled while attempting to rescue a confederate. He is sentenced to be shot TOMORROW at 8:05 a.m., and in Washington the clock tick-tocks at ineluctable and unfeeling speed, but the CIA brass reject stonily any effort to intervene for Brad. Ah, but they cannot, for all that they try to do so, contend with the resourcefulness of Robert Redford! He liquidates his life savings, bribes a freelance detachment of Chinese desperadoes, and contrives to dispatch a U.S. helicopter that swoops down in split-second synchronization with the for-hire Chinese, effecting the rescue of Brad Pitt and the frustration of the CIA!

A movie on board a cruising boat is a fine idea, and when crossing oceans I showed one every night that weather made it feasible. We once managed Ken Burns’s entire Civil War between the Canary Islands and, 11 days later, Barbados.

We had two other pastimes. Before dinner, we played poker. High-low, seven-card stud, aces swing, low hole card wild. Before lunch, we usually played Ghost, the word-spelling tournament-you are dead if the evolving word ends at you.

The next morning we picked up a day-old copy of the Paris Herald Tribune and looked in on what was going on in the secular world. Writing from Madison Square Garden, the reporter advised that “the Bush quadrennial family reunion known as the Republican National Convention was well under way. He reminded those with stray memories that the George Bush who had stood that evening at the podium was the same George Bush who had first addressed a GOP convention at age 12, when he recited the pledge of allegiance. Twelve years later he was again on the platform, transformed by then into a 24-year-old heartthrob, addressing the convention in English and in Spanish. Now, age 28, he was a grown-up lawyer, exhorting the delegates to support Uncle George. The reporter was warm as toast with the Gemütlichkeit he was reporting on, the political stage as unchanging as the Dalmatian seas-“the squared jaws and beaked mouths, the interchangeable names, the hostility to any tax, including syntax.

So? All that truly concerned us that morning as we sailed past Brijoni, passing by the great villa that Tito used as his summer White House, was the wind direction. We had planned to sail up to Rab, acclaimed by one guide as “the most beautiful of the main Kvarner Gulf islands. But we decided that the prospective 20-mile upwind beat was inordinate, besides which there was the plethora of attractions down in the direction of mighty Zadar (population 76,000), and the string of islands and villages and town squares and marbleized cobblestones and churches and museums.

So we stayed on southeast, stopping nearby at Veli Losinj, especially cheerful with its bright colored houses, many of them freshly painted. Van opts to walk, not sail, and meets us there.

We sailed on, in spotty winds, stopping the next evening at Zadar on our way down the coast. Towards noon the next day we sought out a swim site. Using my binoculars I called out to the captain at the helm that I could make out a few bodies on what was surely a beach. I kept my glasses trained as we approached, and after a few minutes recalled, and promptly shared with my companions in the cockpit, the story of Will Rogers. The famous homespun humorist, returned to New York from a trip to Russia, where he had been shown one of the great communal baths, was questioned by the throng of reporters, who hung on his every word. “Did you see all of Russia? one reporter asked. “No, he said, “but I saw all of parts of Russia. We could soon, without binoculars, see all of parts of 15 bare young Dalmatians taking the sun and disporting themselves on the beach.

We swam, lunched, played Ghost, and then headed on towards Prvic. We paused at sleepy Sepurine. Walking towards the little square, you pass by a stone monument. It gives the names of 20 young martyrs executed during the occupation. The oldest was 26. But for the Nazis, they might this balmy day have been swimming carefree-nude, even-off their little Dalmatian beach. The town has a population of only 250, and once again there is the universal tidiness, the glowing streets scrubbed by decades of shoe leather.

Van’s swim reminded us of the need to keep an eye on swimmers. Intending to make his way back to the boat, he found himself giving way to wind and tide, and had to be picked up by Bruno on the dinghy. If he hadn’t been seen, he’d have washed up on a rocky island to leeward about half a mile. An inherently unpleasant situation, especially so for night swimmers, who benefit from a long line cast aft with a life preserver attached.

A treat lay ahead. We planned to dine on shore, notwithstanding the sour experience of two days before. Three miles south we pulled in at the island of Zlarin, tinier even than Sepurine, but, of course, with three or four bar/grills. Bootsie opted for the last one down the line, and there we had a cuisine that clings lasciviously to the memory. The thirty-five dollar (apiece) meal began, in my case, with sardines (“You eat, mister, all sardines you want), then mussels, then the best fried potatoes in history, with fresh cabbage, salad, two wines (a Postup and a Grk) and, with the espresso-ice-cream sundaes! I wrote down the name of the manager and his telephone number, wondering what lost soul I might one day induce to idle south in Dalmatian seas to touch down at Zlarin. If there, he must solicit dinner at the Ivana grill (from Ivica Juric, tel. 022 553 620). Waiting for us in the yacht tender at dockside, the good Captain Bruno, as ever, had no complaints, even though we had tarried a half hour longer than anticipated, ruling out, given the lateness of the hour, Around the World in 80 Days. At the rate we cruised, that journey would have taken us 800 days.

Vis is a major island, made a center of bureaucratic attention by-yet again-Marshall Tito. He established a hilltop redoubt there from which he devised his strategies as the British navy in the harbor provisioned forays against the Germans. The cave has become something of a tourist site. To climb to it you must commit to 282 steps, and what you arrive at is not a hidden cave appealing to a spelunker’s imagination. It’s just an unadorned cave. But Vis is a considerable island, seven miles long, with subsidiary interests, the whole place reflecting its liberation since the days when it served as a kind of polis for the great Tito.

We had still two days to go, including a stop at war-torn Hvar, on whose crowning hilltop Napoleon constructed one of his behemoth castles bristling with parapets and machicolations and dungeons. That evening we were served something of a farewell dinner by Kate, whose cuisine makes farewells especially sad. It began with duck salad, going on to pumpkin soup, a superb fish with rice, and, for dessert, crêpes suzette and espresso. We thought of poor Tito and his straitened circumstances, though he made up for his privations in gluttonous years ahead.

The mounting appeal of Dalmatia to yachtsmen was carried home to us by Captain Bruno when we tarried idly at an island halfway from Hvar, en route to disembarkation at Trogir. He warned that arriving even 10 minutes late, at our coveted dockside space by the old town, risked forfeiting it. No harbormaster was hardy enough to prevent other boats from exercising eminent domain. And the dock, alongside the Kemerlengo Fortress and the Dominican church, is only long enough for about 30 vessels. The beauty of the old city with its belfries and shambling streets, the great cathedral begun in 1213, spookily dark inside, which only added to its resplendence, makes Trogir a place of singular interest.

We had begun our last cruise from this identical spot, but that time we had headed south to Kotor in Montenegro, then back north to Dubrovnik, the walled city people dream about when they dream about walled cities. The entire Dalmatian scene is alluring, even exhilarating, and exploring it on a boat, especially appropriate, given that much of it is composed of islands not handily accessible.

Departing Trogir the next day for the squalor of commercial airlines, I was left with mixed thoughts on the subject of exhibitionistic cruising on a luxurious charter sailboat. My first thought of course is that it is sad that such an adventure is beyond the reach of most tourists. I winced, but was not surprised, on learning, indirectly, that the maintenance of Campai comes to $400,000 a year. It can be chastening even to write about sensual pleasures withheld from others. On the other hand, how else would we know about Emerald Cities, except by reading of Oz?

I handle that question and have for many years, in books and essays, by resolving that a case can be made that personal pleasures are best acknowledged by telling of them, and this I’ve done over many years for Yachting, a longtime conveyer of so many of the pleasures of life at sea, my own included. And so, submissively, I salute it for the pleasures it has given at second remove. Reading the magazine is not the same as sailing along the coast in Dalmatia, but it is the next best thing.

Contact: Nicholson Yacht Charters, Inc., (800) 622-6066; www.yachtvacations.com

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