Croatia – Istria

Twenty-five years ago Roberta and I visited what was then known as Yugoslavia. We flew into Dubrovnik, which is roughly in the middle of the country, and then drove south to the Albanian border. At the time, Yugoslavia was still communist, and on the brink of a war which would tear it apart. There was no food in the stores, the people were starving, and we did not feel safe.

Last year, I received an email from another Nordhavn owner mentioning that they had just finished cruising Croatia (the northern portion of the former Yugoslavia), and felt it was some of the best cruising in the world. Then a few months later, I was speaking with Scott Strickland, who was part of the Atlantic Rally last year, who mentioned that several of the boats from the rally would be cruising Croatia this summer.

Island hopping in Croatia

Roberta and I sold our Nordhavn 62 (Sans Souci) last year, and have a new Nordhavn 68 on order ( . Had we not sold Sans Souci we too would have been cruising the Med, including Croatia this summer.

I am not someone who gives up on an idea. We knew that it was unlikely that we would be able to rendezvous with our fellow Rally participants, but were very curious to see Croatia; both to see what had caused it to be referred to as a “world class cruising destination” and to see what kind of transformation it had gone through over the years.

My research quickly showed why Croatia is a boater’s paradise – over 1,000 islands, most uninhabited, spanning a fairly small 300 mile coastline. Good summer weather and transparent warm water for swimming.

To resolve our “boat-less” situation, I searched the internet for a company that would rent Roberta and I a power boat, without a captain (bareboat). To make a long story short, and to not repeat my last email, I’ll say simply that I had to obtain a captain’s license prior to being able to rent a boat, which I did.

We rented a 47’ Sealine power boat, from DK Yacht Charter, in Pula ( ). The months prior to our charter were filled with concern, as the boat needed to be paid for in advance, and I can assure you that sending serious money off to someone you met through the internet is quite a spooky experience. Up to the day we boarded the boat I was telling Roberta that we should keep a backup plan, in case the boat was not there, or was a piece of junk.

To get to Pula, we flew into Venice, Italy, where we spent three wonderful days. From Venice it’s a short, and easy, ferry ride into Croatia. We wanted some pampering before tackling all the unknowns of Croatia.

I had not spoken to anyone from the rally to let them know of our trip to Croatia, but decided on our last day in Venice to send an email to Scott Strickland (Strickly For Fun, a Nordhavn 47), letting him know we were there.

Here’s the email I sent to Scott, from our hotel in Venice, hours before we were to take the ferry for Croatia:

We’re cruising in Croatia. Hope all is well, and especially hope you are nearby! -Ken and Roberta Williams

The email was sent at 6:00am, and was met with an immediate response from Teri Strickland, who said:

Hi Ken and Roberta, This is Teri responding. We are currently in Venice. We took a train from Rome on Monday and will be going back to Roma on Thursday. We are with Tina and Braun (Grey Pearl) and Scott and Mary (World Odd @ Sea). Uno Mas is still in Roma, they did Venice the week before with Sue’s family. We even ran into Bob and Jan Rothman (Emeritus) in Rome last week. I am not sure if they are still there. We plan to leave Roma on July 6th. Scott’s brother and sister-in-law are coming to boat with us for a week. We will go to Isle of Capri, Naples area etc. What are you up to? Send us a detailed email when you get a chance.

We had been in the same town for days, and missed each other. Ouch!

Our trip to Croatia went smoothly, and was followed by three days in a hotel in Rovinj Croatia. Great restaurants, and an incredibly charming small town.


On July 2nd, we arrived at the boat, and to our total surprise, it was beautiful! It was virtually new, with under 120 hours on the engines. The boat was extremely spacious for a 47’ boat, having two good size bedrooms, a nice size bunk room, and a small captain’s quarters in the lazarette. Some of this space came at the expense of the engine room, which was unworkably small, but overall it was a very nice boat.

Fuel would be a bit of an issue. I’m used to Sans Souci’s 2,500 gallon fuel tank, and 8 gallon per hour consumption. We would now have 500 gallons, and burn 30+ gallons per hour! On the positive side, refueling would be much simpler, and the 27 knot cruise speed would be nice.

The Sealine 47. The charter company, in an effort to protect their boat, gave us too many enormous fenders. They were helpful, but annoying.

Roberta and I had no idea where to go, or what to do. We had looked at charts, but it is tough to build a plan from charts alone. Karl Doppler, the owner of DK Charter, was nice enough to spend some time walking us through some of his favorite places.

Marina Varuda, Pula – where we picked up our boat

My first question to Karl was about anchoring. Prior to the trip, the booking agent had made the unusual comment that we should never anchor. “We would be expected to bring the boat into port each night”. This had really depressed us for a few reasons: 1) We always dread entering strange ports, 2) We would be on a strange boat that we weren’t used to parking, and 3) We LIKE being at anchor. Karl explained this issue. Storms in the northern Adriatic, are frequent, short and strong. He encouraged us to anchor out – but, only in well protected places. As a great believer in conservative boating, this had been our plan under any scenario. Karl showed us on the map some of his favorite anchorages, but then said that at most of them, there are mooring balls, and we should just attach to the mooring balls rather than anchoring. 

At first we were repulsed by the idea of tying to mooring balls, but then grew to like them. It was nice sleeping without having to wake up every few hours to check the anchor.

Sans Souci had been a heavy boat; weighing in at around 150,000 pounds. Mooring buoys are rare that could hold Sans Souci in a storm. But for this trip, we were on a 47’ boat, and could consider the mooring buoys as an option. At this time, I doubted that we would ever use them, but was to be proven wrong later.

We received the keys to the boat at 4pm on July 2nd, and immediately headed to the store to buy food. Our memories of the old Yugoslavia bore no semblance to the Croatia of today. Prior to the trip, I had referred to it as a third world country. I was VERY wrong. Over the days prior to boarding the boat, we had driven around quite a bit, and witnessed no poverty or graffiti. In fact, it seemed to be a healthy, vibrant, economy, with near American-quality shopping easily available. The people were friendly, and seemed quite happy to have Americans visiting their country.

We did have a minor problem with language. Roberta and I are very familiar with Europe. We have traveled there extensively and even lived in France for a while with Sans Souci. As American’s visiting Croatia, we were quite rare. Karl made the comment that essentially all tourists in July are German, and that virtually all tourists in August are Italian. Restaurant menus tended to be in Croatian, Italian and German. There was no English anywhere. We encountered someone who spoke English virtually everywhere, but never saw an English newspaper, billboard or menu. We were universally spoken to in German, and there was always confusion when we didn’t seem able to respond.

Internet was also a bit of an issue. Roberta claims I am addicted to the Internet. I deny it, although there are some indications that she may be right. We did find that most marinas have good wireless internet. Unfortunately, we always seemed to be in a marina that was an exception to this rule. After several days without access, we found a marina that had wireless internet, and fired up my laptop on the side of the road.

Roberta checking email in Pula, Croatia.
We were there for about 30 minutes and received some very strange looks

Our first night was spent at anchor (44° 39.541’, 014° 16.265’) in a beautiful bay on the island of Unije. The Sealine 47 did a great job of getting us there. Our only complaint was that we had been given TEN huge fenders (balls) that we tied to the front while under way. The balls were so huge that they completely wiped out any ability to run the boat from the inside. All driving had to be done from the fly bridge. Karl had advised us against running with the Bimini top up, so our only option was getting sunburned while driving from the upper deck. Coming from Seattle, this wasn’t all bad.

At anchor in Unije. Probably 95% of all the boats we saw were sail boats, from 30-45 feet.
We felt huge and out of place in our 47′ power boat.

What can I say about life at anchor? I’ve always contended that I’m not really a boater – I’m an anchor-er. For me, life begins when the anchor drops. A day consists of: swimming, showering on the back deck, playing with my computer while Roberta fixes dinner – and, then finishing a nice bottle of wine while watching the sun go down.

We had been warned to check the weather frequently. I took copious notes about how to check the weather, none of which seemed to work. Weather broadcasts weren’t on the radio when they were supposed to be, or weren’t in English. I instead reverted to a system that has served me well through the years. I watched the locals to see what they were doing. You can tell when the boats around you are planning to stay the night, and when they are just dropping what I call a “lunch hook.” On our second day, it was clear that the boats around us were dropping anchor just long enough to swim, and then head to port. We decided to do the same.

We stopped in the bay of Susak island (44° 30.727’, 014° 19.127’) for a swim, and lunch, then headed to the port of Mali Losinj. One reason we needed to get to port was that we were out of water. I had been warned that the water gauge would drop quickly to ¼ tank, but that there was really more water than indicated. Wrong. We were out, and didn’t have a water maker. This lesson shifted our thinking about water consumption, and after refilling, we were much more careful. We used very little water during the final days of our trip.

Mali Losinj is at one end of what appears to be a lake in this photo

We wanted to get into port (44° 32.151’, 014° 28.108’) early. Our experience in other parts of the Med has been that slips are limited, and available on a first come-first served basis. Usually, your odds are good up to about 3pm, then forget it. We arrived at 2pm, and the marina was empty. There were perhaps 10 boats in a marina that could handle 200. I called repeatedly on the radio, channel 17, as advised by the cruising guide, to request a slip. No answer. Finally, I shouted to a sailboat that was heading to the marina to ask what to do. His response – just go in, and they would tell me what to do. Following this advice, I drove up to the dock, and a dock-boy appeared, who directed me to a place.

Mooring was the “med moor” which is a very long story. The quick version is that you back to the dock, where you tie up such that the back of your boat is about six feet from the dock. You are then are passed a line, which is tied to the basin of the marina, in front of your boat, and you walk this to the front of your boat, where you tie it off. Hence you are secured front and back. A great system – when it works.

Within moments, the marina started filling, and the trickle of boats became a non-stop parade of boats. I was reminded of watching cars arrive at Disneyland, as they were guided into parking places one by one. Apparently, it is a procedure that is repeated daily. The marina empties each morning, and is filled each afternoon. On days such as this one, where the weather was predicted to turn dicey, the whole marina is filled by 5pm.

The weather was getting worse by the minute. It never really got bad, but it was windy enough to make watching the boats park a major source of entertainment. As the wind crept past 20 knots, and a light rain started, the ability of the boaters to successfully dock declined rapidly. As most the boats were sailboats, I jealously watched them “fend off” other boats using nothing more than boat hooks and their hands. This is something that could easily have disastrous results with a heavier powerboat.

Mali Losinj

Our next day was spent 100% in port, due to bad weather. We hiked around Mali Losinj endlessly, seeking something to do. I did find an internet café, but the speed was unacceptably slow. To our surprise, the vast majority of the attractive little restaurants that surrounded the port weren’t restaurants. They were coffee shops. Croatians seem to like to pass time sitting and drinking coffee (or, stronger beverages).

Each morning, at the harbor master, the weather report is posted at 8am. On our first morning, there was a non-stop stream of boaters looking at the weather report, each grimacing in turn, before returning to their boats. On the second morning, the weather report forecast light winds, and clear skies. Much better! By 9am, we were virtually alone in the formerly packed marina.

The next place that we had been given by Karl as being a “place worth staying” was a passage, between two islands, on the island of Ilovik. Looking at it on a map, I thought it looked boring. It was a narrow passage, in front of a city. I had visions of it being like parking by the side of a road. And besides, it was too close – only about a two hour run away. I looked at the map, and noticed an inlet that looked fun, and would allow us to pass by the suggested destination along the way.

Off we set for the southern end of Cres Island, to the bay of Baldarin (44° 37.174’, 014° 31.518’), about a 3-4 hour run. We did pass through Ilovik (44° 27.704’, 014° 33.358’) and decided it was actually quite nice. It was apparent we would have to do the mooring balls, but there were a lot of boats, and everyone was swimming and having a great time.

On arriving at the bay of Baldarin, we did drop anchor, and started thinking about lunch, but quickly discovered that we were in an uncomfortable swell. The bay was open to the south, and we had a south wind. Back up came the anchor. We returned to Ilovik, taking our time, visiting several islands and bays along the way.

This gave us our first experience with the mooring buoys. We watched a sailboat tie up, to see what to do, but found that it was a bit different for us. The sailboat came along side the buoy, and tied a rope to it, then walked it to the front of the boat. We were not a sailboat. I had to lay on the bow of the boat, and “fish” the buoy with a boathook, while Roberta tried to keep us in place. It took a few tries, but we got it. The fun didn’t stop there, however. The top of the buoy has a ring that isn’t really meant to be tied to. It works with no wind, but if the weather could turn bad, you need tied to the larger ring at the base of the buoy. This required dropping the tender and running a second rope.

Tied to the mooring buoy at Ilovik

As we were making dinner, we noticed everyone around us getting “fancied up” and tendering to shore. Obviously there was a great restaurant we were missing. Oh well. We barbecued and made our own great meal.

The next morning, we started looking at the map, and discovered that time was running out, and we had gone virtually nowhere. It was decision time. Do we go farther south, and run the risk of having a long ride home on our last day, or start working our way back. We made the decision to start working our way back. We returned to the original bay, where we had first dropped anchor, and spent our last day swimming and just “hanging out.”

Actually, we returned to the same island, but a different bay. This one had mooring balls, and as the weather was looking a little rough, we decided to tie up. We were rewarded for this in that the weather indeed went bad, and we were hit with a massive lightning storm. Had we not been on the mooring buoy, I would have gotten zero sleep.

Amazingly, our experience from Ilovik was repeated, as the boats around us emptied, with tender after tender of nicely dressed people heading to shore. We could see them on shore, hiking for miles up the side of the very high island, we assume in pursuit of some wonderful restaurant on the other side. We felt very sorry for them later in the evening as we watched them following the path back to their tenders, soaking, with only flashlights and non-stop lightning to guide them. The restaurant may have been great, but our pasta and wine worked just fine.

On our last day, we were quite pleased that we made the decision to get most the way back. The wind was high (perhaps 15 knots) and we had a reasonably long crossing to do. 30 miles of open water, with the wind straight in our faces. I wanted to go early (noon) which put us at the time of the day with the most wind. With 20/20 hindsight, we should have waited til the wind died down, but I didn’t want to risk missing our flight, and was worried that another storm might arrive. Oh well. We were bounced around, and lonely, but got through it fine.

Our last night was spent at the marina. Karl claimed that the hotel next door had “the best restaurant in Croatia.” It was called Valsabbion, and he may have been right. They had some tables outside the restaurant, down at the waters edge, which commanded a 15% surcharge. I had never seen a restaurant do this, but the overall experience was so wonderful I paid it happily.

Would we go back? Absolutely. One week was too short. Perhaps we’ll do two weeks next year…

One last thought: For us, this rental was somewhat of a test. We wanted to see what it would feel like to charter a boat, as opposed to having our own boat. We DO plan to circumnavigate on our new boat, but I have also been hoping that I would still be able to cruise some of our favorite destinations, even when our big boat is on the opposite side of the world. When the new boat arrives, we will be heading across the Pacific. Our plan is to take our time, and work our way around the world in small steps. It is entirely possible we won’t reach Europe for another ten years. My hope is to take breaks and charter in the Med (particularly southern Spain and France) occasionally. I saw this trip as a great success. Roberta didn’t. She must have said 50 times, “Well it’s nice, but it’s not MY boat.” It is certainly true that you can’t compare a 47’ planing hull boat to an ocean crossing Nordhavn, but the real issue is a deeper one. Roberta thinks of our boat as our home. I think of it as transportation to really cool places. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out…

Thank you,

Ken Williams (and, Roberta)

One Response

  1. IN that it is not yet July 2 2009, I am guess a technical glitch. I also noticed the SPOT recorder is not recording way out to sea…or at least not for the last 6 hours.

    I hope all is well

    Safe Passage and thanks for the updates

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