With more than a thousand islands and many sheltered bays between them, Croatia’s Adriatic coast is the ideal place to practise the art of sailing – especially for first-timers
DAY 1 Šibenik to Zlarin
It’s a golden late afternoon at the marina, and nothing is moving among the white forest of masts except for a lone swan; anybody with ambitious plans for the day has long since sailed. One mile away across a natural harbour, the quayside cafés of Šibenik are filling up, as bells toll above the city’s stone streets. Almost exactly midway along the island-fringed Croatian coast, in the historic region of Dalmatia, this port makes a most fitting point from which to launch voyages of exploration. The Skalice (pronounced ska-lit- say) is moored at one of the jetties in Mandalina Marina. At just over 13m long, the boat is built on a smaller scale to the megayachts moored nearby, but she fits three snug cabins and a kitchen below deck, and, when her sails are up, she can go at quite a pace. None of that is thanks to me; I start the week knowing little more about sailing than the difference between port, starboard, bow and stern (and I have to think about the last two).
Instead, it’s Mate Bedrica – a professional skipper since he was 18 – who is preparing the Skalice for the short first leg of the trip. Mate is a ‘typical Dalmatian name’, he explains, equivalent to Matthew and rhyming more with ‘latte’ than ‘late’. No first mate jokes then. Now aged 25, he has sailed on a variety of boats, but this particular model is new to him. “The draught is 2.2 metres,” he says, pointing out how far the keel goes below the waterline. “That’s a lot on a boat this size. The deeper it is, the higher the mast, the bigger the sail and the more speed.” But this evening we are heading out under engine, as required in the narrow channel that links the harbour to the Adriatic Sea. We pass the belltowers of Šibenik and exit by the island fortress of St Nicholas, built in the 16th century by the Venetians to guard the approaches to the city against the Turks. Croatia has 1,244 islands by one official count. “I think I would have to work the next 25 years to know all of this coast,” says Mate. “But I like being around Šibenik – this is my home.”
In no time at all, he steers the boat to the small port on the island of Zlarin, where social hour is under way along the quay. In the honeyed light, with the smell of pine trees filling the air, people sit around tables at the stern of their boats, with glasses of wine and plates of prosciutto – or pršut – as the local wind-dried ham is known, after removing a few superfluous Italian vowels. Around midnight, with chatter still wafting over from a few of our boat-neighbours, I try out my cabin for the first time. There’s enough headroom to sit up in bed – if I go in feet first.
DAY 2 Zlarin to Murter
Zlarin Village is a delight to wake up to. Although the odd abandoned house tells of the modern drift of jobs from the islands to the mainland, the place is otherwise well kept; its streets and gardens filled with fig and mulberry trees, cornflowers, poppies, lavender and oleander. Much of the attraction in sailing this coast comes in discovering villages and towns like this, where sights are low-key and uncrowded.
A short crossing to the next island, Prvic´ , means a chance to stop by the small but smartly presented museum to Faust Vrancˇic´, a local inventor and scholar born in 1551, who may have made the first successful parachute jump in history. From Prvic´, Mate takes the Skalice northwest, still powered by engine. “Whether you can sail or not depends on the strength and direction of the wind,” he says. This particular boat can sail into a breeze up to 30 degrees either side of its bearing, but conditions aren’t worth it for where we are headed today. While there’s a definite romance in crossing the seas purely on the power of wind, sailors in Faust Vrancˇic´’s time would surely have been grateful had the motor been invented then, at least on days when the choice was between rowing or waiting for the next favourable gust. On the way to Murter – a larger town on the island of the same name – Mate sings snatches of song as he stands at the wheel. He is part of a klapa, a traditional Dalmatian choral group, and they perform outside Šibenik’s cathedral most Saturdays.
As he fits in his a cappella practice, I look out to port to see hazy, rounded shapes dotted along the horizon, fading to a final point like the last notes of a symphony. These are the Kornati Islands, the densest grouping in the whole coastal chain, and our aim for the next day.
DAY 3 Murter to Ravni Žakan
Buildings of any kind are sparse on the Kornati Islands, so before leaving Murter, we head to Delikatese Vukšic´, in a small market square, to pick up ham, cheese and other picnic supplies. Owner Mile Vukšic´ shares a common Croatian pride in the country’s cured pork products. “Spanish ham has all the marketing,” he says.
“But ours is just as good.” Helping at the counter, Kristina Turcˇinov holds up a garland of figs and bay leaves. “Try some with the ham – it’s delicious,” she says. We do just that a few hours later, after dropping anchor for lunch in a quiet bay on Levrnaka, one of the Kornati Islands. The meal is watched by a large seagull who bobs around the boat with the air of an overbearing customs official. The spindly, 24km-long main island of Kornat and its smaller neighbours appear barren from the sea, their forests of holm oak cut down centuries ago to provide grazing land for sheep.
Without the tree cover, the contours of the islands are smoother, more sculptural, the long folds in the rock criss-crossing with drystone walls built by shepherds. The islands form a national park, although the land is still owned and sporadically used by the islanders of Murter. Just after leaving Levrnaka, I spot two buildings on the shore of Kornat and ask Mate if we can stop by. I take the dinghy from the Skalice to a small jetty and a path up to a whitewashed church, which sits at the foot of a hill topped by the ruins of a Byzantine fort. In July, hundreds of boats gather here for a pilgrimage, but, today, there are no human inhabitants, just four surprised black-faced sheep. The evening stop is the most remote of the week: the small island of Ravni Žakan, which nevertheless has a good restaurant on it.
The mooring is less sheltered from the Adriatic than at previous marinas, and, though the waves are slight, the ropes creak against the hull. At 11pm, I’m about to turn in for the night when Mate hears a large fishing boat come in to dock, and he suggests we buy some prawns from them. The fishermen aboard the Ares work fast in the lamplight, going through their catch and tossing anything unwanted to the ghost-like seagulls wheeling in the dark beyond.