With more than a thousand islands off the coast, Croatia is an ideal place to learn to sail. Sailing has been an Olympic sport since 1896. Croatians compete for medals with sailors from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA.
Of course, it is possible to enjoy sailing without racing. Unlike many coastal waters elsewhere, the Croatian coast has very clear water. You can see fish and also see the sea bottom ten meters deep. Without criticizing the Italian coastal waters, the locals point out the prevailing currents run counter-clockwide around the Adriatic Sea.
Arriving by air to Zagreb, the capital, I traveled on land from Zagreb to Rijeka and then to Pula and then by boat from Pula to various islands. I heard from a reliable local that from north to south, small coastal and island cities that are worth a visit include Rovinj, Pula, Mali Losijn, Split, Vis, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik.
I had the chance to attend a two-week course to obtain a small boat captain’s license (skipper’s license). The course started in Rijeka, a small industrial city about a hundred miles from Zagreb. Rijeka has a history of shipbuilding and a container ship terminal today. There, the course included three days of theory about how to avoid collisions at sea, how to read charts and plot courses, and how to communicate distress at sea (dialing ‘195’ by mobile phone or tuning in to channel 16 by VHF radio and then calling out ‘mayday’ and your position).
I was one of fifteen souls who attended the classroom training and then went to Pula, where we were joined by three others and split into crews of six plus a captain-instructor on three forty- to forty-five foot Elan (pleasure) sailing boats equipped with refrigerators, gas stoves, four cabins and two toilets each. The captain gets a private cabin, and the others doubled up in the other three cabins on each boat. Sailing means living at close quarters, and it is wise to know your fellow crew members before you sail with them for days at a time at sea. If not, personality differences can make sailing together a living hell. If both the sleeping and eating arrangements are compatible, harmony can prevail.
After three days of theory in Rijeka, we went to Pula for almost two weeks sailing and motoring off the coast. The weather was so calm that we mostly motored and practiced how to dock the boat without damaging the boat nor the dock. We also learned to be continuously aware of the north and the direction of the wind. We practiced tacking and jibing to change direction of the boat. We learned to moor to the dock, to moor to buoys, and to moor to rocks on the land. “Good weather makes bad sailors“, who tend to make bad jokes all day long and, to become overconfident, and who do not learn to fear the sea and the power of nature, bad storms, strong winds, and high waves.
About seventy miles from Rijeka, Pula is an ancient port town with remnants of a Roman amphitheater within shouting distance of the harbor. During the Austro-Hungarian empire, Pula was the main seaport of the Habsburgs. Later, during the Soviet Union, they built ships there, and the headquarters of the Yugoslavian navy was on the coast three miles north of the city. Today, they are gradually restoring this rundown former naval base to make a modern marina for small boats. We left from this marina.
A day or two by boat from Pula, with many pine trees and clear island air, Mali Lošinj has been popular as a health resort since the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Mali Lošinj was the third shipbuilding center in the northern Adriatic after Trieste and Rijeka. The fish market is housed in an old stone building, the Mercato Centrale, thirty yards from the harbor in the center of the town. If you enjoy eating or visiting organic farms, then you can find LosinBio, a local producer, in this market.
Further south of Mali Losijn, but further from the coast, Vis had a Yugoslav naval base from the 1950’s to 1989. If this is your thing, you can still see at least three concrete tunnels built into the land from the sea. Tunnels made it possible for naval ships to hide. The military use of the island depleted its resources and prompted people to move to the mainland for work. Vis became rundown. Today, thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vis has many older renovated stone buildings and is devoid of the ugly, concrete buildings that marked Soviet architecture.
Off the coast of Split is the town of Hvar. It receives most hours of sunshine. Also maintained. Docked to a buoy and traveled by water taxi.
Mali Lošinj addresses
Pleso addresses (near Zagreb airport)
Traveling by ferry
If you prefer to avoid sailboats, you can travel and island-hop by ferry instead. Jadrolinija is a Croatian state-owned ferry company that connects most of the Croatian islands to the mainland by regular passenger and car ferry services. The company also runs several international routes between Croatia and Italy (Ancona and Bari). One of their ships is named after Petar Hektorović, a Croatian poet and writer (1487-1572) who was born in Hvar and whose writing about the sea, fishing, and fishermen are classics of Croatian literature.
Other ferry companies are free to compete with Jadrolinija. The peak season in Croatia is July-August. Accommodation on land and berths to dock are more available during the offpeak seasons of May-June and September-October. Yoou can find more information about sailing by ferry in Croatia on FerryHopper.com and CroatiaFerries.com
Croatia Sailing Academy
Yodan Yachting – offers sailing courses
Krilo – public motorboat transport from Split to Dubrovnik (and to Miljet)