An Adventure in Southern Croatia By Kelli Lundgren

American Garage Sale: An Adventure in Southern Croatia

Mid-September 2017, one Englishman and five Americans sail our boat Dico through a hostile Adriatic Sea hammering the south wall of Dubrovnik, Croatia. We grip the boat’s deck with skid-proof shoes to hold course against erratic white-capped ocean swells as the boat’s bow thrusts up and crashes down.

After maneuvering around Dubrovnik’s west coast, we drop the sails and motor into the protection of the channel Luka Gruz just north of the fortressed city. Rain now falls, but the sea calms, welcoming us with a well-deserved respite; perhaps too disarming for what is about to occur.

For those who have never sailed, one aspect of sailing is its global language. No matter your dialect or place of origin, sailors use similar instinctive responses. “Tighten the jib sheet, prepare for starboard tack, raise the genoa, reef the mainsail.” A lexicon of boating terms exists; masts, sheets, halyards, heeling, knots, bow, stern, starboard, port, helm, tack, jibe, and close haul. No matter the translation, sailing terminology offers consistencies, all to achieve a desired euphoria, all to survive the sea.

One of the most satisfying moments of sailing is turning off a boat’s motor. Peacefulness cascades over you. Quietness blows through the sails and moves you across the water. Mariners understand this blissful transition.

This sailing spirit exists in the Adriatic Sea, a body of water dividing Croatia from Italy. On the Croatian side is the Dalmatian Coast, a playground equipped with one thousand islands and a taller number of summertime sailboats; fully-provisioned, locally chartered, or sailed in from other parts of the world. This playground is enjoyed by European vacationers in July and August, and by our English/American crew for the past two Septembers.

And as we motor through the calm, cloud-covered Luka Gruz and approach a marina, we see a harbormaster standing on the end of the pier using hand signals to guide us to our assigned slip. He holds a VHF radio to communicate with us in English, the second most common language on Croatia’s coast, second to sailing. Today we are directed to tie up Dico, a 36’ Gib-Sea cruiser, to a dock side-by-side with similar sized sailboats.

Across the dock are large beige motor yachts, spotless and parallel-parked. No frontage is too grand for these vessels. At the channel’s inlet, a Russian oligarch’s private ship topped with two helicopters, consumes a football field of dock frontage along with same-sized commercial cruise liners. Toward the back of the bay, in our marina, we see more modest yachts (if “modest” and “yachts” may be used together), with fulltime crewmembers re-polishing surfaces and crevices between rain bursts, preparing to react to any demand on a moment’s notice 365 days a year.

After securing Dico in our assigned dock space, within not more than 15 minutes, all hell breaks loose. Hell in this case is pronounced “bora”; a wind so strong and sudden, and so familiar to the locals.

The channel’s stillness explodes into mayhem. The men of our crew, Tom, Allan and Bill, hop onto the dock to quickly adjust bow and stern lines, fervently adding more rope as the now-constant rush of a 130 kilometer-per-hour gale pitches our boat from starboard to port, tilting a tied-up Dico at an unbelievable fifteen degrees sideways. This complicates life quickly.

On the dock, Tom pushes his weight forward, leaning his chest into the wind and rain, tugging a boat line, trying to move forward to wrap it around an already rope laden cleat. Bill and Allan are working the lines too. On the other side of the dock, the white-uniformed, emblem-stitched luxury yacht crewmembers – now drenched – appear less confident, less ready to be in control. Life and property have joined a race; wind against boats, wind against people, wind against me.

As I look through our boat’s companionway I see an ocean skimmed then spun into the air like cotton candy; a whitish-gray whirling up and to the west, rejecting gravity, dancing above the water’s plane.

I then look straight above me. Our boat’s 54-foot mast teeters back and forth along with a neighboring Italian boat’s equally tall mast. Each mast must move in sync in order not to collide. Yet the physics of every boat is different. Both masts are almost disastrously entwining at their peaks. One of our jib lines had frayed earlier and now leaps toward the other mast, hoping to latch on, acting like a tetherball rope wanting to spin around a pole. The Italian crew will eventually come help cut the line so it does not unite our boats.

For the moment however, I lower my gaze to see our boat’s fenders saddled too high as we tilt to port. The Italian boat tips and now clips us below our protective fenders, fiberglass to fiberglass.

Two women – she Italian, me American – quickly adjust the fenders. I drop Dico’s fenders lower by loosening and re-securing the slipknots. She swiftly unties and hands me her boat’s fenders to secure on my side for triple and quadruple protection. I speak in rampant, excited English; she in unrestrained Italian. But we communicate smoothly using sailing as the common language.

Dico’s two other crewmembers, Maribeth and Susie, are in the cabin trying to protect bedding from the squall pelting water over the bow while seeping through the hatches. Three days earlier we discovered the front hatch seal was not watertight. During that day’s waves and wind-blown sea, the V-Berth (the bed in the front of the boat) sustained water damage, enough for our captain, Englishman Allan, and his wife, Admiral Maribeth, to move to bunk bed accommodations in the spare berth.

The bora finally subsides. It does not win, but exhausts our resources. After twenty minutes of constant blow, the ocean drops out of the air and settles back into the sea. Dico levels itself, side to side. In an instant, Mother Nature turns off the high-speed fan.

I do not know how other boats on the ocean fared, but I can only imagine. We are lucky to be in port.

Tranquility takes over. Dry and wet people pop out of boats, survey the multitudes of added fenders, and look for any damage. Just moments earlier, the white boat baubles had been relentlessly squeezed and pinched. They now dangle idly without purpose.

The sun burns through the clouds and shines upon the new serenity. Our crew extracts our cabin’s soggy innards and clips them to the boat’s lifelines to dry. Items overlap, clothespin to clothespin, both port and starboard; wedged together towels, blankets, sheets, shorts, cushions, rugs, bras and underwear. It is as if we have posted an “American Garage Sale” sign to be scrutinized by international onlookers from their sleeker boats.

We are western sojourners exposing our lives; Americans willing to display rogue independence and a desire not to mildew, wearing our rawness on our sleeve, or in this case, on our boat’s perimeter.  Realizing this, and viewing our situation, I cannot help but grin.

On the opposite side of the dock, crewmembers start polishing the yachts anew, detaching a now uncouth amount of fenders – as if they were never needed, erasing the newest watermarks and any evidence of enamel violations. Yet their boat innards stay inside; their pristineness remains intact.

On our side of the dock, the row of sailboats–including Dico and our Italian neighbor–now sit upright forgetting the struggle, with masts uniformly parted. Human emotion, too, levels out. In Dico’s cockpit surrounded by our garnished lifelines, we relax, pop open beer and lean back to complete our American garage sale theme.

I could tell you about Croatian islands and towns, and how we navigated each; about Mljet, Hvar, Vis, Stari Grad, Posteria; about picture postcard scenes; about a crystal clear view into the ocean thirty-feet down to a seabed of marble chunks; about sky blue water and white pebble beaches; about evenings horizontally topped with orange, red, purple and stars.

I could tell you how Croatians have learned cropped English as a common language to interact with multinational visitors. Locals learned to speak English and work docks and stores in order to make a living from tourism, this coast’s number one economic source. Croatians appreciate our crew’s fluent English as it is easier to understand than communicating with visitors using English as a second language.

I could tell you about meals of fresh fish, sometimes caught and grilled upon order, and cracked pommes frites (thoroughly deep-fried French fries that snap when bent). I could tell you about cross-referenced multi-language menus at every restaurant. When a bill is converted into U.S. currency, the cost is around twenty-five dollars per person per full evening of dining.

I could tell you about one-hour relaxing massages at island hotels costing thirty U.S. dollars.

I could tell you about Croatia’s gray rocky mainland coast dabbled with beige homes with rod iron railings and orange tile roofs. Homes built out of, on top of, or around boulders; homes built of iron-reinforced cinderblocks or stone to withstand the land’s bora and sea’s jugo winds. These winds, as we have experienced, periodically and expectantly lash civilization; nature’s attempt to destruct humanity’s constructions.

And yet humankind seems to handily do a good job of destructing itself without nature’s help, imploding at times through civil wars and cultural clashes. Just ask Croatian, Slovenian, and Bosnian war veterans from the 1990’s; men and women now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in the harbors.

Just twenty-five years earlier some of the men now serving cappuccino or helping dock boats were soldiers. During the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 90’s, war’s fury and fatalities grew. Dubrovnik’s iconic city and fortress had been blasted with rockets and grenades. Societies almost-in-common, but not-in-common – resourcefully and culturally – were close enough alike to spend time violently disagreeing.

Hostility depleted the lives of men, women and children. Then in 1995, the region calmed. Tensions leveled. Metaphoric masts resumed their upright positions. People loosened their grip on emotional moorings. The sun shined once again.

Experiencing a bora adds character to a sailing adventure. But some boras can be brutal, some very human. After each occurrence, whether a twenty-minute weather phenomenon or a four-year war, restoration begins. People gather their damaged possessions, pin them to lifelines to mend, re-assemble, then resume course.

Far more expansive than Americans dangling belongings over a sailboat’s edge, people find a way to repair and move on. It is natural. It is life.

BIO: Kelli Lundgren lives in Hawaii. Her writing experience includes promotional copy, opinion-editorial pieces, memoirs and essays stuck in a drawer, and university study. Kelli writes a monthly environmental column for ‘Neighbors of Wailea & Makena’ magazine. Winds move and waves soothe Kelli as an avid sailor.

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