A decade into my seafaring experience I began to hear of a Chesapeake Bay sailor, Rob Chichester, and his sailing yacht, Bay Poet. Story telling is part of the life of seafaring, like the one that got away was...way this big. Embellishment becomes the norm. Pier-side or when the hook is down, it is libation time, pop the cork and the storytelling begins. Protocol dictates that once the stories begin there are no interruptions, one can only ask a question when the narrator stops to take a drink. I would hear of many sightings of Bay Poet on the Bay, I began to think that Rob lived on his boat and was on the water every day. So much for seafaring folklore.
About nine years ago, Captain Rob Chichester invited me to join his crew in sailing Croatia's Coastal waters in 2013. Having never sailed in the Adriatic, my interest was piqued. However, my response at the time; two years out was a bit of a stretch for my planning cycle, but wait-list me said I, should someone drop out perhaps it would work. Some ten months prior to the sail date I received notice that space was available. Eminently qualified, the consummate sailor, Rob is one of two black sailors in the U. S. certified to sail tall ships. He is the owner of a marine service company, Chesapeake Flotillas, who's motto is: Across the Bay or Across the World, that specialize in sailing vacations, training in boat handling, coastal navigation and boat deliveries. With due diligence in the rear mirror, I immediately signed on. September, 2013, we completed that memorable voyage.
I arrived in Split, Croatia's second largest city, on Wednesday, September 4, some three days prior to the start of our voyage, eager to get a feel of the local culture. People of color were a rare sighting, young people simple notice my presence while some seniors turned to stare. During my nearly two week stay, I could count on one hand the number of people of color I happened to see. Clearly in 2013, Croatia was off the beaten path, many international tourist had yet to discover her. The streets were remarkably clean, no debris in sight, anywhere. The same being true on their off shore islands.
My hotel overlooked the shipping channel into the Split harbor and a 50 meter outdoor pool, which was empty at the time I checked in. Perhaps I will get in a few laps, I thought. Although it was early September, the weather was akin to mid hot summer complete with a blazing sun.
I set about immediately on a walking tour along the coast to the city center, about a 45 minute walk, noting locations of restaurants, markets and small shops that I would later visit. Upon my return to the hotel I found that the 50 meter pool was not part of the hotel complex, but a municipal pool dedicated as an aquatic training facility for the young people of Split. Croatia had an eye on the International Olympic Games and were preparing their young athletes for the competition.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE
Meanwhile, unknown to me, at the time, about 400 miles to the northwest across the Adriatic, half of our crew; Anne, Emily, Jackie, Jane and Karen arrived in Venice, Italy; rented a secret service type SUV/van/truck, large enough to stow their luggage, GPS equipped, and set course to the southeast down the Dalmatian coast to Split. An adventurous group to be sure, Emily drew the short straw and was anointed the designated driver.
Gasoline in Europe is approaching $9.00 a gallon, no problem for these glob-trotting travelers. Needless to say, most Europeans drive economy size cars. Arriving in Split, after a leisurely drive with many stops through the scenic Croatian country side, our adventurous high spirited and high energy fellow crew members encountered difficulty finding a parking space for this larger than a Hummer vehicle.
After searching relentlessly and to the consternation of the neighborhood, they managed to find 3 empty parking spaces large enough to accommodate this enormous 4 wheel- drive vehicle, never more to be moved until its return to the rental company.
Airports in Croatia are small, down the aircraft stairs to the tarmac, onto a standing only bus for a short ride to the terminal. For 30-40 minutes the place is packed with arriving and departing passengers and then clears for the next cycle. There are very few seats in the airports or anyplace else to sit for that matter except on the floor.
LONG RANGE PLANNING - THE RENDEZVOUS
On Friday, those of us who had arrive in country early, we had to make our way back to the Split airport, to meet up with the skipper and crew, just arriving, get our marching orders and transportation to the marina. As one might imagine, punctuality bodes well for the alert traveler. Well before the appointed time on Friday, I arrived at the Split airport, with luggage, to secure a seat, await the arrival of crew members; Rob, Betty, Paula, and Tereasa; and for transport to the Kremik Marina. Interesting, the landscape is mountainous, much like Lesotho and Nepal; trees are conspicuous by their absence, rock and stones, in abundance. Homes, shops, bridges and buildings built of brick, stones and concrete.
First Mate Betty and Chef/Mate Theresa, longtime seafaring mariners, were dispatched in a separate vehicle to secure provisioning for the boat. Nothing more memorable, than not forgetting the peanut butter. Truly 4-Star stuff. The remaining 8 crew members were ushered to a 15 passenger air conditioned minibus for transport to the marina. If, after two pre trip meetings, several trip updates and a dedicated web site, if we did not know that we were in for a treat, the A/C minibus sealed the deal. The high spiritness and high energy immediately became infectious. We were soon en route to the marina in relative comfort, some after long flights others after enjoying the scenic wonders of Croatia, all appreciative of the Chichester planning process and the execution thereof.
Arriving at the marina we saw boats aplenty, 150- 200 maybe. Paula, our official scorer, did not count the boats, she counted steps. Stern to pier is how the Europeans pack them in. After assisting with the checkout of our 50 foot 5 cabin monohull, we loaded provisions, beer, wine and stowed our gear, including luggage on the S/V Royal.
Rob and his crew, Betty and Theresa, reminded me of the National Symphony Orchestra, they work exceptionally well together. Rob, is a recreational sailor at heart, he is also a professional certified skipper. For the most part we stayed out of the way except when entering and leaving port, assisting in affixing fenders on both port and starboard and standing watch while navigating the narrow alleys into and out of berthing spaces. We towed our dinghy while keeping the dinghy engine secured on the stern. When we used the dinghy, Rob and I would manhandle the engine down and he would affix it to the dinghy. We would return the engine to its perch on the stern when we completed our dinghy runs. Oh, I almost forgot, they sing rather well, quite the entertainers they are!
When Theresa closed the galley, it was off limits to all. Room enough for the chef only. When she announce that the galley was open for service there was an established ritual to follow. A photograph taken of the spread before Amen. A repeat victim of my own cooking, I smiled too often, too soon and seriously over indulged.
In Vis, we shared some time with Captain Gary Dixon and his crew, Dolly, Bertina, Cheryl, Denise, Shirley and Susan. We also anchored together at Maslinica. On the Island of Vis, one of the locals ask how did you find us?
There are a advantages to sailing with different skippers, chief among them are learning experiences that can accrue in real time. As we set out for our southern most terminus, the island of Korcula, mother nature was not cooperating; with 20 knot winds on our nose and waves breaking at 4 - 5 feet impeding our progress. Rob suggested change to our itinerary/sail plan which we readily accepted.
Off shore islands, like Croatian cities and towns are remarkable well kept. Ferry traffic to the islands; passengers, vehicles,delivery trucks and sanitation trucks are frequent. Garbage and trash are picked up and transported back to the mainland. With the prevailing winds, clean and green living, perpetually fresh air.
In Hvar, high above the town and it's harbor, sits a centuries old fortress that 7 to 8 soldiers could defend the town and harbor from enemies invading from the sea. The hearty group of seven, we set off to climb the steep hillside and invade the fortress. I lead this worthy charge for a look back into history, the larger vista remaining intact over time.
I also led the return downhill, clearing the hilltop and the approach down into Hvar, there are over a couple hundred steps and landings into the town center, says Paula, who, in addition to making the climb, showed off her ability to multi task, she counted the steps.
Our last night in Palmizana, the crew dined ashore. Adjacent to our table was a group of mariners from South Africa and Australia. Friendly banter followed, several in our crew had traveled to both countries. They had come to experience the sail on the Dalmatian coast. We presented Betty, Theresa and Rob, small tokens of appreciation for this memorable experience. Rob surprised us all, by picking up the tab.
It seemed that most boats plying Croatian waters are equipped with thrusters no matter their size. It was unusual, I thought, to see small craft 34 - 38 foot using thrusters. It became apparent that large marina operators erred on the side of caution, it was much more cost effective to install thrusters than maintenance and repair cost resulting from poor seamanship skills in boat handling in exceptionally close spaces while moving into or exiting a berth. It was high sport to watch mariners back down into berths and maneuvering away and up the narrow alleys out of port.
As we prepared to leave port at Palmizana, activity on the piers and near by boats ceased as people paused to watch as our skipper prepared to maneuver out into the narrow alley, lined with bows of boats on either side leading out into the marina entrance. Fortunately, there was not a boat in the slip immediately adjacent to starboard. Unfortunately, immediately adjacent to port was a big power yacht, 54 - 56 foot, with its bow protruding menacingly over the alley. This fact was not lost on the crowd. High sport!
As the crew positioned around the deck ready to push off when needed, I could hear Rob standing on the pier, thinking aloud while sizing up this all eyes on you situation. After a few minutes, he stepped onboard, ordered the lazy lines dropped, the port stern line dropped, He steered the bow to starboard, while slowly releasing the starboard stern line; seemingly in one deft turning movement, putting the bow into the alley first and stopped. As we then backed down the alley with not a lot of room to spare, past the power yacht. The onlookers were waiting to hear the bow thrusters activated, a sound that never came because the Royale had no thrusters.
As we backed slowly down the narrow alley, it was clear from the looks of subdued admiration, on the faces of those in the gallery on the Quay, that Rob Chichester and his band of "who are these people", had clearly won the style and performance points on this mornings departure.
We returned to the marina in Kremik, Friday evening, and turned in the boat Saturday morning, and departed for the airport, Split and Trogir. I went to Trogir, where the Split airport is located, for several days. Anne, Emily, and Karen came through Trogir for a few hours before leaving for the airport.
As I did my walking tours of Trogir, I visited the ancient fort overlooking the harbor. I thought of the historical irony; they focused on protecting the village then and there, now some conceal and carry when walking through the village, here and now.
Rob asked, given this experience, would I recommend Chesapeake Flotillas to others. My response: YES, immediately after I sign on. I have long since learned that living life to its fullest requires long term planning.
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Courtesy of Anne McCormick, Theresa Vollman, and Capt. Rob Chichester
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