Picture-perfect sailing in Croatia
From Times Online, August 6, 2007
Forget yachts; the best way to see the Dalmatian Coast is by tall ship, and Ginny McGrath knows just the one.
Rhea anchored in a quiet Croatian bay, for a spot of lunch, swimming and watersports
I had my photo taken regularly in Montenegro and Croatia – by locals, by tourists, even by policemen, and while I’d like to say it was my snappy dress sense that attracted them, I can’t take the credit. It was Rhea they wanted – her tall frame and smooth curves turned heads in every port. She eclipsed every fibreglass yacht and shiny gin palace we moored next to, and even outshone the helicopter-topped super yacht owned by Roman Abramovich, which we inadvertently tailed around the Dalmatian Coast; but more on him later.
Rhea under sail is an impressive sight
Rhea attracts the crowds for her unusual looks – a vast Baltic trader built in 1900 and constructed of pine, teak and oak, she has a topsail schooner rig (square sails) and two masts – she’s every inch the pirate ship. It had been ten years since I’d been on Rhea – my family have great affection for her after years of sailing holidays in Greece and Turkey, so we couldn’t turn down the offer to be her first charter in the Balkans.
Owners David and Penny Ross have lived and sailed in Turkey for 20 years, but brought Rhea to the Balkans this summer because competition among wooden sailing boats is now so fierce. Gulet sailing holidays are two to the dozen in Turkey and the boats are inexpensively produced on a wide scale, which has driven down the cost of sailing holidays and eroded Rhea’s custom.
Guests can do as much, or as little as they want onboard Rhea
That said, you spend little time below-deck. Meals are in the shade of an awning on deck and of the eight family and friends in our party, half of us slept on deck most nights under vast inky skies smattered with twinkling stars. It’s a great feeling waking with the sun warming your body, and open your eyes to the sparkling Adriatic, even if it is 7am. We began our trip at Kotor in Montenegro, a medieval town with narrow cobbled streets and wide defensive walls that you enter like a secret garden through a small stone arch. The town’s terracotta-tiled roofs are overlooked by the San Giovanni fort and chapel, which have origins in the 9th century. To reach them is a heart-pounding 90-minute walk up steps that wend between cypress trees on the steep slope above the city.
The view over The Bay of Kotor from the steps to the San Giovanni fort
After Kotor we sailed into Kotor Bay, a steep-sided 16-mile fjord that spills into the Adriatic Sea. We passed two diminutive islands, Gospaod Skrpjela and Sveti Dorde, topped a 17th century church and a tiny museum and monastery respectively, which you can tour with the resident nun for a small fee. We sailed on to cross the border into Croatia at Herceg Novi, which required a not insubstantial effort from skipper David, and the presentation of two Rhea crew t-shirts for the officials.
Our initial plan was to sail to Hvar and Vis, two of the larger islands north of Dubronik, but we found so many beautiful bays and ports along the way that we didn’t make it further north than the island of Korcula. Here the walled old town has a fishbone layout that keeps the streets shaded and cooled by a sea breeze, and the main attraction is the house alleged to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. We had a memorable sun-downer cocktail at Tramonto Cocktail Bar and ate at the restaurant of the same name next door – it was another enjoyable evening where the affable waiters and sunset views made up for the odd disappointing dish.
The old port of Dubrovnik, taken from the City Walls
A classic Dalmation Coast view of rocky islands and deep blue sea across the bows of Rhea
The daily agenda aboard Rhea slips nicely into the routine of a morning sail to find a quiet bay for lunch, swimming, snorkelling (although there’s not a lot of marine life to see), canoeing, waterskiing and wakeboarding, plus occasional forays onto dry land, then an afternoon sail to port. Here, the enduringly fiddly task of finding a mooring space, then slotting into it, bring evening entertainment for all onboard and the crowd that invariably gathers on the quay. Imagine driving a Bentley into a car park coated in black ice where the only available space is between two Jaguars; and you don’t have power steering. Modern yachts often have bow and stern thrusters to propel the boat sideways to counter wind or straighten up for a mooring, but Rhea has none. It’s only David’s intimate understanding of how she operates, even in a side wind, that gets you into harbour.
Once docked Penny serves anchoring drams. She's a cordial hostess who can produce a cup of tea, a bacon buttie and even a lunch of lamb and salad pittas in rough weather. It is only the smells wafting through the galley hatch that alert those lounging on deck that another tasty lunch is being prepared.
Luka bay on the island of Sipan
The comedy cavalcade takes off for a tour of Mljet island
More indulgent highlights included eating lobster at Sponga (tel. 0091 588 3948; lobster costs £55/kg), a restaurant at Polace on the island of Mljet, where the owner swore he had been visited by Abramovich the night before. We’d first seen Abramovich’s boat in Dubrovnik, and had tailed him to Mljet, where we were surprised by his taste in restaurants, although Sponga’s mismatched plastic furniture belied the quality of its sensational seafood dishes. Mljet was also the scene of one of our most amusing land expeditions, when we hired a fleet of scooters and a car dressed as a mouse, to visit a fresh water lake in Mljet’s national park. The lake is pretty and has a sandy cycle track around it, so in truth it’s best visited by bicycle, but our expedition was worthwhile just to hear the hoots of laughter as the mouse car passed quayside cafes.
For holiday memories, Rhea is been unbeatable for her charm, coastal scenery that changes daily and the inevitable adventures of a holiday on water. Reading through the guestbook it’s clear she’s offered once-in-a-lifetime holidays to families who have recorded their exploits in cartoons, poems and stories – a dog-eared visitors’ book to which I hope to add another entry myself one day.
Sammy, the ship dog, who can join charters or not depending on the wishes of the guests, jumps ship... again
Need to know
For details on how to charter Rhea, which has availability in August and September 2007, go to topsail-charters.com . The approximate charge for one week’s charter is E12,750 for up to eight guests and E14,250 for up to ten guests. This price includes two meals a day and fuel, but not harbour fees, drinks, evening meals, taxis and cruising taxes. Rhea can sleep up to ten guests in five cabins, with one larger double aft cabin and four smaller double cabins in the centre and front of the boat.
Rhea, below deck