Thursday, 20 September 2012

Day 287: Gaaarrrrr!!!!! (15/08/2012)

When the sun rose over Luka Bay the phosphorescents retired to recharge their batteries, exhausted from last night's displays.

Far across the bay was a single white building, shimmering in the rising heat. The pilot book made no mention but judging by the small crowd of yachts jostling for position off shore, it was a sound bet that they had something we wanted.

The perils of overloading the inflatable had been all too obvious in Vis so we decided to motor over and join the throng. What was waiting was no casually constructed flop house but a rolling hacienda worthy of a film star. Row upon row of fresh vegetables grew up rustic trellising. Freshly watered peppers glistened in the heat. Giant tomatoes hung pendulously. A single crisp lettuce sat imperiously in the middle of a perfectly hoed patch of dark earth, protected by a dry stone wall.

Perhaps out of respect for its beucolic charm or perhaps because there was bacon and egg on the menu, the perfect vegetables were given a reprieve as we breakfasted in what has to be a top five eatery. Mindful of the extra calories accompanying the high fat option, departure was delayed for Simon, Adrian and John to perform a series of increasingly improbable mid air contortions while diving off the pontoon.

5.5 said Clare's score card. Nul Point answered Simon's red back as he slapped down with an agonizing yelp.

Leaving Luka Bay, we bid farewell to our tiny nocturnal sparkling friends and crossed the Brac channel to Ormis Harbour on the mainland. The trepidation we all felt at approaching Croatia's premier 12th century Pirate Stronghold soon found expression in something the former denizens would heartily have approved of.


What started out as a minor navigational disagreement about the position of the infamous sand bar that guards the town, soon escalated. By the time we had moored in the ancient harbour, the crew was in open rebellion, possessed by the blood-thirsty spirits of a thousand years of brigandry.

Menacingly overlooked by an Eagle's Nest fortress and a series of razor backed cliffs, the scurvy dogs had stripped me bare and pegged me out to die in the relentless heat of the mid-day sun. Proving that there is no honour amongst thieves, they looted my luggage, murdered the cabin boy and turned on each other as they squabbled over the booty.

Only the threat of withholding cocktails in a harbourside bar brought the piratical scum to heel; that and the prospect of facing down the gnarled old fisherman who came on board with a suspicious bulge in his trousers, offering 'something for the ladies'. It turned out to be a bottle of his home made palm based hooch, but as John diplomatically ventured, more or less to his heavily tattooed face, his single minded attention to Jess and Clare's exposed flesh suggested date rape rather than date wine.

Never the less, we took his wine and unceremoniously shooed him off the boat before booking and then boarding a river boat. It took us through a labyrinth of unconquerable gorges into which generations of pirates had  routinely retreated. Over the centuries, when the disruption to trade became too bad, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and finally the Italians had tried and failed to clear the pirates from their Adriatic headquarters. They all eventually settled for bare-faced bribery. It always worked for a while but in the long term merely succeeded in stimulating the appetite for destruction that it sought to satisfy.

As a result, at various times in history, pirates ruled the Mediterranean.

We dined at a remote restaurant, far up the river, where everything was cooked on an open charcoal grill. Periodically, when you could venture within 10 feet of the grill without blistering, it was recharged by the shovelful from a mountain of red hot embers at the back of the kitchen.

A hot night wind funneled down the snaking gorge as we returned to Ormis. Rounding off our day as only true pirates should, we ate Red Bull ice cream and sat drinking grog late into the night, in a bar that used to be the Pirate King's private arsenal.

And how big was our hangover in the morning, I hear you ask?


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Day 286: Man Over Board (14/08/2012)

We emerged, one by one from our cabins, some wheezing, others coughing like old miners.

Seagulls flying over the quay stones died were they fell; the withered fronds of palm trees rasped in the early morning breeze. The sea ran red; the sound of wailing rose above the roof tops as Trogir's first born succumbed.

The toxic slick emanating from the town quay sewage outfall was the last and greatest of the plagues; a curse of biblical proportions, that fell alike on the heads of the just, unjust and the just back from the nightclub.

There was nothing for it but to weigh anchor and scuttle away from the horror as fast as a 21 bhp engine could move an 8 tonne yacht.

By the time we had gybed into the channel between Hvar and Brac, our eyes had finally stopped watering. The brown cloud that hung low over the distant spires of Trogir's old town had been swallowed by the receding hills. The land to the south was cracked and bare; a series of longitudinal scars, unhealed after a hundred million years of geological torment. By contrast, to the north there was an abundance of olive groves tumbling down the hillsides, nestling amongst a riot of greenery.

The ever-present risk that the morning breezes would send the throat-clenching stench-beast in pursuit, was too much for some. Mid-channel, John could stand the tension no longer and threw himself overboard. As he disappeared beneath the wake with alarming speed, the 'man-over-board' cry went up. The drill limped into action.

To be fair, in their own way, everyone took it very seriously.

Apparently unaware of John's immediate need for added buoyancy, Simon rifled the lockers and began to hurl crockery at him. Ever the stalwart in a crisis, Adrian even looked up from his copy of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. Only Jess had the presence of mind to watch John's fast receding form. She pointed in his general direction until long after his wave swamped form had dwindled to the occasional glimpse of a raised hand.

The revs surged, the wheel turned and after a brief meeting of the rescue sub-committee over a pot of tea and some cucumber sandwiches, it was resolved (albeit by a small margin) that John should, in fact, be retrieved. We drew close and studiously ignoring the perils of the whizzing propeller, hauled him back on board for a severe telling off. In the absence of a naughty step, John had some quiet time on the bathing step to think about what he had done, while we rounded the Lascatna headland and into the deep recess of Luka Bay.

After an hour or two of splashing about in the turquoise water, we ate a dinner in the cockpit, comprised of one part watermelon to nine parts Tequila. Food turned to drink and drink to raucous misbehaviour, a description of which has no place in an august journal such as this.

Unsatisfied with his earlier unscheduled but sober aquatic wanderings, John donned his flippers and pitched into the now oily blackness lapping against the hull, with no prospect of rescue if things went wrong. His curiosity had been peeked by the phosphorescence in the flushing toilet bowl. As we satisfied ourselves with stirring the water with an oar, he generated a light show with his flippers normally reserved for Industrial Light and Magic.

Imagine, if you will, the Millenium Falcon entering hyper-drive. There is no better description of the breath-taking beauty of a billion tiny flashing organisms creating a trail of light in the complete blackness of an Adriatic lagoon.

When the submarine display was over, we lay on our backs and watched first the International Space Station and then the tail end of the Leonid Shower light up the heavens over head.

You can count moments like these on the fingers of one hand.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Day 285: The Wrath of God (13/08/2012)

After last night's Tequila-soaked shenanigans, it was no surprise that we needed the boat-hook to retrieve Adrian's remains from the harbour mouth as we departed.

John meanwhile, armed only with industrial quantities of antacids, emerged perky if a little dishevelled from his cabin, prompting the Dorian Gray suspicion that somewhere on board was a ornately gilt frame containing his grotesquely booze-sozzled likeness.

Quite unexpectedly for the Adriatic in August, yesterday's clouds, far from dispersing as the sun climbed into the sky, seemed to have set in for the day. Rain was suddenly ricocheting off the spray hood and the monochrome cloud base was falling faster than the mercury in our barometer. First there was thunder and moments later electricity was crackling amongst the forest of masts around us.

As giga-volts flashes began to crash down, it quickly dawned on all of us that standing bare foot on a giant wind propelled lightning conductor was an error. Gingerly stepping away from the rigging, we huddled in the cockpit as the inappropriately name Sunshine II chugged into the channel between and Vis and Hvar.

The wind quickly picked up to 20 knots and before long we had left the squall in our wake. We made good speed as we headed north to the Pakleni Islands before turning east to the menacingly named Zaglan Bay for the daily swim-lunch combo. In blazing sunshine we then headed north to the coast of Hvar and round the Pelegrin Headland before skirting along the north coast of the island and into the roadway of Starigrad, unimaginatively renamed Stalingrad for the duration of our stay. In light of the carnage that heralded our arrival, perhaps there was something prescient about the new label.

Here the pilot book warned of periodic tidal surges funneling up the channel that would lift unwary boats from their moorings and deposit them onto the timeless Venetian quayside. Again, the prevailing wind was on the beam and like a Polar Bear on roller-skates, we drifted at hopeless angles towards the dock, under the smirking gaze of a few early arrivals. Only as we struggled to get lines ashore, did we get the stern secured and the lazy-lines tightened. As I queued at the post office to pay the night's mooring fees, a breathless Simon raced in behind me with news that a power cruiser had struck us amidships.

Fighting back the tears, Simon relayed  how Sunshine's back had broken. Her mast had collapsed and just before she completed her final death roll, he had staked everything on a death defying sortie to salvage his bronzing lotion. I debated for a moment with the post master whether we should even have to pay mooring fees for a wreck before following Simon back to the quay to meet the rueful Russian skipper who had just rammed us.

Thankfully, the devastation had grown in the telling. Sunshine was still afloat and sporting a hole on the port beam that wouldn't be taking on water unless we were already sinking.

It was hard to be angry with Sergei.

In a disconcerting symmetry, it turned out that he ran a business selling Russian Orthodox bibles in Moscow and Volgograd (the former Stalingrad for those missing the clunkingly obvious plot device). His crew consisted only of his girlfriend who was heavily pregnant. It was she who alone had been trying and failing to secure the same stern-lines that six of us had been struggling with a few moments before. Within a few minutes we were in the office of the harbour master, completing accident report forms of such Byzantine complexity that patching up the damage and calling it quits, seemed the easier option. Clearly in T-Boning us, Sergei was doing God's Work and I persecuted him at my peril.

Sure enough, The Almighty's Displeasure was swift in coming as I began to bleed from the ears shortly after Sergei sauntered back to his power boat. Admittedly, I was at the top of the picturesque tower of St Stephen's church, when all five bells began to ring out the 7 o'clock peel.

Skull still reverberating to rhythms of the campanile, I staggered through the twilit maze of Venetian backstreets, promising to lay off Segei. As we sat down to dinner at Pharos with the full compliment of Sunshine II and Wilma, a plague of mosquitoes were massing. Apart from the unfortunate gassing of the whole restaurant courtyard with an over enthusiastic application of 80% DEET, we had a raucous night before retiring to well deserved rest.

We left the usual suspects to unleash hell on the unsuspecting residents of Starigrad until the early hours, unaware, until the following morning, that we had barely begun to feel the Wrath of a vengeful God.

It turns out we had unwittingly parked in a septic slick oozing from the town's main sewage outfall.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Day 284: Parking Bay (12/08/2012)

The festivities lasted long into the early hours.

A perenial stow-away on any Greek bare-boat charter is the Beer Thief. Unbeknown to us though, he had expanded his operations from the Aegean and diversified into hard liquor. By morning the cockpit was awash with empty bottles of rum and vodka; all that was left of our liquor locker after his predations in the night.

The unpredictable Bora that had seemed so ferocious last night, had calmed to a light breeze that barely ruffled the parasols as we ate breakfast. Apart from the lack of tides, the pleasure of  Mediterranean cruising is that a temperature differential between land and sea creates the clockwork routine of morning and afternoon sea breezes that you can set your watch by.

We were out of harbour and into the roadway before 10 o'clock. The wind picked up as the sun's arc started to warm the land and we were leaning into a force 6 before the hour was out. One of the joys of the first heel of the day is the startled expression of every first timer as they cling to the super-structure, blood draining from their face while grimly calculating the chances of the yacht capsizing. It takes time to truly believe that the most extreme heel rarely exceeds 35 degrees and that a bottle keeled cruising yacht will right itself from 120 degrees even with a sail full of sea water.

That being said, Simon wasn't taking any chances and began intoning some ancient incantation to the Herefordshire Cider Deity while Adrian produced something looking suspiciously like fresh goat's blood and began daubing it liberally over Jess and the feta salad that she was knocking up for lunch.

Stopping for the statutory pre-lunch swim in an pretty inlet, shared only with an old man in a toy sized fishing boat, we splashed and dived until hunger drew us back to the boat and up the cramp inducing bathing ladder. The old man's family probably went hungry that night after we scared away his catch but the feta salad was none the worse for Adrian's diabolical sprinklings.

Reefing in the main sail a little as the lunch time lull departed, we cruised south from Agana at a steady 5 knots, around the Jelinak headland, past the west coast of Drvenik and through the narrow channel between Solta and Stifanska. Then, turning to the south west and hugging the south coast of Solta, we crossed the open water to the island of Vis to the south and into the main harbour.

The wind had rolled in some heavy cloud as we rounded the headland into the town quay. At this point it began to dawn on us that the Greek practice of parking boats 5 deep had yet to catch on here. The quay was hardly creaking under the weight of rafted flotillas from every nation but even so there was nowhere to come stern to, let alone alongside.

While flags from a hundred countries flapped wildly in the rigging we trawled the aisles of this aquatic car park where everyone had decided to take up not only their space but half of the neighbouring one as well.We tried a dozen times to force an entry between boats were there was a slight gap but were thwarted at every turn. The web of springs and lazy-lines threatened to foul the prop; worse still, the wind was on the beam and the nose blew off at the critical moment of every sortie. The final straw was the private mega-ferries; apparently unsatisfied at being bubble-wrapped in a cocoon of giant fenders they deployed tactics normally reserved to repel boarders. As a John was flung across the deck by an oligarch's water cannon, Adrian inspected the harpoon protruding from his bottom.

Recognising that valuable drinking time was being lost, we opted for the worst best option and ventured away from the quayside and into the forest of swaying masts to find an anchorage. The look on John's face said that anything would do, provided that it was out of range of the swing circumference of anything more valuable than us.

Eventually, the anchor bit, the beer was opened and we toasted the foolhardy skippers, anchored closer to land, who had overlooked the gnashing rocks onto which they would inevitably swing during the night with splintering consequences.

After a couple of sharpeners, the liquor locker was exhausted and the prospect of remaining aboard with nothing else to drink pushed us to reckless extremes. The tender was pumped up and the outboard coaxed into life before the alarmingly over laden inflatable carried us in a drunken zig-zag toward the quay as sea water lapped over the transom and into the trousers of those on the low side.

Victualled with with suitably nautical fodder at a restaurant selling little more that beer and pizza in a tent erected between two Venetian architectural gems, we considered the evening's postprandial entertainment. The debate quickly polarised with the rival factions taking increasingly extreme positions. As is ever the case, the couples opted for Dubonnet on ice and an early turn in while John and Adrian, buttocks freshly patched, started as they meant to continue - complete with hair product and shirts just a little too tight for men their age.

Apparently the tent in which we dined was only ever a temporary structure which, as soon as we drained our glasses and departed, was collapsed and removed to make way for a cauldron of hedonistic debauchery. A DJ appeared with a menu of tub-thumping Euro-pop, a box of glow-sticks was distributed, and the massed ranks of the badly parked, disgorged from their flotillas to revel into the earlier hours.

Somewhere in the darkness came the sound of splintering fibreglass.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Day 283: Trouble in the Balkans (11/08/2012)

What do you buy for the man who has everything?

More of the same?

And so it was, that after 12 months travelling around the world last year, and another 6 months studiously tax dodging in the UK this year, a trifling 2 months back at the coal face was all it took to provoke a further lurch into the comfortable county of Loafingshire.

To be fair, chartering a handsome pair of 36 foot yachts, each still only partially out of their factory wrapping, was never going to be a chore; and having parted with a significant wedge of cash, made more eye watering by the laughable Balkan exchange rate, the prospect of a week in the famously turquoise waters off Split in Croatia was becoming more tantalising by the day.

The months rolled into weeks and the weeks into days before, finally, eleven of our twelve were standing at the gate at Bristol airport, secretly calculating the chances of getting a window seat and openly congratulating each other on having smuggled yet another container of shampoo through check-in. I don't mean to mock but the line of baggy uniformed octogenarians, standing in for The UK Border Agency shouldn't have been our last and best line of defence.

I say eleven as my brother John was number twelve, already enjoying the fleshpots of Agana Marina outside Split after a Marathon Odyssey across the wastelands of the northern Balkans. Perhaps wastelands is a bit strong as a country can't be all that bad when Domino's not only deliver pizza but also wayward tourists; but more of that later.

Stepping out of the air-conditioned Easy-tube into the familiar hairdryer holiday heat of Trogir Airport in Croatia, the border staff smiled their greetings and stamped our passports before catapulting us into the arms of Ivan, our friendly multi-tasking taxi driver and his VW Bora. Not content with driving us the sixteen kilometers along the winding coast road to the marina at Agana, using only his knees to steer, he succeeded in completing twenty three separate phone conversations in four different languages while he did it. Impressive enough in normal circumstances, you may think; the fact that we covered the distance in something marginally less than the time it took to load the luggage in the back, made it all the more so.

Disgorged into the marina car park, John was waiting. Seats were reserved at the marina bar but the portents were inauspicious. We had heard but failed to heed the warnings of the Adriatic's unpredictable winds. The hazardous Bora that bore us to Agana was but a pale shadow of the namesake that funnels down the escarpments of the Velebit mountain range and into the bay of Split. Only moments later as we tucked into mezze and cold beer, the gentle breeze rose suddenly to a terrible tumult that carried the concrete sun parasols before it, directly onto the poor, unsuspecting head of Caroline. There was blood but definitely no tears.....Simon swears that the wind blew some grit into his eye.

Boat hand over was scheduled for 2pm and it is no surprise that Pitter Charter, the German fools who were prepared to hand over the keys to two brand spanking new yachts, had things in hand bang on the stroke of the hour. It is, of course, a microcosm of the European Union. In Athens last year (28/05/2011) Stubbled Greek Boss Man and his 'wack it til it works' policy finally got us limping out of Kalimaki harbour midst a trailing rainbow slick of diesel. Pitter's Teutonic efficiency, by comparison, ignored the 30 knot winds that had built over lunch and had us ready to depart without a single essential part have been attached either backwards or with gaffer tape.

As novice skippers, we consulted the airs before deciding that there was no point in attempting the 750 metre passage to the island of Vis with barely 9 hours of daylight and a trifling force 8 to propel us. Pocketing the keys, we retreated to the marina bar to for some diligent passage planning for the next day as the yachts bucked and reared at their moorings and the fenders did their best to protect our security deposit from the clashing of hulls.

Looking down, over the winding alleys of Agana old town, from his vantage point atop the 14th century Venetian tower, the grand old Winged Lion of St Mark probably sighed as we poured over over our charts in the half-light of the bar.

And then desperately tried to mop up as the hysterics slowly took hold.