I must admit, I cracked. The last voice shouting mansplanations at me about how to work the bow thruster that we didn’t have was the last straw. A long, imaginative—indeed, inspired—string of expletives shot from my lips, and definitely not in my “inside voice.” My crew froze, eyes widened on the nearby boat from which all the “helpful advice” was emanating, and the fuel dock personnel were suddenly fully attentive.
It was the last day of our Croatian charter, and the fuel dock at the base in Trogir was a mad scene—part Formula 1 pit crews turning boats around and part “Game of Thrones” characters jousting for survival, as no fewer than 30 boats stole one another’s place in the so-called line.
Earlier that week, I thought I had won the lottery when I was given the newest boat in the charter fleet, but when I saw that the electronics weren’t calibrated and the bow thruster was still in the box, I realized I had drawn the short straw. A week of blustery winds awaited us, and surely we would have benefited from that bow thruster that everyone else had to assist with the unrelenting Med-moorings in this part of the world.
Thousand-year-old harbors weren’t built for flocks of 50-foot charter boats, yet that’s what awaited us each evening no matter which island we visited. Tying up stern-to is never easy, but in Croatia, with its small harbors and macho Eastern European captains, it’s truly not for the meek. With each passing day, we grew more skilled—or at least more brazen—when coming into the dock.
On the third day, we arrived in the harbor at Vis Island where we had scheduled a sightseeing tour through the relics of the former Yugoslavia. The weather was lousy, and dozens of boats circled the windswept harbor, deciding whether or not to attempt a run at the stone dock. I took the risk during a brief lull and aimed right for the last boat in the line. I kept coming until I saw the whites of their eyes, and when they put down their coffee cups and stood up, I knew I had their attention. I threw the helm over, put the engine in reverse, turned a perfect 90 degrees, and nestled up to the quay like Captain Ron.
It was a thing of beauty—for about a second and a half. Then a 35-knot gust slammed us cattywampus. We never touched the other boats, but the quay touched us as we chipped a bit of fiberglass from a corner of the stern. Nevertheless, we were tied up while other boats circling in the choppy waters headed out of the harbor, abandoning visiting Vis altogether. We, on the other hand, were rewarded with a land trip to Tito’s submarine tunnel in Parja Bay where two boats had apparently found much easier side-ties, rather boldly right at the tunnel entrance.
On another morning, we were tied up in Stary Grad when I heard commotion outside and stuck my head out the companionway. On our bow was another charter boat, backing toward us at 6 knots. The Croatian men onboard shouted as they came barreling into our orderly line of Med-moored boats, aiming squarely between us and our German neighbor. One of the incoming pirates was holding a line in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other—at 10:00 in the morning.
Their stern shoved our boats apart, fenders flying, and then ample reverse thrust wedged them farther into the gap that was about half the width necessary to accommodate their beam. They tossed their lines onto cleats, set out a long passerelle, and their captain jumped ashore with a look of smug pride. This was too much for our neighbor, who also jumped ashore, and then a full-throated soccer-foul screaming match started with noses only inches apart.
Scenes like this repeated themselves daily but nobody seemed overly bothered, and soon we, too, developed emotional callouses and joined the mooring mob with gusto. Our rewards included walking medieval streets, reliving Yugoslavian partisan days, and eating cevapcici—the Croatian meat dish on every menu.
Croatia is beautiful, engaging, and chock full of history. It also seems to be the place where sausage, toxic machismo, and hellish Med-moorings were invented. To visit these waters, you must have thick skin, be willing to take a risk, and always be ready to defend your turf. And if you toss a profane, salty salad in the process, embrace it. My crewmembers still remember mine—with painful accuracy—and it has been put into comical play whenever something has gone awry on the many trips we’ve taken together since.