Week 1 – all beginnings are difficult
Any trip starts at home with the packing. In that respect mine was similar to any other yachting cruise, except that with my Catamaran I had to think much more carefully about what I could leave behind – if only to keep the weight to a minimum.
I had taken the boat to pieces and transported it to a camping site near Ankaran in Slovenia by trailer. Car and trailer were to remain here for the next eight weeks. One day for assembly and two quick days of training and checking the boat, to make sure everything was in good working order. Then I was ready for the off.
I set sail on the 12th July with overwhelming emotions. It was brave to set off in such a small boat, without an engine, to fulfil the dream of sailing on and on and not returning to the beach. Whom would I meet? Would people help me, if I encountered difficulties? I wanted to see dolphins! Would I get through Albania in one piece? After all, I was not going to manage this stretch of 150 miles in a day’s sailing. I didn’t know anybody who had sailed there before and could give me any advice. Where would I dock?
I set off with all these questions milling around my head, yet with a delighted feeling of anticipation and unrestrained curiosity as well. Just as the weather has its highs and lows, I dare say it would not always be plain sailing.
Finally I was cruising, from beach to beach and port to port, from surprise to surprise! A dream was coming true!
The first destination was the enormous port of Trieste. I rushed into the harbour at 8 knots, but it got quieter behind the breakwater. I had no radio over which I could announce my arrival, as is usual, so I had to find a place to dock for myself. Something enormous was looming up ahead and a yacht astern chugged up, desperate to overtake me in the port. Moored boats were all around. I had an anxious time of it finding a place to moor under sail. Naturally the only free space was in the last place I looked, but I was relieved that everything had gone well, and settled in to the first night on my sports catamaran.
Over the next few days I sailed down the Istrian coast, stopping at Novigrad, Funtana and finally the islands of Brijuni. This part of Istria is full of camp sites, harbours and even small fjords in which to find shelter. I had thought to ease my way into the journey, and was expecting to have a nice Maestral (from the north west) in my back on the way down the coast. But nature was having none of it and I had to cope with whatever she threw at me: in this case a Sirocco (from the south). This meant a great deal of tacking in wind force 4-5 with an unpleasant swell, and a lifebelt which kept getting tangled in the main sheet. The days were dominated by miles and miles of unpleasant battling into the wind, but little actual progress.
The Cat complained at every approaching wave, quite unlike the pleasant little waves it was used to from Sundays on the reservoir. My body ached, which I tried to ignore. The heavy sea slowed the boat, cutting my speed to an average of 4.4 knots despite decent wind in the course of a long day’s sailing: 9 hours 28 minutes. 4.4 knots in a sports catamaran! My untrained muscles were sore, I was still somewhat unaccustomed to working the boat, the luggage was not quite stowed properly, and the permanently tangled lifebelt all required concentration and determination.
I had not intended to be tested so early on in the journey. But the other extreme of light or no wind took its own mental and physical toll at first. Roasting for up to 10 hours a day of sailing meant extreme sunburn – how I missed the non-existent spray hood! - and meant that every commercially ‘recommended’ brand of sun cream got the thumbs down in the ‘Kathrin Test’. It was clear I had to think of something to make the rest of the voyage bearable. But I was hardly about to put up a sun umbrella at 10 knots. I would have to be creative.
I arrived at the Brijuni National Park hungry and exhausted first by the wind, then later, when the wind dropped, by having to swim, towing the boat. The fee for mooring in the port or bay was 165 Euros a day for any craft up to 14,99m length. It seemed rather unfair to be included in that category, so I tried the small neighbouring island of Kotez only to find that it was illegal to anchor anywhere in the national park. The wind had dropped, however, and there was no way of leaving. Barely 5 minutes after I had completed the convoluted process of anchoring, the first national park guards approached to drive me off:
„You must go! It’s not allowed here to stay!“
„How can I go? No wind! No motor!“
This lead to a long discussion, which resulted in my being allowed to spend the night, illegally. I lay there in total peace and solitude, surrounded by the sound of cicadas and water splashing. Bliss.
The crossing from Brijuni to Susak was a big day: 39 miles of sailing, including 22 offshore, in perfect conditions. It is a strange feeling to set off into the „open“ in such a small boat. All around nothing but water, with no shelter of any kind. But I had a splendid Maestral for it. I prayed that it would not lessen, leaving me in the lurch! I surfed along the waves in the Schmetterling, rising and falling with the waves, my boat blithely following the rhythm of nature! Already overwhelmed by these emotions I suddenly heard a new sound: a dolphin leaping and playing in the water! Followed by a second! A whole pod followed me for 20 minutes. It was as wonderful as I had imagined!
I freely admit that at the first the extraordinary conditions of this kind of cruise were very tiring, but all my doubts were swept away by this indescribable feeling of being in the midst of the interplay between wind and waves, 12 inches above the water. It’s virtually impossible to describe the feeling of being in the middle of the pond, out of sight of land and with the Schmetterling practically dancing over the waves – all the modest means I could afford, a tiny boat without equipment. Every morning the curiosity to discover new lands simply blew away the aches and the exhaustion, and helped me count off the miles.
After I arrived in Susak, utterly delighted, a friendly elderly couple gave me food, drink and a shower.
„What do you do when you’re at sea?“ they asked.
„I wash in seawater,“ I replied. „My hair, too. I don’t even need fresh water afterwards, it’s fine! Just being clean is the main thing.“
From Susak to Vis! Happiness! Island hopping! [Top]
I leave the island Ilovik behind me, where I cling to a buoy in the incredible current of the straights surrounded by hundreds of big yachts, and the island Ist in my wake and steer for the Kornati archipelago.
By now many manoeuvres had become second nature and went comparatively smoothly. Anchoring (which involved diving to the bottom to secure the anchor with stones), docking and casting off from buoys while under sail, as well as manoeuvres in harbour (under sail or swimming) provided great amusement to sunbathing tourists.
Anyone spending a holiday in Croatia should visit the Kornati. There’s a tremendous fascination in wandering through this labyrinthine sunken mountain range. The landscape is as desolate as the moon while the life underwater is supposed to be extraordinary.
The passage between the island of Katina and Kornat is very narrow! The entrance lay exactly in the eye of the wind and I considered how often I would have to tack in order to squeeze through the gap! „There’s nothing to be done! I’ve got to get through!“ A chartered vessel chugs up and overtakes me, heading straight for the passage. „Full steam ahead!“ I told myself. If only it was that simple. I tried to make use the entire channel from cliff to cliff with long tacks, but I made enormous leeway every time I went about, as the Cat always takes a while to turn both hulls. „What a current!“ I thought, and after going about twice more wondered whether I’d made any headway at all. I tried again. This time I took less time to go about and looking across the channel noticed that I had gained about 8 metres on the last tack. Success! But this was going to take a while. On the opposite course I noticed a motorboat heading directly for me. „Hey! Hallo! Can’t you see me?“ I said to myself and held my course. But she didn’t change her course or reduce speed to let me pass. In the last minute I veered off course to avoid her and promptly lost any progress I had made. Furious, I was getting pretty sick of the endless tacks backwards and forwards. Fighting for every yard I saw a two masted vessel running under engine up ahead. Right, she might not be able to change course, either, because of her draught, I said to myself, so I clung to a rock so as not to slip away to leeway until she had passed.
Meanwhile a small crowd had gathered on the terrace of the restaurant opposite and was following my progress with amusement. Again and again boats passed totally ignoring my presence, bobbing around in their wakes. „HALLO! This is a SAILING BOAT with no motor!“ I yelled, annoyed, but the progress was lost all the same. After what seemed like an age I finally reached the restaurant, where I tacked one last time. As I headed out into the open sea on the other side of the passage I heard applause behind me, which improved my mood immediately.
Course for Vrulje! I approached a chartered vessel which made for a great evening, and meant I didn’t have to pay to enter the Kornati, as I was taken for a dinghy of the 50 foot yacht. I was given a marvellous dinner and asked „What do you eat on the Catamaran?“
„Well,“ I replied, „I have a little camping stove and in a calm I can prepare a travel lunch – that only involves adding hot water. But otherwise I can only drink powdered calorie drinks mixed with water – and as I always have enough water I won’t starve, even without a fridge. Although I do miss having a cold beer now and then…“ My hosts shook their heads, smiling.
The next day began well and ended in total exhaustion. With the wind on the beam I had decided to sail out to sea. Aimless, just for fun! Out into the open! With the rudder bubbling behind me I made 6 or 7 knots and had a magnificent view of the cliff-face of the Kornati in perfect turquoise beauty. It was a sight to make one forget backache and sunburn! With the Maestral behind me I headed for Kaprije, with the wind slackening as evening approached, as it does in Croatia. Two miles off the coast it died altogether and I was left with no option but to get into the water and tow the boat the remaining distance to the small harbour. The only option in a calm, and fractionally less slow than paddling!
Apart form the brutal sunburn I had been lucky with the weather until now. Calms and even strong winds can be unpleasant to cope with, though not impossible.
After a brief stop in Veli Drevenik I continued towards Solta. As the Cat was struggling along at 0-2 knots I made it a relaxed bikini day. Sun, barely any wind, a few clouds. A lot of swimming, cooling down and playing with my dog Lotte. Everything was perfectly relaxed when the clouds over the mainland started to get darker. I wasn’t especially worried, but decided it would be best to be a bit closer inshore nonetheless. A glance at my GPS told me I was still 4 miles or so from Solta. An hour later that had shrunk to 2.5 miles, but the sky had also changed from an innocent white to an intimidating coal-black. The the other vessels around me had started up their engines and made themselves scarce. I was alone and it was starting to get late. The nearest harbour, Maslinica, was still 6 miles away. That was out of the question. I decided to get to land, any kind of land, before things got hairy. Two more miles and the wind was lessening. One and half miles to go. The thunderstorm was gathering over the land and releasing a few first bolts of lightening. Another mile to go and the wind died completely. More lightening and I was panicking. „Just one mile, Kathrin, that’s not too much,“ I tried to calm myself. I jumped into the water and started to swim, but the panic made me tire. Some paddling just for variety, then more swimming. 400 metres from the shore I heard the first thunder, but still no wind. I was already quite close to shore so I thought it best to take down the sails. 200 metres to go and it really got going. A proper electrical storm over the land, and me at the edge of it. I was glad I had taken down the sails. The wind drove me straight for the rocks and I leaped into the water. A leak would be all I needed.
I stood there between the hulls, surrounded by rocks, trying to fend her off. The wind and waves whipped around my ears. I found a rope and made the boat fast to where I stood. But I couldn’t leave my place, or the high waves would have picked up the boat and smashed her against the rocks, and there weren’t enough fenders in reach. Instead, I was the fender and could do nothing but stand there, shivering, and wait for the weather to calm down.
It was long into the night before the sea dropped enough for me to leave my place and take care of the anchor. I had scraped through, but had had to suffer for it.
Week three – a rest at last! [Top]
Over to Vis, then past Korcula, and south to Polace on Miljet! I met a lovely family there, who took wonderful care of me. I was in dire need of a couple of days’ rest to let my body recover from the punishment it had taken until now. I was welcomed with incredible hospitality. And I enjoyed the company immensely.
„Kathrin, what do you do when the dog has to pee?“ They asked me.
„Well, she gets a long walk in the morning as I don’t usually set off before 11. There’s no wind before then anyway, as the thermals don’t start before noon or so. And as I usually sail close inshore she can always quickly swim to land, that’s no problem!“
From the island of Mljet to Montenegro! Cat life in action! [Top]
The landscape around me was changing. The islands were getting larger, the cliffs steeper and higher, and the mountain ranges greater! Or had I simply developed a different way of seeing nature around me? No need to think about it, it is what it is which is miraculous.
I pass Sobra (on Mljet) at night, am shooed away from the harbour in Dubrovnik and make a short stop in Cavtat to announce my leaving the country and repair my torn foresail and say goodbye to Croatia at Molunat.
„Kotor Bay is the last beautiful thing you’ll see! Stay there as long as you can. But be careful, sailing there is very dangerous!“ I didn’t know what this stranger from Dubrovnik meant. Sailing dangerous? Surely not…
I flew into Kotor Bay and expected the wind to drop. I was in a bay, after all! But no! I was barely inside when it really got going, so quickly that I almost capsized. And then, suddenly, dead calm. What was going on? With barely a moment to admire to fabulous countryside or the mountains that surrounded the bay like an Alpine lake, wind force 5 had returned, but from a totally different direction! Squalls!
The mainsail beat this way and that, more than was to my liking. Then dead calm again! This was no fun at all in a Cat, which is so responsive to the smallest changes in the wind. I had to concentrate like hell and was totally stressed. Alternate squalls and calms. No rest! I noticed that no one else was sailing, all the other boats were very wisely using their engines. But I didn’t have that luxury. But even under sail you can make some progress, even if it is painful. I sailed as far as Donja Lastva before turning back and spending the night in Rose.
The next day the clouds looks odd again, and the wind lessened. „I’m not going to make it to harbour again!“ I thought. I’d been swanning around while the weather was changing! Back to shore at top speed! The sun stayed out, however, and reminded me painfully of it’s presence. The storm held off, and I towed the Cat into an unnamed „emergency“ inlet at N 42°14.038, E 18°54.209.
„Aren’t you afraid being alone, at night?“ A man in a seaside café asked me.
„Not at all,“ I replied. „My dog doesn’t let anyone on board. She protects it like her home. People leave me alone and I have my peace!“
That night was awful. Not the expected storm, but high waves and a heavy, irregular swell in the bay. The anchor ropes got tangled around a rock on the bottom and the continual swell frayed the rope right through. Luckily I was awake, seasick from the irregular movement of the boat. I had to jump into the water in the middle of the night and swim the boat back to shore, and re-anchor her with a new rope. You’ve just got to put your head down and do it! But these sorts of mishaps didn’t upset me any more, that’s just the price you pay for the wonderful things I’d experienced already!
After all, the ice cold drink you enjoy after a 6 hour bike ride up a mountain tastes quite different from the one you simply take out of your refrigerator!
I left Montenegro after one final stop in Bar and was now facing what I had always considered the main obstacle on my route: the 150 miles or so of the coast of Albania.
No boats as far as the eye could see. I was quite alone on the open sea. No holiday makers and no secret coves. Neither tourists nor islands for shelter, and in addition I had been warned of problems onshore, especially as a woman.
The wind got stronger and stronger – too strong for a single sailor. Without question I had to put in somewhere. The only option was a beach full of Albanians. I raced towards the beach at Shengjin at 10 knots. The people backed off at first, staring at me with big eyes.
„Hallo!“ I greeted everyone, though they looked suspicious. But suddenly all the children on the beach rushed up and started bombarding me with questions in Albanian! The great excitement defused the awkward situation as people started to recognize that I didn’t mean any harm.
„Does anyone here speak English?“ No reaction other than a shaking of heads. Then a girl piped up and became my translator for the evening. First of all, my „Unknown Sailing Object“ was admired and touched.
I gave all the children plenty of time to examine every detail and noticed the bemused, even shocked expressions in their faces, as if they had touched a stove which turned out to be hot. Suddenly my feelings simply ran over, and exhausted and stranded in the middle of these curious people as I was, I no longer felt worried or fearful. They gave me food and drink and we spent a wonderful evening together before I collapsed into bed at 3am. Sleep! Then a knock in the night.
I was lost in Albania and afraid again. Who could it be? With my dog under one arm and a mace spray in the other hand I peered out. Three Albanian policemen.
„Do you speak English?“ I asked cautiously.
One of them shone his torch over the boat, another went through my luggage while the third inspected my tent, commenting on what they found to each other in Albanian, of which I didn’t understand a single word. Then they left as suddenly as they had arrived.
„What on earth is going on?“ I wondered. As they didn’t seem to be coming back I went back to bed.
An hour later I heard more knocking on the boat. The three had returned with a translator, and I started to get worried. What did they want?
„Where is your boat?“
„This is my boat.“
„No, I mean the big boat, the mother-boat!“
„There is no mother-boat, I’m all alone.“
„Not possible, where have you come from?“ They seemed to believe I was refugee of some kind.
„I’m a tourist.“ Saying this to 6 Albanian policemen at 4 in the morning sounded ridiculous, even to me.
They wanted to help. Asked me, whether I needed food or drink, and invited me to coffee the next day in Shengjin. Quite surreal, and quite amusing in the end.
My cruise was nearing its conclusion, and I was approaching my final destination. My equipment was extremely depleted by this point. I had lost some things on the way, but mostly the „waterproof“ (ha!) equipment had simply worn out. My hulls had suffered a little and the mainsail had torn and been temporarily stuck together. Waterproof bags had proved water permeable and many of my things were permanently soaked. I could no longer close the door to my tent, everything that was metal had corroded, and much, much more…
On towards Corfu [Top]
The last stage proved to be the most arduous stretch to sail. In Durres mine was the only pleasure boat between enormous container ships. The very strong wind and high waves made undreamed-of demands on me. I had headed towards Greece and Corfu via the beach at Vlora, and was sailing off the Karaburun peninsular where cliffs had replaced the beaches. I had just thought how marvellous the wind was when it dropped completely. The waves of the strong breeze remained, however, and the sails flapped continually.
I sat there patiently for two hours or so without the weather changing. Suddenly I saw a long drawn out, dark blue streak in the sky heading towards me. It took me about two seconds to think: „Sudden easterly wind? Bora!“ Strangely enough my first reaction was to put on gloves and my life jacket. There wasn’t enough time for the life jacket, as big squalls smashed into me from all around 10 second later. I couldn’t hold any course for more than about 15 seconds. I caught sight of a pale smear in a little cove. A beach! I had to reach it somehow. My thoughts tumbled over one another. Tack into the Bora towards the land? Out of the question! Behind me just the open sea (and then Italy…). I was panicking and desperate and had no plan B. I felt as is if I had lost all sense of strength, determination, time and space. Another tack, another squall. The wind changing totally unpredictably, and once more I was being pushed out to see. But one hope remained: occasionally the wind veered so I could sail towards land. But light at the end of the tunnel was no more than a glimpse, and kept vanishing. „Try again! Don’t give up! Hold on! Hold on! Hang on, or you’ve had it!“ filled my head.
I really don’t know how long this lasted. Incredible, what energy reserves one can draw on in such a desperate situation.
Finally I got lucky. After fighting the wind for hours, the wind veered and I was able to race straight into the cove.
The final days [Top]
I spent several days sailing from beach to beach in Corfu, sailing just a few miles every day and enjoying a care-free existence. I lazed about on the trampoline, letting my body get some rest.
My Nacra5.0 got through the cruise in great shape! Apart from the occasional dent in the hulls and the sail – which had torn from old age more than anything else – the boat is quite intact and ready for new challenges! She was a very stable boat, one I could really depend on and never let me down, right to the end.
This trip helped me find my limits, which were much greater than I had ever thought possible. Even after one would far rather just give up, one has great, untapped resources. I’ve learned so much about other people, about decadence but also generous people who would have given anything to help me. I’m grateful and humbled by how affectionately I was treated. Sometimes I was so tired that I simply fell to the ground and couldn’t move. But the more tired I was at night, the more energy I had the next morning for new discoveries. The uncertainties of wind and weather meant that I never knew where I might end up that evening. One of the most satisfying experiences was setting myself the target of having no real plan. I learnt to persist and also to accept my environment. Wind was bound to come if one waited long enough. All these thoughts were racing through my mind as I arrived in Corfu, slightly battered but ecstatic and also not a little proud. I saw fantastic coves, experienced all kinds of weather, enjoyed the endless peace which enabled me to breathe freely once again and gave me an indescribable sense of inner satisfaction. I learned to combine control of my body with high-endurance sports and was simply happy to have found an answer to the question: „What’s behind that island?“ There was always space for me. I needed no motor, but was allowed to take my place in the system in which we live. Things aren’t as complicated as we think, even when things get unpleasant. „Life isn’t about complaining and waiting the storm to pass… it’s about learning to dance in the rain!“
As a result of this trip I have to completely replace my equipment – and I badly need financial help to do this. Thank you for your support!
„Life is like sailing!
Sometimes you get good winds, sometimes there is a storm,
But the important thing is: keep going!
Keep sailing your dreams
No matter which wind blows!
I wish you good times!“
Photos and text © Kathrin Szasz.