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Impressions of Croatia

Introduction

When discussing our plans to visit Croatia amongst our live aboard friends, it was very apparent that Croatia has had mixed reviews. Our opportunities to sail this summer (2007) have been rather limited by health and family committments. However, we can say that we have enjoyed our visit here immensely, and would recommend it to anyone. Maybe these notes will dispel some doubts, and perhaps whet your appetite further.

Why Croatia?

A glance at a map will tell half the story. The Croatian coastline, south of the Istrian penninsular, is literally dotted with hundreds of islands and islets, and many of these provide overnight or lunch time anchorages. The islands tend to be long and narrow, lying parallel with the coast, and between which there are deep, usually steep to channels. There are few hazards, and where these exist, most of them are well marked. There are a limited number of channels sufficiently well lit to offer safe navigation at night, {and some of the inter island channels have fish farms established in them). There is little current, so that for the most part it makes for safe sailing in relatively sheltered waters. Anchorages and islands are sufficiently close together to provide plenty of stopping places.

The islands and coastline vary enormously. The ranges of mountains that lie behind the coastline, and indeed form the coasline along the Velibitski Kanal, impact the climate. The pilot books refer to the much dreaded Bora that can whip up storm force winds from the NE falling down from the mountains and cross the Velibitski Kanal tearing any soil on the island of Pag from the rocks. We may have been lucky, and we have been impressed by the bareness and beauty of wind blown rock formations on Pag, but we have not suffered any prolonged periods of severe winds throughout our visit. The outlying Kornati islands owe their lack of vegetation largely to man, who removed the timber that once grew on the islands. Other islands have retained their afforestation, or are covered in Mediterranean maquis bush. Everywhere there is evidence of farming with stone walls and terracing still showing while nature has taken charge again.

Croatia has been too near the seat of civilization not to have been affected. Many of the towns and villages offer evidence of ancient civilisations, and occupation by successive waves of invaders or exploiters.

There are national parks established in a number of places, both on the mainland and on the islands, where you can expect to pay a reasonable charge for admission. The parks on the river Krka, above Sebrinik, and on the island of Mlijet are particularly worth visiting.

Cruising boats you will encounter

Croatia is not much visited by the British, certainly not the liveaboard types. During our whole time here, we have seen very few British registered boats! We have only spoken to around 6, and 3 of these approached us as we were flying our rather tattered CA flag in Zadar marina. One other couple we met dry sail their HR39 from Zadar marina, another have trailer-sailed their boat here for 18 years, so must love it. Yet another couple keep their boat (another HR!) near Split, and actually came on board for a coffee and a chat. A further crew had just arrived and were laying up their Oyster 55 in Sukosan for the winter. So the social life has not been brilliant: rather non-existant. Croatia is very popular with Germans and Austrians, who can easily reach the coast by car. The proximity to Italy means that inevitably there are some visitors from that quarter: not in our experience as many as you might expect. We understand that Italians come here in great number in August, but as we were missing then we did not see them! Of other nations, there have been the very occasional Swiss, Swedish, French and a couple of American boats. There are very few superyachts as seen in other Mediterranean resorts, we have seen just a handful.

Croatia has an active charter tourist market, which the cruising carnet and regulations are supposedly intended to protect. Foreigners are not allowed to charter boats here. There are many fleets operating out of the large Sukosan marina, and it is fascinating to watch the weekly cycle. On Saturdays, there are all the incomers, and departures, while on Friday there is a scramble to refuel. In between, the charter berths in the marina lie nearly empty. It mystifies me why people charter sailing boats, then charge from place to place on maximum engine revs. even while there is a useable breeze.

In the end, the waters are not crowded, and there is plenty of room for everyone.

The Croatian people

Unfortunately the Croatian language is a mystery, and where the word 'Croatia' comes from we have not discovered. The name for Croatia locally is Hrvatska. The language bears no resemblance to any of the latin languages, and some say it is more akin to Russian. Accordingly, you cannot even guess at the meaning of any labelling or such like. We should have made more effort, but haven't, and we do not even know how to say Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Good Morning, Good Evening or Goodbye after four months in the country! Croatians now study English and one other language, usually German, at school. English is widely spoken and understood. All the Croatians we have encountered have been friendly and helpful. Wages in the service industries are very low (around 100 Kuna for a full day), and there is a wide diversity between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.

Cruising carnet

It is a requirement when first arriving in Croatian waters to check in with the nearest harbour master, and to clear customs and immigration. In order to cruise, you need a permit which is issued for a year, and the price you pay depends upon the size of your boat. You need to present ships registration certificate, and insurance paperwork as well as passports. For Fuga, it cost us 1765 Kuna (170 GBP or 240). You are issued with papers detailing the crew on arrival in Croatia. You are also required to maintain a crew list of visitors on board, who need to be registered on arrival with the harbour authorities. In the case of Fuga, we were allowed 19 'slots': twice the number of berths, plus 3. Once issued with these papers, any visits to marinas are controlled via the paperwork, there is no need to re-present your ships papers or other documents.

While paying for a permit may seem onerous, it is not an excessive overhead provided that you are committed to spending a reasonable period in Croatian waters. We have only on one occasion been asked to present paperwork, or been in any way 'controlled' by the authorities, other than on entry into marinas. Croatia does not appear to have an extensive fleet of patrol boats, such as encountered in Spain or Italy (Guardia Costiera), the harbour authorities are largely desk bound, nor have we seen any obvious rescue service (except for a SAR vessel in Split). As and when Croatia gains entry to the EU, the carnet, and all the officialdom that supports it, should disappear. Given the limited numbers of cruising boats in Croatian waters, it can hardly be cost effective.

It may be argued that the Croatian authorities are intent primarily on protecting their domestic charter market. Charter crews bring revenue for the charter operators, for the marinas, and will probably always eat out at the local restaurants. Cruising people, who own their own boats, will tend to be more constrained in their spending. This attitude is reflected by the marina operators, and the harbour authorities.

90 day rule

We have now heard from two sources, one of whom had checked with the British consul, about a so-called 90 day rule that was introduced in 2005. This restricts visitors to Croatia to a maximum stay of 90 days in any six month period. This must affect those who dry-sail or who berth their boats in Croatia. We certainly did not pick this up when we entered Croatia, but we may have been asked when we intended to leave. If so, we might have over extended our welcome! It is possible that you might get fined and thrown out of the country. Arriving or departing by road, there are no checks, although passports get stamped at airports. Once again, there appears to be little prospect of these regulations being policed or enforced, but who can tell? (In fact no one queried the length of our stay when we cleared out of Croatia).

Those expensive marinas!

All marinas are expensive, but perhaps Croatian marinas are excessively so, even by UK south coast standards. There are those who choose to use marinas, and they are welcome to them, and must pay the price. However, given the surfeit of first class anchorages, who really wants to go in one? There is an excellent pilot book published by Magnamare , entitled "Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro: 777 harbours and anchorages". The title speaks for itself! We had few problems anchoring, and spent many nights anchored in close proximity to marinas without any issues arising.

Even the marina rates quoted can be very misleading. We spent one night in the outrageously expensive Tankerkomerc marina in Zadar. The basic rate for Fuga (12.5m) was 319 Kuna, but electricity, water, and visitors tax (about 4.50 Kuna per day per person) brought the total to 421Kuna, before sales tax at 22% giving a bottom line figure of over 500 Kuna, or 48 GBP, say 67 (euro). Marina Dalmacija, on the other hand quotes a daily rate of 47, but this is inclusive of water, electricity and tax, (but they offer no monthly rate). All the Tankerkomerc marinas (on Iz and Ugljan also) are expensive: the firm is primarily in oil and gas distribution. There is a large group of marinas established called ACI (Adriatic Croatia International Club), and we were given a brochure and the published (vat inclusive) price list as part of our welcome pack. The prices vary according to capacity and demand, attracting a surcharge in the peak months, but are similar to Marina Dalmacija. ACI do offer a monthly rate and other incentives. We understand there is a 'coupon' scheme if cruising between their marinas.

The other story we had heard was of people charging yachts to use anchorages. We have been on our guard against this, but have to say that we have only encountered one such instance. There are designated anchorages, mostly referred to in the pilot, where a fee is charged for mooring (or anchoring) where buoys are provided. Where we deliberately chose to use a buoy, the fee was a not unreasonable 92 Kuna (about 10 GBP), including visitors tax. The exception was an occasion where we had sought out an anchorage off a small town on the island of Otok Prvic, near the Sibenik river, where there was a pretty village by the harbour in Prvic Luka. We were approached for a fee of 130 Kuna, being half the fee for mooring to the quay. We decided that this was excessive, and as it was not too late we went off elsewhere, there being an abundance of choice nearby. The shops, bars and restaurants of Otok Prvic could do without our custom!

Mooring concessions are administered and let out by the central harbour authorities, e.g. Split, Sibenik and Zadar. Often the conditions that they impose, rather than the locals themselves, are unreasonable, and may cause facilities to be withdrawn as a result.

Our mooring costs are given in our summary journal. It was our misfortune this year to leave Fuga in a marina for just one week, only to return 5 weeks later!

Costs

Leaving aside the cost of marinas, which are excessive but mostly avoidable, most costs in Croatia are very reasonable. Basic food stuffs are quite cheap, by comparison with other European countries. However it is difficult to find the supplies of fresh produce, fish and meat that we are used to elsewhere. In the larger towns there are now some larger supermarkets, but the norm is for a large number of small local shops with limited turnover. The large towns (Zadar, Split, Sibenik, Korcula) also have good local markets. Eating out and having drinks ashore are relatively inexpensive. A round of drinks for two will rarely amount to more than 30 Kuna. Dinner for two with wine rarely more than 400 Kuna. While the cuisine is generally unexciting, there are exceptions when you can find them. Diesel fuel costs about 8 Kuna a litre (just over one ). If you can find gas, (we had to visit the depot in Bibinje by taxi), it is incredibly cheap at just over 3 to refill a large camping gaz bottle.

Weather

We have been in Croatia from early June to early October, 2007, with a break for late July and most of August. During that time we have experienced mainly warm sunny conditions with light winds. Rarely, under normal conditions, does the wind exceed Force 5, and more usually there is too little. Winds from the NW and SE predominate. Where there have been frontal disturbances coming through, then these have given rise to some quite severe thunderstorms, which can create strong winds while they pass through. We have not experienced the feared Bora (NE), but understand that winds can occasionally get up to storm force in these conditions. Water temperatures climbed up to 26 C, but fell back rapidly at the end of August under the influence of a week of relatively poor weather. On a typical day in a high pressure system, the day starts calm, and a breeze comes up around midday until late afternoon when it dies away again.

We have tended to rely on weather forecasts by Navtex on Split radio. These only to give warnings, the local synopsis and 24 hour outlook, and so do not give much understanding of the context and medium term outlook. We subscribe to buoyweather for longer term passage forecasting, whose forcasts are derived from the USA model but we have tended to live from day to day while in Croatia.

Health Care

I had the misfortune to require some health care while we were in Croatia. We relied on the advice of the taxi driver that we would not be able to get treatment at the local health centre in Sukosan, who would certainly refer us to Zadar. She therefore took us to the emergency clinic in Zadar, (and was enormously helpful in making sure that I was seen in due turn). It transpired that I needed to have my passport with me. In its absence I was treated, but had to pay 130 Kuna for the consultation and injections I was given. On a subsequent visit, the treatment was free as I had my passport with me, and we did not have to pay for the prescription at the Pharmacy. We never discovered whether it was a matter of not being treated locally, or that they had no mechanism for charging or delivering free treatment to foreigners. The pharmacists were very helpful, and there seemed to be no problem in obtaining drugs if you knew what you needed. Others have suggested that there would be no problem getting treatment locally: we simply do not know for certain.

Public transport

There is a network of fairly frequent inter-island ferries. It is worth considering using these from an island, rather than going to a major town for a crew change. On the mainland, the bus services are effective and cheap. We only saw goods being hauled by rail.

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