Sailing in Croatia
Komiža itself could not contain the roving habits of its fishermen, and they migrated all around the world, spreading their expertise as they went. In the 19th century, they set up salting works for pilchards and anchovies on the northwest coast of Spain. Some years later, they reached California and developed one of the world’s largest fish canneries. They have set up enterprises in Alaska, the Galápagos, Samoa and the Magellan Straits. It is said that there are now more Komižans in the Pacific than in their home town.
Off Komiža’s main thoroughfare, Ribarska Ulica (simply ‘fishing street’), I meet Ante Vidovic. He is sitting in the half-darkness of his workshop, tying hooks on a longline. Coming out into the sunlight, he leans against the doorframe and nods down to the water where his boat is moored. Yet fishing for Ante is now only a ‘hobby’. He is retired, while behind him stretches one of Komiža’s sea-tossed lives: for forty years he lived and worked in the far south of Chile.
We stand for a moment, in one of those silences that are so characteristic of men who spend their days at sea, before he volunteers: ‘Do you know that in the Komiža dialect, the language we use for boat parts and fishing is still Venetian?’
Afternoon spreads its honey-coloured light over Komiža. The town settles into evening. No-one is in a hurry. Pottering, sauntering and chatting occupies residents and visitors alike. Drinkers congregate in the shoreside bars. In the coves around the town, family groups lie on the beach while I join the swimmers lolling offshore, our heads bobbing in the gilded waters that stretch out towards the setting sun.
During the night, the wind rises. After days of stillness, everything is suddenly set in motion. I awake in my bunk and listen to the rigging clap against the mast; rain briefly patters on the deck but by morning the skies are clear. Over coffee, Zoran and I chew over the mariner’s eternal question – whether or not to leave harbour. Zoran goes off to the harbour office and reappears with a weather forecast. ‘Twenty to twenty-five knots of wind maximum,’ he smiles. ‘We go.’
We prepare the boat for sea. Around the headland, we are met by a perfect breeze. With sails full and the gunwales dipping, we head south and east, in the direction of Korčula and the ghost of Marco Polo.
The island of Šćedro lies a few miles off our route and that afternoon we nose into the small bay of Mostir, cast anchor, and row ashore. Beside the ruins of a Dominican monastery is a modest beach restaurant run by a man dressed entirely in black, with an impressive pipe curling from his mouth.
This is Stjepan Kordic, whose father was sent to Šćedro as a forest warden. No-one lived on the island then, and now only a few other people inhabit it in the summer, letting rooms and cooking for visiting boats. It's a marginal existence, pursued exclusively by those with a passion for islands. Stjepan is clearly one of these people. He stands in front of his open stove, looking happily out over the bay. The stove’s smoke combines with that from his pipe. He has an old friend staying, a retired sea-captain, who speaks on Stjepan’s behalf.
‘Stjepan carries Šćedro in his heart,’ the captain whispers, with an admiring glance towards him. ‘He carries the island in his chest and in his blood. He cannot live anywhere else. Sometimes he goes to Hvar to see his wife, but after a day he is back on the island.’ We eat fresh tomato salad and grilled codling from Stjepan’s oven, and drink grappa. As we row back to the yacht, Stjepan peels off his black trousers to reveal a pair of black swimming trunks and, boarding an old speed boat, he disappears into the bilges to service the engine.