A skippered flotilla charter on the Dalmatian Coast is a dream come true for Laura Hodgetts, but can she really relax as a (last-minute) lone parent with two pre-schoolers and inexperienced crew?
The setting was perfect: hot sun, an idyllic marina surrounded by mountains, and a yacht club pool. Yet having been carrying my heavy, sleeping three-year-old for about 15 minutes, walking around ACI Marina Dubrovnik trying to find the Sunsail office, I was feeling anything but in holiday mode.
But despite being busy welcoming other new arrivals, the Sunsail crew ushered me to a shady seat while a kind staff-member with a trolley rounded up my travelling companions – who had cleverly opted to wait under a tree at the marina entrance, with the bags.
After meeting our professional skipper and being shown around the Sunsail 404 Premier catamaran, I realised it was all perfect after all and promptly sat in my cabin and burst into tears!
It was the first holiday abroad with my daughters Neve (4) and May (3), and the stress of travelling from London Gatwick was made worse without my husband – we realised too late that his soon-to-expire passport didn’t meet the entry requirements of Croatia.
So the challenge of keeping my little ones safe for a week at sea, loomed large.
Luckily I had reinforcements in the form of my sister-in-law, Helen, and niece Tilly (17), but as both were nervous non-sailors I was feeling the weight of responsibility, especially when Neve and May excitedly climbed up and across the catamaran roof, oblivious to the steep drops, then bounced across the ‘trampoline’ on the bow.
After a bracing swim in the marina pool with swifts darting low over the water and the mountains reflected in the large glass windows, followed by a dinner of tortellini pasta on board thanks to the pre-bought provisioning offered by Sunsail, and eventually settling the girls in their double berth, I retreated to my spacious berth at the other end of the starboard hull.
A good night’s sleep made everything seem more achievable.
We had been welcomed by our host Jennie and lead skipper Henry and encouraged to enjoy breakfast in the marina restaurant, as Sunsail was hosting!
The briefing about the week ahead was only mildly interrupted by Neve needing a wee and May shouting that I had an earwig in my hair. The Sunsail team gave a word of warning that skippers could be breathalysed at any time by the Croatian authorities.
Having never spent any extended time on a catamaran before – unless you count a press experience aboard Ben Ainslie’s Extreme Sailing Series racing multihull, which was a little less comfortable – I was amazed by how open and airy it felt inside, compared to going below in a monohull.
A catamaran owner who’d been allowed to accompany the flotilla in return for assisting at the social events, later told me: “Everyone thinks we choose a multihull because there’s no tilt, but it’s really because it’s all on one level, and a much more social experience.”
There has never been a time aboard a moving boat before that I’ve felt keen to do any cooking, yet there I was making a soup to use up the vegetables we had pre-ordered, while still being able to keep an eye on the girls who were being entertained by Aunty Helen.
We were motoring as Sandro, our skipper, said that the catamarans could only sail 60º to the wind and the wind direction meant it would take a ridiculously long time to tack.
For the first couple of days, the wind was pretty non existent anyway. Our destination was Sudurad, Šipan Island, 10 miles away, but we stopped for lunch at Šunj Beach, Lopud Island where an easy swim from the boat to the sandy beach was made more challenging by my nervous five-year-old clinging to my neck, and the two snorkels I was carrying.
The return swim was a lot more pleasant. Sandro then tasked Helen with operating the electric windlass, telling her to let him know when the anchor was visible in the water. Helen wasn’t wearing her glasses but did spot it despite her fears and after Sandro checked it wasn’t twisted, the anchor was fully raised and we were off.
Sandro liked to be told when the anchor was visible so if the busy anchorage offered limited manoeuvrability he could motor away and complete the task in clearer waters. Another rule of the boat was to keep all hatches closed under way to avoid rogue waves soaking the bedding below.
Stern line courtesy
Approaching Sudurad, Sandro primed us not to throw the lines in the faces of the waiting Sunsail or harbour staff, “everyone aims for the eyes!” As an aside, Sunsail’s helpful mechanic Josh later held out a hand to one side while we approached with the stern lines which instinctively provided a better target.
Sudurad is open to north-easterly and south-easterly winds and swell. Sailors should beware rocks on the starboard side when entering. There are options of the Town Dock or mooring balls.
Keen to avoid hitting the waiting Sunsail crew in the face, I threw the rope too short, but as Sandro had a good technique of looping two sets of coils on the same line, I was able to throw the second lot instead, which was duly caught, looped around a bollard and passed back to me to secure to a cleat in an OXO with a locking loop at the end.
Sandro demonstrated how we should take the mooring line from the shoreside staff and follow it, hand over hand, along the side of the boat, taking care to pass it under the fender lines, pulling it in tight at the bow before securing with an OXO.
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Our 12m multihull, which seemed as wide as it was long, was the largest in the fleet, which mostly included monohulls and a couple of smaller catamarans.
We mingled with our fellow flotilla sailors at a gin and tonic gathering at the end of the stone pier. Neve and May helped themselves to crisps and petted a friendly local cat or ‘machka’ as we learned to say.
Other useful words included ‘Hvala vam’ – thank you, and ‘dobar dan’ – good day, or the easier ‘bok’ which like the Italian ciao is an informal hi or bye.
The mooring fee cost around £50 or HRK 442 (Croatian Kuna). We ate on board – jacket potatoes and a tasty ratatouille which my ‘soup’ had ended up as – because we would be eating ashore at the next restaurant-owned stop, as an alternate option to paying the mooring fee.
I was surprised by how well my daughters and I slept, considering that at home we opt for extensive blackout measures and here it was bright sunshine streaming in from day break.
Sandro attended the next morning briefing for skippers and first mates. With the cheerful Sunsail lead boat skipper and mechanic on standby, we released our mooring lines and motored off for Okuklje, Mljet Island, 11 miles away.
By this time, the flotilla sailors were beginning to realise that Sandro was a fount of local knowledge having sailed the area for 10 years, and our boat was popular with people dropping by to say hi and to ask where we would be anchoring along the way. Despite our jokes not to tell them, he revealed it would be Spilice Bay on the Pegesac peninsula.
This time the winds had picked up, gustily, so Sandro demonstrated the catamaran’s sailing performance. With all lines leading to the raised skipper’s seat, and a foot pedal with electric control, Sandro could sail the boat single-handed. It was pleasant to experience it out on deck but with two little ones to keep safe, we retired to the lounge area.
As a gust hit, a bowl smashed on the floor. China on a boat – a clue to how stable the conditions aboard usually were!
My three year old got upset as other items slid around and I began to think that perhaps motoring was preferable.
It was a relief to reach our lunch stop, where again we enjoyed a swim in crystal clear waters, looking out for the spiny urchins and watching the hermit crabs, sand-camouflage fish, and other silver shoals darting about. Conditions felt like the height of summer British weather.
We were watched by a bemused Sandro, wrapped up in his jacket: “I don’t swim until August.”
More sailing – although this time we were better prepared – on to Okuklje, a harbour protected against all wind and swell. Sailors should beware rocks in the middle of the bay, though, and shallow water behind.
Options here are a restaurant dock or mooring balls. After a ‘10-minute’ hike up a winding road to a stunning viewpoint of the harbour – which took far longer carrying one tired little’un and another who had a blister, we enjoyed a two course meal in Restoran Maestral, where Neve and May were thoughtfully presented with a colouring pencil set by Jennie, and lego blocks by the restaurant owner. I opted for sardines, followed by the grilled fish, in an attempt to be super healthy.
Neve and May had a parma ham and cheese medley followed by roast chicken – but were far too distracted to eat any of it. They later had cereal and toast on board.
Day four dawned sunnily and I was delighted and relieved to realise we’d reached the halfway point without losing anyone overboard, no rows among the crew and two very happy little girls who had adapted effortlessly to boat life.
We motor-sailed to Lumbarda, Korcula Island, 25 miles away in a north-easterly 20-30 knots.
Here the mooring option of a marina dock is protected from the swell, and north-easterly winds blowing directly in the shallow area behind the marks, on the starboard side when entering the harbour.
There were amazing gelato ice creams to be found at the marina – around £4 for three – and warm showers.
Negotiating the narrow wooden passerelle was a challenge with young children, similarly I saw one of the older flotilla members take a deep breath before attempting to get back on board their yacht.
Sandro said if any of his crew struggled he’d rig two passerelles side by side to create a wider walkway.
Host Jennie became ill, and when she tested positive for Covid her boat was quarantined and sailed back to base, seamlessly replaced by another Sunsail lead crew who’d been preparing for the following week’s flotilla.
Sandro had impressed us all with effortless boat handling, thoughtful local knowledge and guidance to ensure we saw all the best sights, summoning a taxi within minutes to take us to the beautiful historic town of Korcula.
Now that he had warmed up to us, he joked ‘boat hair don’t care’ to Neve and cheerfully accepted that we were far slower than he anticipated as the girls would invariably like to stop and look at a beetle.
We enjoyed his stories too – life as a flotilla skipper had seen him providing first aid and summoning medical care for a man who had severed a thumb pushing two boats apart – a salutary lesson: “Fibreglass repairs are much easier – resist the instinct to push boats apart if they’re going to collide!”
He’d had an eight-month pregnant crew member go into labour on a remote island resulting in a helicopter airlift to hospital, and was well used to children aboard thanks to a French family who return year after year to sail with him.
Neve loved to sit up at the helm next to Sandro, beeping the horn whenever he let her. She made him laugh by singing “We’re going this way, that way, over the rolling sea, a bottle of rum to fill my fat tum and that’s the life for me.”
Sunsail charters are unusual – and far more relaxed – by departing Dubrovnik marina on a Sunday, instead of the busy Saturday when most charters depart.
It was now Thursday and we motorsailed to Pomena, Mljet Island, 11 miles from Lumbarda in a north-westerly 12-16 knots. Sandro suggested a stop at Badisa Island, which has a monastery, because deer are regularly spotted here.
Neve had persuaded Sandro to take his first swim of the year and he encouraged her along as she nervously declared “I don’t want to drown!”
There were lots of spiny urchins close to the harbourside. We had taken four carrots and shoes in my dry bag. There was no sign of the deer and so I broke up the carrots and left them under a tree.
While we were sitting on the harbourside, warming ourselves in the sun, May said ‘Deer, deer!’ and through the sun-dappled trees one emerged, sniffing out the carrots and eating them all.
Sandro, who had unfortunately suffered what looked like jellyfish stings, walked around the harbourside to get a lift back to the boat in a powerboat, he then returned for us with an outboard-powered tender.
Tilly was particularly nervous about being on the RIB but soon realised that all was well.
We carried on to Pomena, which is open on strong north-westerly and northeasterly winds. Sailors should enter from the north and north-east side between the smaller islands. Mooring options included a town dock, a restaurant dock and anchorage with a national park fee.
We chose the Konaba Nine restaurant dock, run by Nino and his family, and tied up alongside the stone jetty.
By now, Neve was declaring her love for Sandro. At dinner that evening she told him: “I want to marry you Sandro”, he laughed and said: “I will have to tell my girlfriend.”
Neve rolled her eyes and exclaimed: “You can’t have two girlfriends”, Sandro replied: “I know! I have decisions to make” and Neve sighed dramatically, saying “OK fine, I’ll marry someone else.”
He sweetly sat with Neve and five-year-old Isabella – Nino’s daughter – and acted as a translator. Soon the girls were running around together and playing with toys.
We visited the national park, and walked around part of the stunning, huge turquoise lake, which you could swim in. The sharp coral cut into my feet and it was preferential to swim even in the shallow water than to attempt to walk.
We saw the electric ferry take people to an island with a monastery and restaurant, and the electric limousine-style golf buggy which tours the park, but we had a long trip ahead to Ston on the Pelješac peninsula 23 miles away so we headed back to the boat, spotting lizards and Maybugs along the way.
City of salt
We motored around the peninsula in a north-westerly 8-12 knots, enjoying our first and only sighting of dolphins who rose up close to the stern and then dipped underneath and away.
Ston is protected from the swell in all directions, although open to north-easterly winds. Sailors should follow the channel marks to get to the town.
The mooring option was alongside the town dock. There was a new-looking bridge over the harbour entrance which Sandro hadn’t passed under before. The area is renowned for its salt works.
Neve and May were delighted to spot two ladybirds ashore and giant crabs in the stream as we walked into town the following day to find the swing park and enjoy an ice cream in the square.
The Walls of Ston made the shape of a ‘W’ on a nearby hill and in town we could see advertising for a marathon race on it. We ate aboard – the fine cuisine of chicken nuggets and French fries, which took far longer than expected in the boat’s oven, but were well received once ready.
On our final day’s sailing, Sandro told us that once back at ACI Marina Dubrovnik and all the boat chores had been completed, he’d be driving home to Split some three hours away. The 21-mile route back to Dubrovnik was in a south and south-easterly wind up to 10 knots.
We enjoyed a lunch stop, swimming in crystal clear waters over sand, north of Šipan Island, next to Mišnjak Island where hermit crabs scuttled about in abundance.
Neve, who had taken to greeting her fellow sailors with ‘You look handsome’ and ‘You look pretty’, won an award for being ‘The chattiest crew member who makes people smile with your comments’, while May won a similar prize for being the youngest flotilla crew – a beaded bracelet that Sunsail host May had kindly whipped up with the girls’ names and Sunsail on it.
Sandro, who had helped other flotilla crew to pilot their yachts into marinas, won a ‘most helpful skipper’ certificate. It was a sad farewell to Sandro, although the girls were distracted by a prospect of a swim in the yacht club pool, which with a Croatian band performing, swifts darting about and mountain scenery, provided the perfect end to our holiday.
Having forgotten our towels, we were soggy walking back to our boat Wetterants which queued jokes about Wetterpants being more apt.
Hot marina showers were well received later. Watching our fellow flotilla crews attempting to refuel before mooring up for a final time had made me particularly grateful to have a professional skipper on board.
Despite being RYA Day Skipper qualified it’s been six years since I passed the test, and just one charter holiday and little other practice in between due to being distracted by having children! So I’d not have felt confident negotiating the multiple harbours, anchorages and marinas even with the Sunsail team’s thorough morning briefings which included weather conditions, what to expect on arrival, assistance if needed – with staff travelling over in a RIB to take the helm.
Sandro made me feel better about this feebleness by saying in a foreign cruising ground, he too would hire a skipper, as they doubled up as an instructor, tour guide and translator, and half of his time at peak season was spent on the phone to harbour staff, all of whom he knew well, to find mooring spaces.
There were a couple of prangs by other flotilla yachts and this rusty Day Skipper was extremely happy to have opted for a skippered boat, and indeed the fancy catamaran, which took the stress out of the whole experience and gave my young daughters the best first holiday abroad we could have hoped for.
Cost and logistics
Sunsail (sunsail.co.uk) has two Croatian bases – at Agana and Dubrovnik, offering bareboat, flotilla, or skippered charter hire in two- or three-cabin monohulls, or four-cabin multihulls, plus a sailing school in Agana. The 1,000 or more islands of the Dalmatian Coast enable gentle cruising and island hopping in the calm, clear waters of the Adriatic.
We travelled in May and enjoyed sunshine and light winds, although it had rained the week before and the following week’s forecast was for high winds. Sandro recommends September for less scorching sun but more reliable weather and quieter moorings.
- Charter cost of a Sunsail 404 Premier (under three years old) catamaran, 15-22 May 2022: £4,499 for five passengers.
- Skipper cost: £1,365. We recommend Sandro Boduljak!
- Additional costs: provisions; mooring fees/restaurant dinners at all stops except for ACI Marina Dubrovnik cost about £50 a night, although fees vary a lot, depending on the period of the season, sailing region, and marina; £350 Yacht Damage Waiver or insurance.
- Flights: £151.59 per passenger, including hold luggage and taxes. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from London Gatwick to Dubrovnik.
- Airport transfer: Dubrovnik Vacation minibus, €50 each way. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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