Monday, 31 August 2015

Croatia – Retrospective Light

I’m calling this a retrospective light because we pretty much flew through Croatia.  We wanted to spend a lot of time here and planned to spend a lot of time here, but somehow it took us longer than we expected to get through Albania and Montenegro and we found ourselves under the gun a bit to get further North to Venice.  Why Venice?  Janet and the kids had flights to catch to visit with friends in England at the end of August…leaving just a couple of weeks to get there.

The Good:
  • Cavtat.  Pronounced Csavtat this incredibly friendly and picturesque town sits just a 30 minute bus or water taxi ride away from Dubrovnik which has been called the pearl of the Adriatic (with good reason).  What’s better, Cavtat had a lovely and free anchorage where we could catch our breath and settle in a bit.  Unfortunately, Cavtat was the scene of a bit of drama involving our boat, an errant anchor and catastrophe averted by an alert Janet and some quick action.  More on that in a blog post to come very soon.
  • Dubrovnik.  Game of Thrones anyone?  Dubrovnik is a lovely medieval city in excellent state of repair/maintenance.  It was a fascinating look into life in Europe in the middle ages and fun to wander a bit with the kids through the tiny cobbled alleys.  We even found a playground!

The Bad:
  •  Camping Gaz.  Actually, the lack of Camping Gaz.  For some reason, in spite of being a cruisers playground, and host to more charter boats than I can count, it is impossible to get gas canisters refilled or purchase new ones.  Now this is fine if your canister is full, or you have spares, less fine when you run out.  On a positive note, I now know that I can cook just about anything on a barbeque, including pasta, grilled cheese and pancakes.
  • This place is ridiculously busy.  And to make matters worse, it seems that not all of the people out on the water have actually got any experience, training or common sense.  More on that in the upcoming blog post noted above.  The plus here is that this is largely a July/August phenomena as there are literally thousands of tourists who descend on Croatia for a sailing summer vacation.

The Ugly:

Nothing that can be blamed on Croatia.  I’m expecting big things when we head back in September.

The Bottom Line:

We’re heading back and expect to spend 3 weeks or more exploring what we can.  Nuff said.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Montenegro – Retrospective

An overview

Montenegro is located North of Albania on the Adriatic sea.  It was once part of Yugoslavia and following the breakup of that state Montengrans successfully voted for independence, forming the nation of Montenegro in the 90’s.  Montenegro is welcoming of cruisers and has reasonably good facilities.

Entry into Montenegro is very straightforward with the customary visit to port authority, police and customs.  Unfortunately, the cost of cruising in Montenegro is quite high.  We paid just over 100 Euros for a 1 month cruising permit (vignette).

The Good:
  • Kotor.  This is a lovely Unesco World Heritage site perched on the edge of the bay that takes its name.  Kotor is a quaint and picturesque city with a fascinating old town.  The people were welcoming and the scenery spectacular.  Kotor also has a reasonably secure anchorage – we know because we were caught in a huge thunderstorm with winds in excess of 32 knots one night while there.  Our anchor held admirably in the thick mud, while we watched a much larger powerboat drag and desperately motor against the wind in order to avoid running into other boats or aground.
  • The Euro.  In spite of not being in the EU or the Euro zone, Montenegro has adopted the Euro as its currency.  When they became independent, Montenegro adopted the deutschmark so I guess it followed that they took on the Euro when Germany and others formed the single currency.  Transacting in Euros is easy, we had lots on hand from Greece and it saved us from having to figure out another exchange rate.  Hooray for common currency (in spite of the economic challenges it creates for less wealthy nations – see Greece).
  •  The Bay of Kotor.  We spent more than a week of our 10 days in this picturesque bay which is unusual for the geography of the area.  The Bay of Kotor is a huge fjord with steep mountainous sides and narrow passages that open into grandiose bays and views of tiny villages settled on the edge of the water.  It’s breathtaking until you realize you’re about to be run down by a cruise ship taking thousands of others to see the sights.

The Bad:
  • Price of cruising.  100 Euros for a 38 foot boat seems like a lot.  On top of that, there are relatively few places to anchor.  Case in point, we checked in at Bar late in the afternoon and with no nearby anchorage were faced with either a night sail to the nearest stopping point or a night in the marina at a cost of 70 Euros.  It was an expensive welcome to the country.

The Ugly:
  • Night Clubs.  Couple the lack of anchorages with expensive marinas and the fact that the marinas seem to be build right beside the local night club and you end up with a hellish experience.  That was us for the one night we stayed in Herceg Novi.  Not worth the visit.  We sat up until 1 AM not really listening to the music as much as feeling it in your chest when you tried to breathe.  We couldn’t carry a conversation 3 feet from each other, never mind sleep.  Word to the wise, don’t dock at Herceg Novi.

The Bottom Line:

Montenegro is an interesting country, fully in the throes of capitalism and taking advantage of the perceived tourist riches.  It is not a cheap place to visit.  That said, the Bay of Kotor is stunning, well worth seeing once in your lifetime and worth the cost of a cruising permit.  We likely won’t visit again but are not unhappy that we did the first time.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Albania – Retrospective Part II

In Part I, I provided an overview of Albania, incding the formalities for visiting.  In this second instalment I had planned to provide more details on where we visited and our impressions of the country.  But that started to get boring and I didn’t really want to write it so I’m changing my approach.

Goats grazing outside a castle in Palermos.
The Good:
  • Our agents in Sarande (Agim Zholi - and Durres (Captain Lambi Papa - ).  In Sarande, Agim met us at arrival, provided directions around town, gave us a copy of the 777 section covering Albania and went above and beyond when he met Iris and I at the Hospital and gave us a ride back to the boat.  
  • In Durres, Captain Lambi Papa met us at the boat and provided directions around town.  He checked in with us daily to make sure we were doing well and was obviously concerned that we found value in his services to the point that he offered us a money-back guarantee
  • The Albanian people. In spite of living through decades of communist paranoia and oppression, the Albanian people were welcoming, smiling, warm and open people.  Locals often made an effort to say hello, attempt conversations and interact.  Customs and port police and other officials were welcoming, helpful and cherry folks (which was a pretty significant contrast to our next stop, Montengro).
  • Medical Care.  You probably have already read Janet’s post about Iris’ little mishap, but it bears saying again that we were incredibly impressed with the quality, speed and cost of medical service in Albania.
  • Butrint.  The Unesco world heritage site of Butrint was a great opportunity to get away from the city and an excellent site for the kids to visit.  Outdoors, plenty of trails to explore and not too many areas that were off limits.  There is no better way to wear kids out than to let them climb all over an ancient city.

  • The Bunkers.  A sad leftover from the post-World War II leadership but a fascinating indicator of the mindset that existed and the challenging reality for Albanians right up until the mid-90’s.  The bunkers were everywhere and served as a sad reminder of the isolation imposed on the country.  They are also a pretty good indicator of why the country is still just starting to embrace tourism and private industry.
The Bad:
  • Bureaucracy.  The requirement to check in at each and every harbour and to use an agent was frustrating and limited the number of shore excursions/stops that we made.  Agents were relatively expensive compared to other costs.
  • Lack of anchorages.  The Albanian coast was very beautiful and the locals were welcoming, but there were very few safe, protected anchorages.  This, combined with number 1 above limited the number of stops we made and the duration of those stops. 
  • Lack of boating infrastructure.  Marinas I can do without, but there was a significant lack of chandleries or other facilities to outfit a cruising boat.  This may be a problem unique to us since we bought the boat in Greece and headed for Albanian nearly immediately.  Had we fully outfit the boat before leaving I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time looking for and failing to find hardware and boating supplies.

The Ugly:

Nothing really comes to mind, except maybe showing up in Durres and seeing that another cruiser had set rat guards on their lines – and then realizing we had no rat guards.  This was all followed by a frantic trip to the nearest grocery store to buy huge bottles of water to turn into rat guards.  Good news in the end – no rats on board!

The Bottom Line:

Albania was an interesting country and well worth the visit.  Tourism is just getting off the ground in the country and as a result there is not much tourism infrastructure.  However it is easy to find rooms for rent, hotels catering to eastern European tourists, or apartments for rent.  Banks are plentiful and ATMs dispense cash without incident.  Locals are friendly and welcoming and we recommend cruisers in the Adriatic take the time to visit rather than blasting past on their way between Greece and Croatia.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Well its official, our boat has a name.  I didn't imagine it would take a month to get done but there have been several considerations that added together have made it necessary to voyage under a nom de guerre.

Now - travelling under an assumed name wouldn't be that bad,  it could even be James Bond-ish, except for the fact that the name of this boat made me think of a Romanian gentlemen's club.

For the past 4 weeks we've been sailing and checking in as Gypsy Love.  Greece, Albania and Montenegro.  Officials in all 3 countries think we named the boat after some kind of late night made for TV movie.

Thankfully, with quick action from Transport Canada, assistance from our Broker in Florida and about an hour spent trying to find somewhere to print new documents we checked into Croatia as ourselves.

I'd like to introduce Maple, our Leopard 384 catamaran.  A true Canadian lady, with an unmistakably Canadian name.  Words cannot express how much this simple little thing pleases us all.

Of course, renaming a boat is not without its peril.  There are ancient gods of the seas and winds that must be appeased and sailorly superstitions that go back thousands of years that must be adhered to.  Normally, we're not particularly superstitious but in this case we'll make an exception.  The last thing we need is some unhappy ancient god chasing us down.

Thanks to Google and the legendary (among sailors at least) John Vigor we carried out what we believe will be an effective denaming ceremony.  What follows is the text that was read out in an authoritative voice to the assemblage of crew before I poured a full beer across the bows of the boat and into the ocean.  Mr. Vigor's article on denaming and naming can be found here:

“In the name of all who have sailed aboard this ship in the past, and in the name of all who may sail aboard her in the future, we invoke the ancient gods of the wind and the sea to favor us with their blessing today.

“Mighty Neptune, king of all that moves in or on the waves;

“And mighty Aeolus, guardian of the winds and all that blows before them:

“We offer you our thanks for the protection you have afforded this vessel in the past.  We voice our gratitude that she has always found shelter from tempest and storm and enjoyed safe passage to port.

“Now, wherefore, we submit this supplication, that the name whereby this vessel has hitherto been known, Gypsy Love, be struck and removed from your records.

“Further, we ask that when this vessel is again presented for blessing with another name, she shall be recognized and shall be accorded once again the selfsame privileges she previously enjoyed.

“In return for which, we rededicate this vessel to thy domain in full knowledge that she shall be subject to the immutable laws of the gods of the wind and the sea.

“In consequence whereof, and in good faith, we seal this pact with a libation offered according to the hallowed ritual of the sea.”
The oh so formal denaming ceremony.

Following the denaming I took a few minutes to apply the new name to the stern of the vessel, an important step in the naming of a boat.

After that was done, we got the champagne ready (beer to bid farewell and champagne to say hello) and read the following text (in the same officious manner as before).

"I name this ship Maple. May she bring fair winds, safe passages, and good fortune to all who sail on her.”

And so it was.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Albania Retrospective - Part 1 of 2

If you’re like me, everything you know about Albania you learned from Cheers – which is probably a sad commentary on the quality of my education but we’ll leave that for another day.  It turns out that Albania is a country that has lots to recommend it and is perfect for any intrepid traveller willing to take a chance and make some effort.

An Overview

Albania is located on Greece’s norther border and is spread north along the coastline of the Adriatic.  The south of the country is mountainous and dry.  The landscape is reminiscent of the Southern Okanagan in summer.  As you move north along the coast the land turns from rugged mountains to river deltas and low coastal wetlands – right around Vlore which is about mid-way along the coast.

During World War II Albania was occupied by Axis powers who were violently opposed by communist partisans and others.  Following the war, the Communist Party formed an independent government and as a member of the Warsaw Pact countries supported communist groups in neighbouring countries on its borders.  The Communists in Albania held power for nearly 50 years and were extremely paranoid to the point that they cut themselves off from nearly all foreign interactions and militarized much of their coastline, fearing invasion by NATO forces from the seas.

See the Pillbox - one of 700,000

In the early 90’s Albania held its first democratic elections, and struggled to establish a representative democracy.  Governments have come and gone, through successive scandals including a pyramid scheme that collapsed in the late 90’s costing many thousands of Albanians their life’s savings.  Since the mid 2000’s Albania has begun to re-establish industry and increase tourism with neighbours such as Greece and Italy which can be reached easily by daily ferries from Durres, Vlore and Sarande.  However, many of the remnants of their isolationist past remain and can be seen in the formalities for visiting by yacht and the rough edges of daily life.


Yachts are welcome in Albania and can check in at one of four ports, in the North is Shengjin followed as you head south by Durres, Vlore and Sarande.  Courtesy flags can usually be found in Greece if heading north, or may be purchased locally once you arrive. 

Unfortunately, sailing vessels are treated as any large ship and are required to use an agent to handle formalities on arrival.  The Adriatic Pilot 6th Edition and the 777 Harbours and Anchorages guide have recommended agents for each port.  In addition, vessels are required to check in with the authorities at each port visited even once immigration and customs formalities are accomplished.  This may mean you employ 4 different agents to complete paperwork for you at a cost that is not insignificant.  We visited Sarande (where we checked into the country), and Durres.  Agency fees were 70 Euros in Sarande and 50 Euros in Durres. 

While not a low budget item, the use of agents had the benefit of making the clearing in process simple.  We provided the yacht registration and our passports in Sarande and had our entry stamps and approval to visit within ½ hour of arriving.  Clearing out in Durres was equally simple we let our agent know we were leaving and he provided us with our exit papers and handled all of the immigration formalities.  It was surprisingly painless given that we were cruising at the time with a yacht that was not registered in our name.


Our agents were exceedingly helpful in both Sarande and Durres, offering assistance with directions to key shops and sights in both locations. Their services went beyond that of checking into the country and they were excellent ambassadors for visiting cruisers.

Moored at a questionable pier - Palermos Bay, Albania

There are a few anchorages that can be visited between the port cities, though the Albanian coast is generally not well sheltered from the prevailing summer winds.  When visiting these anchorages it is not necessary to check in, though if the port police happen to be present they may ask for your details to create a record of your visit.

If you wish to stop in at anchorages along the coast the 777 guide is a must have though hard to find in North America.  Get it before you get to Albania as we did not see it for sale locally.

In Part II of this retrospective, I'll provide some details on the costs of our stay in Albania, agents we used, and the places we visited and impressions we formed.