Some Things are Scary: Kayaking off the Coast of Croatia

My blistered hands grip the kayak paddle as I point “red boat” towards the point of land 2 km away and across an open channel. The wind is hitting us from an angle and splashing over my spray skirt on every 6th or 7th wave. I brace my feet and legs and tell myself, “you’ve got this”, then I realize I am holding my breath. Yes, I am scared. Maybe we are in over our heads?  As the sun is setting we are making a final attempt to find a beach where we can land the kayaks and camp for the night. It is our second day out on a self-guided kayak trip near the city of Split, off the coastline of Croatia and we have been fighting the wind all day.

“The weather is unsettled this week”, the rental company warned us. “Keep an eye on Aladdin (a great weather app) and we will message you if conditions are too severe”.

Our proposed campsite for the night lay around an exposed point, off the island of Drvenik Veli. We attempted to pass around the point in the early afternoon and were forced back by high waves, winds and scary cross currents.  Perched on a small and rocky beach, with no place to pitch a tent or safely stow our boats for the night, we spent the afternoon waiting. Waiting for the winds to die down, as they usually do when evening approaches, so we could make another attempt. From our perch, conditions seemed to be improving, time to try again. As we approach the point, we are once again forced back and end up making the “safer” decision to head across the channel to Drvenik Mali, and a less conveniently located camp. It would mean we will have extra miles to cover tomorrow, but at this point it beats perching on the rocks overnight or risking serious consequences if we stick to plan A.  As I breathe through each paddle stroke, bringing me closer to our tent and a safe bed, I think to myself “how did I end up here again?”.

“Hey Rob, while we are in the Balkans we should look for a kayak tour off the coast of Croatia”, she said.

“Sounds great!”, he said.

“Oooh, looks like there are a few companies we could go with, out of Dubrovnik”, she said.

“Make it so Captain”, he said.

A few days later…. “Yikes it is crazy expensive”, she said.

“Oh well, maybe we can do some hiking or something instead”, he said.

“Yeah, maybe”, she said dejectedly.

Time passes, they do this super cool self-guided hut to hut cycling trip in Montenegro (see Cabbage Rolls and Coffee) but it is hot and the idea of being on the water is so enticing. She heads to google again.

“Hey Rob, there is a company in Split called RED Adventures” (cool coincidence given we ski live next to and ski at RED mountain BC).

“They rent kayak and camping gear, provide a route and phone support and help paddlers do a self-guided trip”, she said.

“That sounds perfect, let’s do it!”, he said.

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Day 1:  Beach at Split just before heading into the unknown

And so here we are.  Obviously, we survived because I am writing this blog! And in reality, many hard ass paddlers would think we are pretty “lame” to even be afraid in these conditions, but here is the thing. If you love the outdoors and are into adventure sports, pushing your boundaries and finding the “edge” of your comfort zone is how you improve your fitness level and your skills. The tricky part is learning where your personal boundary or edge is and making decisions to manage the risks while still pushing yourself to new levels.

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Our paddling route

We continued to battle the wind for the remaining 5 days of our tour.  Rising most mornings at 4:30 am to pack up camp and be on the water for a few hours of lighter winds. Stopping by early afternoon and waiting for the winds to die down in the evening and then pushing ourselves to try to make it to our next camp so we were not paddling in the dark. The islands off the coast of Croatia are beautiful, but safe spots to land your kayak as well as wild camping sites are limited, meaning high mileage some days and becoming adept at surf landings!  It also meant doing some “stealth camping” on private beaches and trying to sneak away at first light.  All in all, it made for a more anxiety inducing trip but it also added to the adventure factor.

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Calm seas headed towards Drvenik V

Looking back, despite the stress of paddling in unfamiliar waters, with difficult crossings and long distances between good campsites, I am so glad we did it. At the time, it felt as if we were missing out on enjoying the Dalmatian coast experience. When planning a trip, you start to daydream and develop an expectation for your adventure. I imagined paddling in warm Mediterranean weather with time to enjoy a beer at a little beach bar and swim in the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic. As is often the case when you have preconceived ideas, the reality is different than what you imagined. In my case, the trip was much more difficult than I anticipated, but I feel stronger and more accomplished for the experience.  Plus there were some really cool moments.  For example, discovering huge caves created by President Tito and the former Yugoslav army after World War 2. These massive caves, carved out of the limestone cliffs on islands off the coast of Croatia are invisible to passing boats and planes. Created during the cold war era, and now abandoned, they are large enough to hide an entire battleship or submarine. Paddling into one of these empty, dark tunnels is akin to being in a James Bond movie. With Rob in the lead, our kayaks slipped into the silent darkness. As I approached the end of the tunnel I felt a little creeped out until an eerie voice came out of the darkness ahead of me, “Well Bond, I see you have found my secret lair”, breaking the mood and cracking me up.

This trip gave me new respect for mother nature. On our final day of paddling, we had to cross the 5km channel between the island of Brac to the island of Hvar, where we would stay in a guesthouse and catch the ferry at Stari Grad back to Split. Once again the forecast was for strong winds in the morning. We set the alarm for 4:30am and were up, enjoyed our coffee and museli (literally we mix the instant coffee with the museli and add milk – a fast, easy way to get your coffee and breakfast with only one bowl to wash!) and packed by 6am. Just as we put on our spray skirts the wind picked up and the sky turned black. I saw a flash of lightning across the channel and started to count as I waited for the boom of thunder.

“One, one thousand, two one thousand… that was about 5km away”, I said to Rob.

Before I even finished the first count, at least 3 more lightning flashes filled the sky, with the final flash being amazingly bright and the corresponding thunder happening seconds after I saw the flash!  Yikes, we wisely moved from the tall tree under which we were sheltering to an area of lower bushes just down the beach from our boats. As the sky opened up, we realized our raincoats were packed away and, soaked to the skin, we ran for a small stone shrine to wait out the storm. Finally, the wind died down and the storm moved on, prompting us to attempt our crossing.  As we paddled out of our sheltered bay, a local sailer clambered onto his boat’s deck and begged us to stay put.

“After a storm, the winds will be very strong. Please. BE SAFE. You should not cross”.

We nosed out of the bay to be hit by wind and high waves prompting a retreat back to the beach and unpacking of the boats. Immediately after setting up our tent, the team at Red Adventures messaged us.  They advised that the best time to cross would be in 1 hour as there was a 3 hour window where winds would drop and we should be able to make it. We mulled over this information and decided to go for it. By now we were good at taking down camp and loading our boats quickly. Within an hour, we were ready to try again and indeed, the weather in our sheltered bay did seem to be improving. As we paddled by the sailboat once again, it was a moment of deja vu as our friend gravely advised us.

“Stay safe. Please be careful, the winds are very unpredictable today. You must be safe!”

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In a crazy lightning storm this shrine was our shelter

The lure of a shower and a real mattress (instead of a sticky pool floaty from the dollar store) pushed us out of the sheltered bay. The locals call white caps on the ocean “little sheep”. As we paddled into the channel we discovered some “big ass sheep” and once again carefully turned our boats back to the safety of the beach, accepting defeat to mother nature and providing some good entertainment for our sailor friend, I’m sure! Rounding the corner into the sheltered bay, we saw a small fire had been started by a lightning strike on the bank just above the shrine that sheltered us. Good golly Molly!

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Our campsite: taken down and set up again 3 times in total!

Down to instant coffee, some museli, a cup of pasta, a bit of cabbage, a carrot and a few tablespoons of mayo we mulled over what creative meal we could create with these ingredients and decided to hike to Blaca monastery, located 2 km inland from our beach. Maybe the monks will have food! The monastery, now a museum was very interesting and well worth the few dollars for a tour. The last monk to live in this isolated hermitage, a descendant of the Milicevic family, died in the 1960s. It was surprising to see a world-class observatory and a baby grand piano in this beautiful but extremely remote location.  In fact, the last priest to live here, Nikola Milicevic, was an internationally recognized astronomer. But best of all, they had local prosciutto, sheep cheese, bread, and beer. Jackpot!

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Monastery Blanca on the island of Brac

 

So what is the moral of this tale? Don’t be afraid to have an adventure? Don’t let your expectations of an experience prevent you from enjoying it when the reality is different from what you had imagined? Boundaries keep us safe but it is only by pushing against them that we are able to progress and reach new heights? Or maybe it should be, always listen to the locals. You decide and then choose your own adventure. Remember sometimes the retelling of the tale is the most fun of all.

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Lifted our boats up to the dock and ready for the ferry ride back to Split