Two hulls, two families and four potentially frazzled parents. What could possibly go wrong on a week-long charter in Croatia with four children under five?
Georgie, my wife and I love chartering, and did so relatively frequently before children. The arrival of our adorable little chaos merchants (Reuben, three, and Lily, one) rather tempered our cruising ambitions, but some friends at a similar family stage were keen to try chartering, and we reckoned most of the children were old enough to understand instructions, if not always follow them.
So it was that we found ourselves, along with Simon and Helen and their children Elizabeth (six) and Nico (three), finally at anchor on a luxuriously comfortable Sunsail 454 catamaran (a Leopard 45).
As we sipped cold drinks in the warmth of the late evening on the island of Jakljan off the Dalmatian coast, the horde of small pirates were all (mostly) sleeping soundly down below.
We’d made it through the travelling, victualling, unpacking and briefings, frazzled but unscathed. Other than a ‘locked in the toilet’ incident and a few bumps with bits of boat as the children got used to their new environment, the first day ‘at sea’ had been a success.
The morning sun rose to illuminate the olive terraces as I slipped into the water for a morning swim out to the point and back, followed by breakfast, cold orange juice and hot coffee. There really is no better way to start a day. Swimming rapidly became a main focus for each day – the kids all love the water, while Georgie and Helen are almost reptilian in their love of both water and basking in the sun. Sailing was simply a convenient way of getting to the next swimming spot.
Debate soon arose among the children, however, as to whose turn it was to help start the engine, raise the anchor, helm the boat, or control the throttles (closely supervised of course) and it wasn’t long till we had a useful crew of mini deck hands and lookouts.
Finding our happy place
It was Elizabeth who piloted us out between the islands with earnest concentration and out into the Mljetski channel, while Reuben and Nico acted as lookouts and Lily dozed in her car seat. Soon, the kids scarpered to play in the saloon, the mums sunbathed, Simon helmed and I got half an hour in a hammock with my book. We were all in our happy places.
The mainland side of the Mljetski channel is devoid of shelter for 7 miles, but in glassy calm conditions, we didn’t need a bay to swim in. Reassured of the absence of sharks, the crew donned lifejackets and bundled into the deep blue water mid-channel. Lunchtime saw us swimming again, this time anchored with a shore line in a tiny cove where starfish clung to the rocks and frigid springwater made silky swirls in the warm sea.
Presumably, it’s springs like these that keep the hillsides so verdant even in the heat, with only the peaks of marble poking out like snow-capped mountains.
Polače sits at the head of a stunning inlet in the heart of the Mljet marine park. Boats booking into a restaurant and mooring up on their quay don’t have to pay the €120 park fee. With the children asleep and phones used as baby monitors we sat 20 yards away in the konoba (restaurant) Stella Maris, feasting on the local speciality of lamb peka (tender and juicy meat, potato and vegetables slow cooked under a metal dome heaped with coals) and seafood, washing it down with delicious Popic wine. With the boat in full sight, we concluded this wasn’t irresponsible parenting, and it felt luxuriously like an evening off.
In the morning, we picked up fresh bread and croissants, and we were ready to be on our way again, heading now for the medieval walled city of Korčula. We even had enough breeze to prove that we were aboard a sailing boat, at least for a couple of hours.
While the shelter of Badija island with its imposing monastery was inviting, we carried on to the little inlet of Vrbovica. Quite by chance, this was perfect for us. Occupied only by a few other small boat moorings and two other anchored boats, the nearby campsite had installed a beach-side cafe – little could be achieved on a family cruise if ice cream had not been eaten that day – along with a tiny jetty, beach and a water swing.
The children were entertained here for hours, before being cajoled into bed, leaving the adults to enjoy the kind of unhurried conversation that only seems to happen on a boat or round a campfire.
To explore Korčula itself, a water taxi took us into town from Uvala Luca. Korčula is stunning. Narrow, marble-hewn streets cast cool, deep shadows, lined with ancient orthodox churches, high-beamed houses and shops, and steep-stepped side alleys running down to the azure Adriatic, a welcome breeze running along them.
The town is encircled by crenelated towers and high walls adorned with pine trees providing shady spots for restaurant tables. The slow rambling required to really take in the town, its history, and the local Grk wine, wasn’t something Reuben and Lily were supportive of – though stopping for a slice of pizza was given the okay.
The day was getting on, and the swarm of kitesurfers attested to the thermal wind now funneling down the Pelješki channel, offering the perfect breeze to start heading east again.
Picking the nearest likely looking bay, gorgeous Trstenik was an unexpected delight, hidden until the last moment by the steep hill under which the picturesque little village nestles, sheltered from the south by a large stone pier. We opted to anchor off, and Simon and Helen headed ashore for a meal – one of the benefits of sailing with another family is having reciprocal babysitters on tap.
A child woke at 0130 and I took a quick look on deck. Disorientated, I struggled to comprehend why the boats astern of us had swung towards us. A car shone its headlights on us as a warning and it finally twigged. A night-time land breeze was barreling down the valley and we were inexorably dragging towards the boats on the pier.
I roused Georgie and started the engines, bringing Simon on deck too. I made a mess of picking up a mooring buoy closer in to shore, losing the telescopic end of the boat hook, but Simon’s stern-first approach soon had us safely moored and gazing up at the star-crowded sky.
Judging by the harbourmaster’s grumpy refusal to provide water or accept our rubbish at the pier the next morning, it may have been his headlights that illuminated our embarrassment in the night.
The reception once we made it ashore was more welcoming. The children played at the park and ate more ice cream, while I found a local vintner who opened his domestic cellar to sell me a bottle of the red wine he had grown on the surrounding slopes. Without children, a week here could easily turn into a boozy vineyard tour of each island’s local grapes and vineyards.
Making a dash for it
The weather had been beautiful all week, but the forecast promised a strong south easterly Jugo wind on Saturday. A long lumpy slog to windward with our young crew wasn’t the impression we wanted to finish with. It was time to get back within a short hop of the Sunsail base, and Koločep promised both proximity to Dubrovnik and good shelter, though not before we’d holed up for a stunning lunch stop in Uvala Ribnja, a square-ended inlet just large enough for us to reverse into and take a line ashore in 5m of water.
And it was here that Reuben finally cracked swimming solo (in his lifejacket) letting go of his limpet-grip on us to move around by himself. He had clearly been inspired by Nico learning to jump in from the stern, and Elizabeth’s running jumps from the quay at Trstenik. Lily was loving bobbing around in her lifejacket too.
Dark clouds swirled over the mountains as we nosed out from the shelter of Koločep into the lumpy sea the next morning. The children enjoyed the waves, but we were glad we’d not had to contend with these conditions all week. Lightning flashed ominously as we approach Dubrovnik, and the first drops of rain fell as we entered the Rijeka Dubrovačka fjord.
Then the heavens opened, a deluge that would have worried Noah. Those on deck were soaked in seconds. When the anchor windlass tripped, we decided to head into the marina anyway.
Having anchored all week, this was my first proper boat handling. With little more than a metre or two to spare either side and winds swirling, I quietly rued not getting a Sunsail skipper to bring us in, assuring them I’d be fine. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Somehow, we got the boat in, spun and secure without having rammed anyone and my heart rate began to slow down.
We had done it!
Chartering with children might not be as relaxing as it had been without them, but this had been a whole lot of fun for everyone on board. We’d had a wonderful week sailing, playing and exploring the stunning Dalmatian coast. The boat was back in one piece, and we had a boat full of cruising converts eager to do it all again next year.
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