Truthfully, finding SailWeek Skipper Academy was a stroke of very good fortune. Originally, I had looked into the academy of another flotilla charter company but ultimately chose SailWeek for two reasons.
One, I didn’t want to be like everyone else and two, if I was going to learn, I wanted to learn from the best and who better to teach you than the people who have been sailing the Croatian coast for generations.
THE ADVENTURE OF BECOMING A SKIPPER
Growing up, I had the biggest crush on Indiana Jones. Exotic locations, ancient artifacts, bad guys, plot twists, heart-pounding adventure and dramatic escapes. Where X marked the spot on an outdated map and you were never really sure who the bad guys were until the credits rolled. I was addicted to the adrenaline of each adventure, the passion that fueled every kiss and the intrigue of the unknown. I wanted it in my own life.
As an adult, X marked the days on a calendar between my own weekend adventures and when I was lucky, served as a countdown to the next vacation. In heels and a tight smile I worked 18 hour days managing disasters, expectations and difficult personalities. I worked through lunch, dinner, holidays, weddings, funerals and anything else that demanded my time and attention. Once a year, when I was able to steal myself away from the demands of the job, I often found myself sneaking away to answer calls and scroll through inbox, trying to manage the hundreds of emails I knew waited for me.
Last summer, I packed my toothbrush, passport and every bikini I had and set off on the vacation that would end up changing my life forever. The Instagram ad promised an unforgettable week on a sail yacht among a fleet of boats and likeminded explorers from all over the world discovering the islands, food and Ouzo of Greece. The experience (and the Ouzo) was intoxicating. We learned how to sail, swam in private coves and explored island villages on Vespas. At night, we sampled local cuisine, watched the sun set over island cliffs and partied in exclusive nightclubs as DJs from around the world lit up the dance floor with their tracks. The music took you where the boats couldn’t and I knew I had to find a way to feel this magic full time.
Lost in thought two weeks later, seven thousand miles from my dreamlike holiday I was still wondering if it was possible to spend the summer working on the sea when the answer came to me in the form of a Facebook posting for Skipper Academy.
Hope, excitement and adrenaline sang in my veins and as I clicked on the posting for Skipper Academy I knew somewhere in my heart: This. Was. It! Abandoning the idea of performing any actual work for the day I jumped up from my desk nearly stumbling over my chair before taking a quick peek around the office and locking my door quietly behind me. I could picture my summer, almost taste it – traveling, meeting new and exciting people, sailing around the Med. But what the hell did I know about sailing? Absolutely nothing – well, not really. While I grew up on the water and on boats I didn’t know how to sail… I didn’t know the terminology; like what the spinny things with the handles were (winches), or what lines to pull to “adjust a sail” (wtf does that even mean) and most importantly – how to dock a boat backwards (stern-to, carefully).
My personal journey to SailWeek and its Skipper Academy led me on my own Indiana Jones style adventure to the wild coasts of Africa. Shortly after my inspired vacation and finding the ad skipper academy I quit my high powered job, sold most of my belongings and I set off to Africa. I learned how to sail, found my sea legs and appreciated the new calluses on my hands as I counted each nautical mile that passed silently beneath me. After Namibia we hit Cape Town, rounded the horn of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope and sailed into pirate infested waters of the Indian Ocean before earning my Yachtmaster with the RYA. As soon as my course was completed and commercial license was issued I packed up what little I had left and hopped on a plane to Split, Croatia – the sailing mecca of the Mediterranean and the next stop of my skipper journey.
Truthfully, finding SailWeek Skipper Academy was a stroke of very good fortune. Originally, I had looked into the academy of another flotilla charter company but ultimately chose SailWeek for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to be like everyone else and two, if I was going to learn, I wanted to learn from the best and who better to teach you than the people who have been sailing the Croatian coast for generations. It’s the same reason I went to Africa. To me it made more sense to learn in a hard environment from very skilled instructors and its made me a better sailor. Now, under the instruction of the lead SailWeek skippers I was learning how to love a country from the shoreline to the mountains; learning how to navigate between islands, Med Moor and not fear the strong and distinguished winds of the Adriatic. I learned how to drink the local booze without making a face (even though sometimes I was sure it was putting hair on my chest) and I learned how to hear the music with my heart even though I couldn’t understand the words. I fell in love with Croatia and her countrymen for the same reasons I fell in love with sailing: the challenge, the reward and the beauty.
Even though I chose to pursue a license with the RYA in Africa I was impressed that SailWeek Skipper Academy had customized a Zero-to-Hero sailing program. Held over the course of two weeks, the Basic and Advanced Academy would teach skipper recruits to sail, dock, moor, navigate and lead a crew of guests on the best week of their lives. Applying was easy and within no time I had heard back with an acceptance into Skipper Academy.
I booked a ticket to Croatia and a room in a hostel and waited for the first day of academy to begin.
Want to know what Skipper Academy was like?
I watched dawn slowly creep around the terracotta roof tiles of the Diocletian Palace in the heart of Split and for the fourth time this morning counted the hours in the gong of the great clock.
I arrived a week ago in preparation for the Advanced second week of SailWeek Skipper Academy but until now, my days were spent exploring the palace, ducking though tiny and worn stone passageways, sipping coffee on the marble riva and wandering around the ancient markets of Old Town. Now, tangled in sheets and nerves I was only hours away from the start of academy.
Once introductions were made we stowed our bags on the boat and headed to the store to provision food and drinks for the week. In addition to sailing we would be cooking our meals on board and much to our own chagrin, were responsible for keeping the boat sparkling clean.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever gone food shopping with five grown adults, but let’s say we could have probably fed a small army for weeks. The tricky part was finding enough space to store the food once we were back on the boat; tiny fridge’s and cramped cabinets are the norm on a boat and we were packed to the hilt. Once the engines were checked and our safety brief was complete Ivan instructed us to drop our lines and we pulled out of the marina and into the next adventure.
Characteristically stoic, Ivan had a quiet confidence about him that not only commanded our respect but our full attention (a nearly impossible feat for a bunch of clowns from around the world.) Naturally, we were determined to break him down and get him to clown around with the rest of us, but our work was cut out for us.
Ivan pointed out and explained several things as we exited the bay and passed through the breakers. Along the way he also quizzed our knowledge and got a general sense of what he had to work with. Over the next few hours we sailed around some the islands and learned about Croatia’s coastal towns, the telltale characteristics of the Adriatic winds and what they mean for sailing and guest comfort. We sailed together as a crew for the first time and tried to knock some of the rust off of our own personal skills. As the sun set and we settled in for the night we were each quiet in our own thoughts and knew this week was going to be a big one.
The ACI marina was a short walk from my hostel and in no time I was registered and sitting on the break wall waiting to meet the rest of my crew and our instructor. This season there were six boats of potential and hopeful skippers. Each of us glanced around at the others taking in the chaos of the morning, not really seeing anything at all. The marina cafe was our meeting spot and as the waiter flew up and down the stone steps taking orders and delivering drinks our instructors finalized the day’s plans and the rest of us bit our lips anxious to start.
One by one I met my crew. We covered the globe – there was Tash from New Zealand, Harry from Germany and Mike who hailed from South Africa/Kenya/England/Australia depending on what time in his life he was talking about in the moment. Our crew was rounded out with Mark from Croatia, me from the US and our fearless leader and instructor Ivan from Croatia. We were a motley crew held together with dad jokes, bad puns and a collective sense of humor few could rival.
Day Two & Three
MAKARSKA, BOL, VIS
Typically we are up around 7am and ready to start the day by 8am. Once our coffee mugs and breakfast bowls are washed and put away one of us would take a turn giving a safety brief before Ivan started an for an hour or two of theory. Because it was the second week of Academy in the Advanced course we reviewed the basics like points of sail and general terminology and most importantly how to explain such theories to a group of guests who have probably never sailed before (and have the attention span of a flea).
Ivan explained that even though the guests are on vacation, part of their experience is hands-on and also important to helping you as the skipper. Don’t get me wrong, every skipper in SailWeek can perform every task solo – but teaching the guests and getting them involved not only makes our job as the skipper easier, but the overall experience for the guests even more special.
I thought back to my own sailing vacation and know he’s right. I definitely felt like a badass knowing I helped when we docked perfectly, were catching lines or when I was responsible for pulling up or dropping anchor. Hell, I quit my job to do it full time!
But believe me; it’s much harder than it seems. We each go around the table and practice different topics and tactics asking each other questions we think the guests might ask before prepping the boat for a sail and ourselves for the weather.
Its May in Croatia which means the weather is absolutely beautiful – hot, sunny and mildly humid one minute and a cold squall in the next.
We practiced docking for most of the day – side to, bow to, stern to. Fortunately, we had a smaller crew than the other boats which means we get a lot more practice a piece. I’m not sure what hurt worse – my stomach from laughing or my arms from pulling hundreds of mooring lines as we practiced docking.
One of the best parts about training on the same route we’ll be sailing over the summer is exploring the different towns on the islands and getting to experience the distinct personality and vibe of each. Earlier in the week we sailed around the infamous Golden Horn. Extending off the island of Bol its beach is home to the one and only Auro beach club and SailWeek party spot during the season. Its known worldwide as one of the top beaches in the Mediterranean and the aerial pictures are on all the billboards around Split.
For the moment, we were finished terrorizing the paying guests on the riva (practicing our docking) and had a few minutes to grab a few more provisions before moving on to the day’s next lesson.
We (expertly) docked next to a boat full of women from Finland who were taking their annual sailing trip in Croatia. They were fascinated by small fleet of SailWeek boats that descended on Luka Bay and bounced in and out of spots on the riva, honing our docking skills.
Personally my favorite island is Vis. If you’ve ever seen Mama Mia 2 you know that the acting has little to do with why you can’t tear your eyes away from the screen. The ancient stone walled windows of the fishing village of Luka are dressed with green shutters that are splintered and warped from years in the sun and rain. I loved finding tiny cat paw prints pressed into cement of the slim alleys between homes and let my nose lead me to a bakery that was tucked between a fruit market and souvenir shop. With time running out I took one last look at the town and walked back to the riva ready to practice some more.
Once they were satisfied, our instructors had us tie up for the night. I loved docking on the riva for the night and chatting to the other crews and travelers about their day. The stories about our silly mistakes and epic fails were blooper reel worthy and usually left us belly laughing – at or with each other I was never sure.
Day Four & Five
VINOGRADISCE, PALMIZANA, CIRCLE RAFT
It was incredible to watch the skills and confidence of our friends and future skippers grow over the course of the week. As our small flotilla sailed from island to island we got a real sense of what a summer of this could feel like.
Pulling out of out of Vis, a quiet, foggy rain fell on us and the weather that felt like it could last for hours only lasted 15 minutes before the sun was out again. Typical Croatia.
Ivan promised that today was going to be a big one and when we pulled into the quiet cove you could feel a frisson of excitement and nerves roll through us as he explained the mechanics of The Circle Raft.
You’ve seen the pictures, heard the stories and I can promise you have never experienced anything like a circle raft before in your life. But before the champagne is sprayed, the DJ pumps the music and the floaties are in the water, you need to learn how to make a circle raft.
You’ve heard of Pythagorean’s theorem, right? (*hears vauge ringing of a bell) Algebra, geometry, trig (Oh, My!) OK, remember that guy you learned about in high school (Pythagorean) who totally messed up your GPA once that math teacher with bad coffee breath started talking about some theory throwing around words like hypotenuse, quadratic equations and Euclidean geometry…? Yea, I just threw up a little in my mouth too, but it turns out, we did need to know it in life. Fortunately, it can be broken down very simply and if you get it right, we can throw a party. Take that Mr. Cook (…I digress).
The Circle Raft is the pinnacle of a SailWeek experience and it takes some practice to get right.
By understanding and using the hard right angles of your boat, dropping the anchor in the right place and tying lines with the right amount of slack we can actually make a circle.
And make a circle, we did! One by one each of the six boats dropped anchor on an angle and reversed slowly towards the center. We tied stern lines, kept bow lines loose and admired our handy work. Now to try it 10 more times…
After breaking down the circle raft we sailed to an island chain off the island of Hvar called the Paklinski Islands and as dusk fell we found our way into a deep cove peppered with mooring balls and a few beach cafes. We each took a turn mooring, calling distance and tying on to the balls before German Harry whipped together fresh scallops (from Makarska), local wine (from Korcula) and risotto. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
The next morning before my eyes even opened I heard the distinct splash of water as one of my crew mates dove into the bay we barely got to appreciate the night before. Wiping the sleep from my eyes I crawled from my cabin and onto the deck only to be greeted by the most spectacular hot pink sunrise and crystal clear, turquoise blue water I have ever seen outside of the Caribbean. I was was blown away by the beauty of this bay, even if I could barely pronounce it.
Our normally loud, giggly, joke cracking crew was quiet and contemplative as we headed into the sunset and back to Split on our final night.
On the first day it felt like the end of the week was a forever away and yet here we are, miles from sailors we were when we started and at the end of our adventure. The final task was a night navigation from Palmizana where hours earlier as a crew we enjoyed fresh sardines, squid and fries laughing at Ivan’s jokes and jabs. (Yup… we cracked ‘em! And he’s funny!)
Using charts and the ships compass we navigated ourselves through shallow waters and tight turns identifying navigation day shapes and their telltale lights as we slipped safely past. We used the flashes from the various lighthouses and nav beacons around us to confirm the course we plotted was correct and Ivan pointed out how the stars could help point you in the right direction.
Our eyes naturally adjusted to the inky blue of twilight and we listened to the water lap the hull of the boat lost in our own thoughts. A gentle breeze, probably the last of that days Maestral pushed us lazily forward and the sail billowed and snapped in and out begging for more. You could hear the blast of ship horns and hum of engines from somewhere in the dark and before long a Jadrolinija ferry was speeding past us leaving a generous wake behind it. In between calculations, directions and course confirmations we sank into the busy silence of our night sail as darkness wrapped around us.
In just a few days we had come together as a crew. I guess that’s what happens when complete strangers eat, sleep, clean, learn, laugh and share really bad jokes and bathroom habits 24 hours a day in a European paradise. We learned patience, respect for the sea, the boat the weather and each other. And on cue in some sort of silent agreement we got up and without a word between us rolled the sail in for the last time, fired up the diesel engine and headed for home.
So you know all the things you pray won’t happen on exam day like messing up the answers, forgetting to put on pants or you know, hitting the riva wall with your anchor… yea well – that happened.
I wasn’t even nervous, I actually had total confidence that I had plenty of space in the last few precious feet of air between my bow and the riva that was packed with tourists; but alas, I did not.
It was my turn do dock “side to” by the fuel station and as my crew called out the distance between the bow and the wall my anchor hit the riva with a loud bang. I barely heard it over the embarrassment pounding in my ears. On the inside I was dying; completely mortified because our examiner was not an instructor, but the owner of the company. Yup – nailed it! (no pun intended.)
Fortunately, as a crisis manager in my former job, I have a great poker face and instead of giving up, I apologized to my crew, made sure everyone was ok and went over with them what happened and why (turned too late). I told them I was going to try it again and then I backed up my boat and went for it. Practice makes perfect, after all. In my heart I believe that you only fail when you quit, not when you make a mistake. Those are often my greatest learning moments.
I can’t say my next attempt was flawless, but it was good and more than that, I showcased a confidence in myself, my vessel and my crew despite a misstep and that stood out more than my initial mistake. We all finished the day strong and after spending the week with us and seeing what we were capable of I was grateful Ivan’s opinion of us weighed heavily on the final decision.
Still flushed with lingering embarrassment and convinced I failed I was silently wondering how much a ticket to Tahiti would cost me when Ivan came strolling over, smirk on his usually stoic face and yelled, “What happened, anchor girl!?” So, now he’s a comedian…
As I packed my bags and got ready for our final crew dinner I learned that among our fleet of hopeful skippers some passed and others didn’t. Over the week we learned what was expected of us as skippers. We saw that despite the lure of good music and a tan, there was an epic responsibility to the safety of all souls on board a very expensive vessel. We saw how hard and physically demanding the job was and also how incredibly rewarding and fun it could be.
Over the course of two weeks and through the extremely experienced and well -seasoned instructors Skipper Academy had prepared us for some of the hottest, physically exhausting, emotionally trying and downright BEST weeks of our lives.
If you are reading this, you’re steps away from being a part of the best and most exclusive clubs on the planet – being a SailWeek Skipper.
So, what are you waiting for…?
Because, until you have been to Croatia and sailed in her waters it is hard to explain the magnetic pull it has on your soul. This place is laced with magic and it comes in all forms. It’s in the Maestral that comes from the west fills your sails with perfect wind and leaves its warm breath on your cheeks. It is in the mountains that nearly kiss the water in Makarska before stretching so high in to a perfectly blue sky you feel breathless. There’s magic in the people and the food and the rakia and I’m never sure which is more intoxicating. And on top if it all, there is the magic of SailWeek
I know I’ll never be the same and if you’re looking, you can find me sun kissed and sailing along the jewel toned shoreline of the Dalmatian coast; a SailWeek flag hung high and proud next to the skippers I call friends and consider family, lost in the magic of it all.
If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us.