How I Found That Floating Feeling on the Adriatic; Peter Dobbie Exorcises His Fear of Water off Croatia

Article excerpt


THE sailing holiday begins in the artificial harbour of Rogaznica where we stand in the hot Croatian sun, waiting for our boat to be made ready, watching men with Astro Turf chest hair strut around.

They are around my own age.

But whereas I cannot swim and have made a number of serious attempts to drown over the years, these guys are obviously extras for that Guinness ad where the old bloke wins the swimming prize every year.

They look like they have been treated with a dozen coats of chestnut sealant, mid-lifers playing out the opening scene from a Seventies TV cop series, the hero with one hand on the wheel, the other on the bum of a bird who never carries her own luggage.

The skipper of our boat eventually turns up. He looks emaciated and has to crank up a smile before announcing, with a Slavic pessimism that would put the wind up Jonah, that he is Sergio.

He watches with an expression of pity as we bring on board vast quantities of personal fuel.

Brian, a companion on this trip who claims to know how to sail, carries three carrier bags full of cartons of tomato juice . 'Got to be careful,' he says. 'You can't buy this stuff on the islands.' 'My God, scurvy,' I mutter.

Brian gives me a look. 'No,' he says. 'It's for midday Bloody Marys.'

We get going and poodle off to the Adriatic islands. For someone who has sailed, it would mean nothing. But for one so afraid of water it is a revelation.

The sailing boat itself resembles a huge cuttlefish, all white and deeply smooth. Or a rocking horse that rises and falls with huge grace, respectful of the blackness that is just below, yet brave and willing to fight any dilemma as long as it is led firmly.

Sergio becomes a different person once we take flight. The others on board make the right noises as the boat flips around in a simple ballet.

But I cannot help but signal I want to take the wheel as Sergio winds and releases this and that rope and the great cuttlefish turns this way and that.

And then it gets quite windy.

I did think about drowning as Sergio shouts that he has more than once fallen out of the back of a boat and nearly been left behind. But when you have a real fear of water that sort of story simply encourages one's belief in fate.

My first moment under sail at speed compares to when a horse moves from canter to gallop. The power beneath says have faith, relax, for there is nothing you can do but trust and go with it.

On deck, a silence kills the crass, nervous banter of us daft amateurs and the sails take the weight of the brisk evening wind.

And then Sergio begins shouting to me as I hold the wheel: 'Right Peter .

. . right more.' And I find myself having the time of my life.

To the seasoned sailor it would have meant nothing but to a land boy who checks his will before taking a shower, it was a very slightly terrifying but massively rewarding experience, however much the mournful Sergio really had it all under control.

Inevitably, there was a need to celebrate as we entered the small harbour of Drvenik Veliki - an ink pellet on the many islands of the Croatian shoreline.

Brian is in mid-pour, vodka meeting tomato juice. 'Not for me,' said Sergio.

'I used to drink.

Now I cannot.' 'How much?' says Brian. 'One, MAIN MAN: Peter Dobbie shows his wife Geraldine the ropes maybe two bottles of wine a day,' confesses Sergio.

This is, indeed, the shallow end of serious drinking but we feign horror at his great sin before resuming a debate on the way to pour the greatest Bloody Mary.

We are in this small harbour for the night, Sergio takes off his clothes and dives below to fix some problem with the anchor.

The cabins are not big and my wife and I have brought too many clothes. But that first night I decide to sleep on deck. …