Here's a new way of seeing the Adriatic: swim it
The perfect moment doesn't come by that often, I thought as I watched a flotilla of yachts change course to allow me to continue my 3km swim between two Croatian islands in the Adriatic. The sun was shining, the landscape was charming, the water was calm and the safety boat was in range.
The perfect moment took place towards the end of my perfect holiday - five days and 21km of spectacular swims along the coastlines and between the islands of the Sibenik archipelago on the Croatian Dalmatian coast, courtesy of an organisation called Swimtrek.
Swimtrek, which indeed allows you to boldly go where no man has ever gone before, offers adventure open-water swims in locations that are both gorgeous and safe; the Greek Cyclades, Turkey, Sicily or even the Virgin Islands. I chose Croatia because it sounded exotic and because the average daily swim, at only 4km, was the shortest. It was a good choice. Croatia is so pretty it's almost impossible to take a bad photo of the place, prices were on a par with SA and the fresh produce was excellent.
It took three flights, a bus ride and a ferry crossing to get to the village of Prvic Luka on the little island of Prvic. Hotel Maestral, formerly the village school and set on the edge of the small harbour, was to be the Swimtrek base for the week. There is only one other town, Sepurine, on the other side of the island, a 20-minute walk away.
Prvic Luca was once a viable fishing village, but these days it is a popular summer retreat. The harbour front is dominated by an impressive 15th-century church where the man who invented the parachute, Faust Vrancic, is buried. There are no motorised vehicles on the island - the roads are not wide enough - but there is a fair number of bicycles, many with crocheted seat covers.
Swimtrek groups are small, with a maximum of 15 participants, with two guides, and an exclusive-use boat and skipper. My group looked like a line-up from The Amazing Race. We had the ramp models, two gorgeous British 20-somethings, who were not only very thin, tall and smart (a lawyer and a tax consultant) but were also the best swimmers. I hated them on sight. Then there were the Iron Men, a pair of Germans with hearty laughs who swam, cycled, windsurfed, hiked, skied, drank and flirted with equal degrees of enthusiasm. There was The Quiet Israeli, the Smug Marrieds and the Earnest Marrieds, a diminutive British couple who spend an inordinate amount of time getting in and out of wet suits.
The oldest person was a 61-year-old Australian librarian who had recently undergone a knee op but still swam faster than the Hearty Germans. A couple of other single men and women made up the rest of the pack. The briefing was led by lead guide Andy Ragless. Tall, dark and handsome, torso rippling and interminably polite, Andy was every mother's ideal son-in-law. We were addressed, in great detail, on Vaseline, body creases and chafing (the first in the second stops the third) and on the more pleasurable subject of eating, which we were instructed to do a lot of. We covered a range of safety issues such as hypothermia, anaphylaxis and cramp, were instructed to wear our coloured swimcaps at all times and to learn the guide hand signals by heart. With that and introductions out the way we got stuck in to the welcome buffet. The Germans laughed heartily and got drunk.
Early the following morning we were herded to the water's edge on the other side of the harbour and made to swim 400m to be assessed.
Swimtrek swimmers are divided into three groups - fast, average and "scenic" (the politically correct word for "slow") - and different-coloured caps are assigned accordingly. I swam my fastest but had already reconciled myself to the fact that I would be in the bottom group. Each group would always be accompanied by a safety boat, explained Andy, and the pink group (myself and three others) would be given a seven-minute head start, followed by the orange group and finally the speedy yellows. We were to stick with our group, he said, even if it meant occasionally treading water while waiting for the slower members to catch up. It's not a race, we were told, it's a holiday.
Then we boarded the boat and headed off for our first swim, an easy 2.2km along the coastline of the island of Tijat. With my heart almost in my mouth, I plunged into icy cold water and began my first-ever long-distance swim in an ocean. It was a heady experience.
Back on board, fortified with tea and croissants, we made our way to a romantic little harbour, filled with million-dollar yachts, elderly men and bikini-clad beauties. It's not for nothing that the Dalmatian coast is known as the next Riviera.
Following a substantial lunch we made our way to the start of our second swim of the day, a 3.3km island crossing. "See the lighthouse?" said Andy, pointing to a monopoly-sized green structure at the edge of the horizon, "that's your destination." I wouldn't call it a doddle, but what with the periodic regrouping and the occasional pit stop at the safety boat, it was easier than I imagined.
This set the pattern for the next five days: Eat breakfast, board the boat by 8am, admire the unspoilt scenery on the ride to the destination, swim 2-3km, get back onto the boat, eat, sail into a picture-perfect harbour, spend a couple of hours sunbathing or exploring harbour towns, eat, sail to the second location, swim another couple of kilometers, get back on the boat, eat and arrive home by around 5pm starving and ready for supper. I gained 3kg, a heap of confidence and a couple of new best friends.
On the final night, the group dinner was accompanied by a prize-giving. I was named Most Improved Swimmer, and though I would rather have won Trendiest Sunglasses, my Swimtrek T-shirt that sports the slogan "Ferries are for Wimps" means everything to me.
Swimming operator Swimtrek runs week-long swimming tours to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Northern Europe. There are a maximum of 15 places on each tour and no one younger than 16 may enroll.
The one-week tours mostly offer a choice of 10 destinations during the northern hemisphere's summer months (June to September), but some, like the Red Sea tour, run in November, February and March.
Although all swimmers are catered for, Swimtrek advises that participants should be able to maintain a sustained swimming pace for the average daily tour distance prior to the start of the tour. The organisation provides a pre-tour training plan on its website.
Throughout the trip, the guides work on improving the technique of participants through up-to-date coaching methods, along with video analysis work.
Surprisingly reasonable. My Croatia trip cost around R7500, and included hotel accommodation, breakfast, continual snacks and lunch plus qualified swimming guides, a local pilot familiar with the area, a large motorised support vessel with all necessary equipment on board and support inflatables.
- To contact Swimtrek go to www.swimtrek.com.