On an island called Hvar off the coast of Croatia, at the dock of a fancy hotel run by a company renting boats to tourists, after a 60-second tutorial about motors and anchors, a young Croatian man hands over a small speedboat to two Americans who have no idea what they’re doing.
My boyfriend and I speed off, heading for the Pakleni island chain and the nude beaches and the gently lapping Adriatic sea. He looks at me, grinning, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done!” I’m at the front of the boat in my bathing suit, wind glamorously blowing my hair, feeling like I’m going to burst into a Titanic moment. We take pictures of each other. He steers with one hand. The sun is shining and glinting off the blue, blue sea.
Our first stop is heaven. We drop anchor, swim to shore, and sunbathe sans swim suits on a flat white rock, never mind the yacht going by with the gawking middle-aged man. We have our special rubber shoes for the pebbly beaches and spiny sea urchins that cling to the rocks. Everything is perfect. We swim back and eat sandwiches with salami, tomato and cheese. We are brilliant, we think.
Our next stop is at the far tip of the Pakleni chain, near an open channel where yachts and other speedboats sail through. The water is a little rougher with all the boats kicking up waves. It’s not my choice for landing, but my boyfriend is having fun diving off the boat into the water with his snorkel. After a few minutes I convince him to go, that we need to find a better spot.
The anchor is stuck. He starts up the motor, twists the boat this way and that to pull it free. I don’t like this. I have visions of the anchor so stuck that our boat tips over. But it works and we are off. Small crisis averted.
We round the corner and come up the north side of the island chain. The water is considerably rougher here (author’s note: it probably isn’t, because in comparison to any other body of water on the planet, the Adriatic is like glass, but I have a tendency to descend into doubt immediately after averting small crises). There are “no anchor” signs on this side of the islands, but we consult the map and find a place to stop for awhile. We drop anchor. We eat more sandwiches. We swim to shore. As we scramble up onto the rocks, my boyfriend looks out and says, “Hmm. Does it look like the boat is drifting to you?”
Into the water again, panic rising. I am sort of a terrible swimmer with my snorkel mask up around my forehead, and my heart beating so hard I can not pay attention to that AND breathe at the same time. He pulls ahead of me, but the boat is a long way off. How the hell did that happen??!! I am dying in the water. After awhile I see that he gets to the boat, finally, and starts pulling up the anchor. The damn anchor. Hello, still dying out here. I alternate between dog paddling and a lame swim stroke. My arms and legs are lead.
I decide to press the point. “Can you pick me up?” I call out weakly. “I’m dying out here.”
By the time he can get the anchor stowed away and the motor turned on and the boat turned around, I will be there. He knows this, I know this. At the boat he hauls me in. I’m wheezing. “We’re not doing that again,” I say. “I almost died out there.”
“You didn’t almost die,” he says. But if we weren’t trying to be brave, we’d be hugging each other on the floor of the boat.
My boyfriend finds a deep inlet on the map that looks calm, and we pull in. It’s lovely. There are a few other boats who had the same idea, and we make ourselves right at home. Right next to a boat packed with sunbathing French people. Slim tanned boys and slim tanned girls, flirting and fawning with each other, soaking up the sun. They do not appreciate our company.
The anchor doesn’t work–again. We drift close to the rocks near the shore. We drift close to the French people. We spend the entire thirty minutes we are there uncovering the mysteries of the obstinate anchor. Or rather, my boyfriend dives in, dives down to see what’s wrong, pulls and prods, surfaces, and tells me to pull the rope this way and that. The anchor catches and then doesn’t catch. We do this over and over, a million times, while the French people look on with slightly bored and quizzical expressions. Stupid Americans. No one else is dealing with their anchors. They are not even thinkingabout their anchors. They are thinking about the lovely slim tanned person next to them.
I say, “This isn’t fun.”
At the same time he says, “This is so fun!” He likes to solve problems. I like to sunbathe on a boat with a working anchor.
Finally I say, “Leave it alone and we’ll just drift. If we drift too close to the rocks, we’ll just start up the motor and take off.”
He agrees. We drift. Eventually we go.
We have not docked yet, and I–as the first mate to my admiral boyfriend–have a job to perform because I am going to be the Rope Girl. We find another inlet with a lot of yachts and other speedboats docked, and a restaurant up a rocky hill where we could have a drink. There doesn’t appear to be anywhere for us to squeeze in our boat, until we see a wooden dock with another small boat tied to it, and decide that’s it. My boyfriend pulls up alongside, I hop out with the rope, and we are immediately told by a small shirtless man in broken English that we can’t dock there, that another boat is coming. We look around. A giant yacht. Damn. There’s space near the end. My boyfriend backs up, pulls forward again. I’m still standing on the dock, waiting to tie the rope, when he suddenly rams the side of the boat into the dock.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
The little bobbly things you’re supposed to toss over the side to prevent boat damage when docking have somehow flipped themselves back into the boat. Useless.
In a low voice, my boyfriend says, “Get in the boat. Get in the boat now.”
I hop in and we speed off, leaving the small shirtless man staring after us, and the yacht captain shaking his head, and everyone else who just witnessed this event wondering who the young Croatian was who handed over the speedboat to the Americans who have no idea what they’re doing.
When we’re safely out of the inlet and in the open sea again, I find out what happened.
“I accidentally hit accelerate instead of reverse. I hit the dock so hard it flipped up the bobbly things.” I feel like a cad. The Rope Girl just has to deal with the rope; the admiral has to do all the navigating. The boat has a strip of rubber running along the side, and in one place the rubber is torn away. They didn’t require a damage deposit, but can we turn it in like this?
My boyfriend is steely-jawed and determined to dock somewhere. At the next inlet, we see another restaurant with boats and yachts docked, but fewer, and there seems to be space for us. But now we are really all thumbs. I jump onto shore with the rope and try to “catch” the boat so that it doesn’t hit the edge, while my boyfriend tries to do the right combination of forward and reverse without hitting the boats around us. A man onshore senses disaster. He runs down and helps me grab the boat and hold it away from the concrete dock’s edge, tells my boyfriend to lift up the motor since it’s scraping along the rocks, helps tie the ropes, all the while saying in a soothing voice, “It’s OK, it’s OK. You’re OK.” I feel like crying.
My boyfriend is reminded to drop the anchor to help keep the boat in place. He does, and is finally able to jump out and leave it. We walk up the restaurant steps as people avert their gazes (and smother their snickers). We sit down at a far table under an umbrella.
We start laughing. We laugh so hard. It is the laugh of primal panic, utter embarrassment and pure relief all in one. Yes, it’s OK, it’s OK. We are OK. But we can’t stop laughing. We grab each other, put our heads down in humorous surrender. I am in love with my boyfriend all over again, and with the boat, and with the helpful man, and with this bar, because we have somehow met this challenge and somehow come out of it all right. We laugh until we are weak.
When my boyfriend feels brave again, he goes down to our docked boat and hammers in the rubber strip that came loose with a rock. He works on it for a long time. No matter that we didn’t owe a damage deposit; this is all about pride now.
We down a couple of strong pina coladas before heading out. (On a total side note: the pina coladas in Croatia are almost better than the pina coladas in the Caribbean. Go figure).
We have a Plan this time. I will get on the boat and quickly pull up the anchor, careful to hold it away from the side of the boat, and to fold in the flaps and properly secure them. My boyfriend will wait until the anchor is up before untying the ropes. He will gently shove us out before hopping on board. He will start up the motor, throw it in reverse and get us out of there. We perform the Plan beautifully. The people onshore no longer have to avert their gazes; we know what we’re doing.
We head out to open sea, back to the dock at the hotel on Hvar, back to the young Croatian man. My hair is blowing glamorously again. My boyfriend is steering with one hand, his breathing calm. The sun is still glinting off the blue, blue sea. Life is beautiful.