Sailing Albania

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					Article: July 2009


Sailing Albania
Virgin waters, live mines, and one freak storm
By: Barb Radu Sprenger

       Albania is nestled between Montenegro and Serbia to the north, Macedonia
       to the east and Greece to the south. It’s situated geographically across the
       Sea from Italy’s eastern shore. The Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea split
       Albania’s 400 KM west coast just about in the middle.

Earlier this year, our insurer lifted the ban on mariners wishing to visit Albania, so it
wasn’t a difficult decision for Con and me to chart our course there. We used our
Garmin Mapsource charts (mostly 10-year old British) to navigate our way through the
hazards, buoys, shallows, minefields and cleared mine corridors. Albania doesn’t
participate in Navtex for navigation updates, and we were warned that many markers
are out of place or missing. Albania has been out of bounds for mariners for decades,
however, we believed with a good lookout, there wouldn’t be any surprises.

We’d been sailing “Big Sky,” our 51.5’ Nauticat in and out of 23 countries since April
2007, when we took possession of her in Finland, and we were eager to visit Albania,
for the sense of adventure to visit places off the beaten path. Our first year, we sailed
east to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and were mesmerized by the strong culture and
beauty that was uncovered once communism fell there. So now being in Albania, we
had hoped to draw some comparisons.

Albanian’s waters are majestic, gloriously clear, alluring mariners to drop anchor and
splash about, but beware! There are only a few bays where it is safe to drop an anchor
as most of the coastline was heavily mined. The Imray Pilot Guide book told us that
they “may still be down there; anchor at your own risk.”

Although the surface waters are considered to be safe, according to the Pilot Book, it
still brings into question how safe the former mine fields are, because the chart still
indicates the one kilometre cleared channel into the main Albanian ports of Durres and
Vlore “safe” for navigation. The rest is still defined as a “former mine field.” When a
mine may have the upper hand, it rather takes the sport out of sailing. Con and I believe
that in a short period of time, the area will be re-surveyed and sailing can be less risky –
perhaps.

Albania has just surfaced from communism in 1992, and struggled with the transition to
democracy which brought with it crime – not the inherent character of most Albanians
we’d met. They are the oldest race of people in south-east Europe and they’ve
managed to retain their language and culture. Albania is said to be one of the poorest
countries in Europe, but that left us wondering what measuring stick they were using.
Certainly you can’t compare apples to oranges as they say. The cost of living and the
style of living from western Europe to Albania are so different. In a small town, we
ordered an espresso and a Turkish coffee and the whole thing came to 80 Lek or one
Canadian dollar. We purchased wonderful fruits and veggies (tomatoes, cucumbers,
grapes, watermelon, nectarines, and plums) for the lowest prices in all our travels.




The waters are virgin territories for cruisers because the borders have been locked up
tight for decades.

“In a sense,” said an Israeli we met a few days later, who had moved to Albania to run a
fish farm. “This country is really only 10 years old.”

I’ll attempt to give you a picture of what we experienced.

Sarendes was our first entry point into Albania, sailing north from Corfu, Greece. We’d
pre-arranged our entry through email with Amid, an agent who met us at the pier,
helped us tie up, asked for our boat’s papers, insurance certificate and passports, and
went off to the officials to handle it all directly with them. His services are optional, but
dealing with the Albanian officials (without an agent) is not for the faint of heart. Amid’s
cost was 75 Euro; his smile and warm greeting was free -- just part of the Albanian way.
Amid has his own business arrangement with the officials and we were happy to leave it
that way.

We tied at the ferry quay, for 850 Lek or ten Canadian dollars, which included electricity,
(no water), directly in front of the port authority, customs offices, and surrounded by the
security guards and a tall fence. The authorities never approached our boat during our
two days in Sarendes. They waved to us, greeted us warmly, showed us through the
gates, and greeted us like kin upon our return. We’ve had more “official” visits from
other western European countries, and one thorough inspection (looking inside drawers,
toiletry cases, knocking on our ceiling…) from Tunisian officials. The two rather large-
sized Tunisians Custom Officials stood in our pilot house demanding “chocolate.” We
handed them one of our two Lindt bars. They said “two -- as a souvenir.”
Amid returned 20 minutes later, pointed to the stamp in our passports saying, “it’s a
souvenir only, just a stamp.” Smiling, he continued, “you are not officially in the
computer, so you can leave Albania whenever you want.”

When Amid turned to go, I looked at Con discretely raising my eyebrow. Reading my
thoughts, he responded quietly, “we’ll see when we get to Croatia, if that’s a good thing
or not.” (We had no problems entering Croatia.)

Three young boys swam out to our boat pleading in their elementary school English,
“Canada! Canada! one jump, one jump from boat!”

Amid appeared again on the quay, smiled at the boys and spoke to them gently in
Albanian and they swam back to the beach.

Sarendes is a small holiday resort for Albanians, with internet shops, cafes, hotels, and
a beautiful heavily populated beach. We left the next afternoon for an anchorage in
Palermo Bay, one of the few safe places to anchor in Albania’s magnificent coast.
Entering the bay, there is a distinct scent… not pungent… pleasant...

The further we motored into the bay, the more curious we became. It is a military naval
station, but we couldn’t see any signs of military activity. Moving closer to the north side
of the bay, rounding the promontory, 11 mounted anti-aircraft guns came into view,
pointing skywards. Rounding further into the bay, we spotted a man-made cave where
the Albanians hide their submarines. Taking in the scenery, there was no movement on
the rocky hillside, and no sound coming from the bay, just the purring of Big Sky’s
engine.

Readying the anchor we suddenly heard shouting -- “go! go! go!”




Two military men had appeared from nowhere. We waved, “okay” and motored to the
south side of the bay, dropped our anchor in five meters of beautiful clear blue 30 C (86
F) degree waters. We could practically count the grains of sand on the bottom. Just
behind us, perched on the top of the hill was an ancient castle built by Ali Pesha during
the Ottoman era.
                                                We were anchored just behind the Ali Pesha Castle. The
green patches on the hillside is where the lavender is growing




                                            Con relaxing in the 30 C degree water

The curious scent continued to intrigue us. Looking up very high in the hills to the east I
spotted a flash of movement and with the binoculars, and barely made out a few people
collecting something from the hillside.

“Lavender!” Con announced finally identifying the scent.

The next day, we swam to the beach and discovered that lavender was indeed being
collected, harvested, bundled up and trucked out to be sold.

Ignorance is not always bliss. Being completely removed from the internet and weather
reports, and with Albanians not broadcasting weather forecasts on VHF, or participating
in Navtex transmissions, our weather and wind reports were now four days old. We had
planned to leave sometime in the morning for the Orikum Marina, Albania’s one and
only marina, near Vlore.

Leisurely, I set about the task of making us a latte before setting off.

“Barb,” Con called to me casually. “Take a look at these clouds.”

Rising ever so quickly over the hillside to our north and heading directly toward us was
a black weather system about to interrupt our paradise. It moved with “lightening”
speed, zapping and crackling along the way, and without words, we jumped into our
“let’s go!” departure routine.

Con dove into the water, to free our stern line from the shore; I secured the inside,
(closed the hatches, water outlets, dumped the lattes), switched on our navigation
instruments, bow thruster, and deck hardware and got behind the wheel. Con climbed
aboard as I turned on the engine. Raising the stern locker with the remote in his hand,
Con made his way to the bow anchor. The clouds appeared to be a kilometre away
(less than a mile) and approaching quickly.

I motored Big Sky slowly toward the anchor until Con gave me the “all clear” and then
cranked up our speed to take Big Sky straight out to sea, in an attempt to go around the
ominous clouds.

Never, never think you can out-run a storm! Only a few minutes after leaving our
anchorage, a massive lightening bolt hit the very spot we’d just vacated! The Adriatic
Sea is notorious for severe thunder storms rising without warning, with an occasional
water spout or two having been spotted.

About two kilometres (just over a mile) out to sea, we knew there would be no going
around it, so Con set our auto pilot to head directly into the storm to lessen our
exposure in it. Even before we had finished the course change, the storm had
surrounded us. Con went out to the cockpit to video tape the lightening bolts when a
sheet of lightening crashed overhead followed instantly with a BOOM! He quickly
rejoined me inside, and I closed the companionway. We were motoring at 6 knots
hoping to get through the storm, when the sky opened up and sheets of rain fell on us,
followed by hail. Then, like something out of Homer’s “Odyssey,” Big Sky began to heel
violently and it appeared that we were actually going backward. Con watching the wind
indicator saw it climb to more than 52 NM, a Beaufort Force 10! The engine became
oddly quiet, likely because of the deafening sounds of the hail, and it felt like Big Sky’s
27 tons were being lifted out of the water! We both stood deathly still in the centre of
the pilot house fixed on each other with a look like we’d just discovered that there really
was a Twilight Zone!

The next moment, all was calm -- for about a minute.

“I think we’re in the eye of the storm Barbie; brace yourself, it’s returning.”

The pressure mounted in the boat, and then the other side of the storm hit. A few
moments later it passed. Even before our heart rate returned to normal, the sun had
returned and we were back in 30 C (86 F) degree weather.

We didn’t escape the lightening unscathed. Our boat’s auto pilot was zapped. But,
here’s where the sport of sailing comes in… We hand-steered Big Sky for the next
seven hours, over a rough choppy sea coming head on.
I used the binoculars to explore Albania’s rugged natural coastline; iIt’s spectacular.
The Adriatic laps up to the rocky shale and limestone cliffs, where deep caves and
grottos have been carved over the centuries by the uncontrollable Albanian rivers. The
whole scene was framed by the beautiful Balkan Mountain range. Wafts of lavender
rolled down the hillsides and met our nostrils.

I lost count of the hundreds of concrete bunkers, some hidden so well, they looked like
natural rock formations. There are roughly 700,000 of them scattered all over the
country, built during the Cold War, each one at a cost equal to five years of the average
Albanian’s annual salary at the time. One quarter of the military budget was spent on
the bunkers! Albania was never attacked, and they were never used, at least not for
the intended purpose. The clean-up cost is prohibitive for this poor country, so they will
likely remain as a grim reminder of the communist era for centuries to come.




                                       Bunker in the town of Lin




                                        Bunkers lining Albania’s west coast



We tucked ourselves into the Orikum marina, next to an Italian, across from an Israeli,
and opposite a couple of local guys in a hot fast speed boat. The marina is planned for
a capacity of 650 berths, but we were one of perhaps 18 boats there on their only
pontoon.
“If you’re looking for the pleasure boats in Albania, they’re all here,” the Italian told us,
gesturing to the few boats in the marina.

Sailing the waters at night is likely not a good idea, especially entering harbours or the
Orikum marina. Power outages are frequent and a way of life here. Most banks, hotels
and some restaurants have standby generators. Orikum’s onshore navigation lights are
powered off the grid, not by the marina’s standby generator, so you can imagine how
precarious it is entering at night during an outage.

Wanting to learn more about this mysterious little-known country, Con and I rented a car
and drove from the west coast through the Balkan Mountains to the Macedonian border
and back. Albania’s most challenging enemy seems to be nature. Throughout the year,
the rivers will change directions, with violent winter run offs, then dry summer beds.
Taming the land is virtually impossible, however, the Albanians take advantage of the
highly fertile sediment the rivers leave behind and crops are growing in the most remote
areas.

The severe conditions make roadway nearly impossible to maintain. The 1 ½ lane pot-
holed route we took was frightening to put it mildly. In a number of spots, we saw where
the shale and sandy hillsides couldn’t hold up the roads and it just slid down the sides of
the mountain. There was always an alternative route. At times, we’d cross ravines
where the road seemed to be held up by piled up rocks on top of sand and loose shale.

We didn't see poverty or beggars that we'd imagined. Meeting the village people during
our two days in Lin, at the Macedonian border, we saw “community” and a peaceful,
friendly way of life. We were greeted with warm smiles by everyone we met.

“Where are the women?” Con asked one of the young men in the restaurant who knew
a bit of English. The place was packed with men.




                      Women in the town of Lin

“They are not allowed here,” he smiled. Looking at me he paused, then added, “you’re
a visitor and you are welcome.”
Infrastructure is coming; it’s slow. Electricity, road systems, internet, and removing
those mines could put Albania on the international tourists map. I bet life will change
quickly here. Albania is unique, mystical, breathtakingly beautiful, and perhaps about to
blossom.

Contributor

Barb Radu Sprenger
www.sailbigsky.com




Barb is a freelance writer, and retired Founder and National Executive Director of the Kids Up Front
Foundation of Canada. She and her husband Con retired in 2007 and are sailing through life. Con and
Barb bought their 51.5 foot Nauticat in Turku, Finland and are currently lazing in Croatia.




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