Paddling to the Middle of the Adriatic Sea I. – Svetac Island aka the Devil’s Island

Why Would You Even Paddle There?

There is something about those faraway places that still offer a sense of discovering something new, even though centuries or even millenniums have passed since first ever human set foot there. But no matter when they were discovered, far away, hard to get to and inhospitable places remain rarely visited even these days and offer at the same time a challenge and a special kind of reward once you get there. But do places like these still exist in the Adriatic sea?

The moment we paddled around the corner of Biševo Island it was obvious that our destination was one of those places. A sea full of people, sailboats, charter boats, and day trip boats was left behind our backs and in front of us there was just vast and empty open sea without a single boat or person in sight. We could see the silhouette of the bigger of the two islands on the horizon, the smaller one was impossible to see. This would be our longest open sea paddle to that day and one that we were planning the whole summer.

adriatic sea and sv andrija and brusnik islands 1

Sv.Andrija aka Svetac aka Devils island location and nautical map.

There are three islands in the Adriatic, that are so far away from land and other Croatia islands, so far away from all the mayor shipping and tourist routes and so hard to get to, that they seem a bit unreal: Palagruža, also called the heart of the Adriatic, Jabuka, one of the two volcanic islands in the sea and mystical Svetac with its tiny neighbor Brusnik, which is the other volcanic island of the two. It’s not just the distance of paddling (or sailing) over open sea, it’s the fact that you are almost in the middle of Adriatic with no land to offer you protection from the winds and sea. There is just infinite exposure to all the elements from every direction.

It is not just the feeling of being exposed, the threat of the open sea is very real. Even though the Adriatic sea is small, the winds and storms here are no joke. Stories of these three islands, especially Svetac, are full of stranded fishermen unable to return home for days due to the weather. Steep inhospitable coast lined with towering cliffs and without a safe harbor to hide, gigantic waves crashing into these walls, hauling winds filling the air with sea water, clouding the horizon and basically cutting the islands off from the rest of the world, making them lost in the middle of wild nature as if they were lost in space. Especially in the past, when there was no weather forecast to rely on, some of these stories ended tragically.

This is why we were waiting and waiting for the right forecast to come. I was loosing hope, with days growing shorter and weather colder sea kayaking starts to loose its appeal. Summer was already over when a window with no wind appeared. There are rarely no winds in the middle of the sea, especially when you need 3-4 consecutive calm days to make the whole trip. Even when the conditions seem perfect, forecast can change from day to day. I was calmer when Croatian sea kayaker Marko told me that we can expect similar sea conditions to the exposed western coast of Dugi Otok that we paddled last year. OK, there is something I can compare the paddling condition to in my mind. So… let’s go. Our goals were Svetac and Brusnik islands. The more we read about these two islands, the more we were drawn to them. From rich history to completely different geography, from stories of fishermen and soldiers to pirates, sex, murder, bombs, sunken ships and deserted villages. These islands even have their own climate.

Svetac aka Sv.Andrija

The island of Svetac looks like a mountain in the sea. The top of the island is pretty high for the island of this size, so its shores are mostly steep going up towards the highest peak called Kos (316 m). On the south/south east the coast is steep but mostly still passable on foot while on the northwest the coast is lined with steep stone walls like a fortress above the sea full of strong sea currents. Island lies in the middle of the Adriatic sea, 26km from Komiža on Vis island and 20km away from the closest island Biševo. It’s 75km away from the town of Split and 125 away from Italy. If you would paddle on, 22km past the Svetac island, you would reach Jabuka, one of the other two outer islands of the Adriatic.

Like his neighbours, Vis and Biševo, the island of Svetac is full of land and sea caves. Medvidina cave on the southeast coast of the island is particularly beautiful, named after monk seals that were common visitors to the caves in the area before they were exterminated.

svetac island from air

Svetac island from air.

There are no bays and safe harbors on Svetac. The only “harbor” is Povlov bok bay where the boats are pulled out of the water with a pulley and parked up the beach to escape the angry southern sea. There is a huge breakwater wall at the entrance of this beach, but even though it’s massive, locals say that with strong south wind and high tides waves crash over this wall. So when southern storms are forecasted, you better pull your boat high. Obviously, only really small boats, dinghies can be pulled out of the water here. This is one of the reasons why the island is so remote and rarely visited, it’s impossible to stop here. Usually only fishermen visit it, they arrive from Vis island, fish around Svetac and then returning back in the evening without even setting foot on the island.

svetac port and beach

The inhabited part of the Sveti Andrija island with the tiny harbor below the houses.


svetac port

The only harbor on the island. The “line” on the top is the concrete breakwater. Under it you can see a small boat and our two kayaks.

The Warmest Place in the Whole Adriatic Sea?

Another thing that really sparked our interest was the islands climate. Preferring summer to winter, warmth to cold, sun to clouds (you get the idea)… when we read that the climate of Svetac is extremely warm we were like: “Yes, high five!”. Sveti Andrija is THE warmest place in whole of Croatia, the only place that is permanently frost-free. The lowest ever recorded temperature was 0°C and the average yearly temperature goes up to 17.4°C which makes it similar to places like Malta and Crete! This is even crazier when you think that Malta and Crete and around 800 km more towards south. Even the plants here are more similar to these places that to the rest of the Croatian coast.

Searching for First Settlers

Even though the island is hard to reach, it has a long and interesting history. It was inhabited since prehistoric times (Bronze Age finds in the Tovarski bod cave). Finds in the sea around the island make scientists believe that island was also inhabited during Greek and Roman times when it was an important island in the navigation system on the waterways of the Adriatic in ancient times. There is also a Roman site between the two highest elevations; the finds indicate that there was a smaller Roman farm here.

Later the Benedictines came to the island and had their monastery here until the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century. In recent centuries, the island has been owned and populated by the Zanchi (Zanki) family from Vis island.

The Bombing of Svetac Island

Even though the island is almost deserted and so out of the way, it was bombed during the World War II. After the capitulation of Italy, Italian soldiers on two ships were sailing from the south of Croatia towards Bari. But at the time they couldn’t expect safety on either of the Adriatic coasts, on the Croatian coast they were threatened by partisans and on Italian coast by Italian army. So they decided to hide and wait for the allies to reach Bari and then sail there. Svetac island, so far away from everything, seemed like a perfect place to hide and wait. But a German reconnaissance plane spotted them while they were on the island, and the next day German bombers arrived and bombed the island. Fortunately for the Italians they did not hit their ships, but they did demolish one of the houses on the island. This was the only bombing and later Italians safely made it to Italy.

Murder on The Devil’s Island

Being so remote, Svetac was also used as some kind of prison for people that were causing troubles. Criminals, thieves etc… were sent to the island to work as shepherds on one part of the island. In 1815, when a ship of the English fleet was wrecked on the Galijula rock near Palagruža, the ship’s crew managed to board a rescue ship and reach Svetac. They all swam to the island, unlucky for them to the part where the before mentioned shepherds lived. Shepherds suspected that the captain had gold in his belt so when the sailors arrived they accepted and fed them, then waited for them to fall asleep. During the night they robbed and killed every single one of them, only one crew member managed to escape that night and hide on the other side of the island where original inhabitants, the Zanki family, lived.

Family hid him for  few days and then secretly boarded him to the wood transporting barge that came from Vis. Sailor safely made it to Komiža where, based on his testimony, the murderers were later arrested and punished. English have long after that called the island the Devil’s Island on their nautical charts.  But this is not the end of the story when it comes to devils involvement in the area. In 1932, fishing boat from Komiža, sailing towards Svetac, collided with an English submarine that broke the boat in half. Although the English helped the fishermen, this act is believed to have paid off the island’s curse.

Queen of Pirates and Sex Slaves

On the eastern side of the island, high up on the hill you can see ruins of the former Illyrian fortress called “Krajicino” ruled by an Illyrian queen Teuta.

Since Svetac was conveniently located next to the ancient maritime route, Teuta allowed its subjects to engage in piracy. Since most of the ships sailing past the island at the time were either Greek or Roman, Teuta often came into conflict with them. From her fort, she would follow the ships that were passing near Svetac and would then intercept them with her fast sailing boats. All the bounty and the crew would be brought to Svetac, where part of the crew would be killed and some would be taken as slaves. The legend says that the sailors from the enemy ships whose lives she would spare were strong, large young men, whom she then took to bed. She would have her lovers killed after spending the night together. Evidence of this claim is the discovery of graves on the island in which skeletons of supernatural size were found.

sunsets

Svetac sunset. Sunsets in autumn are just crazy. The setting sun bounces the light of the clouds and the whole landscape turns purple. This never happens in summer but it happens almost every day in autumn.

The rule of queen Teuta was over when she attempted to conquer the neighboring island of Vis. Teuta was defeated by the united Greeks and Romans and she, forced to watch them plunder her kingdom, killed herself by throwing herself from the top of the fortress on Svetac island. The legend also says, that pirate gold is still buried and undiscovered somewhere on the island.

Sources of these stories are various websites including Wikipedia and especially amazing blog posts from Slaven who visited the island. If you understand Croatian language, check his whole blog series about visiting Svetac, Brusnik and Palagruža.

People of Svetac

The main settlement on the island is called Sveti Andrija. It is basically just a couple of big houses. As it is with many Adriatic islands, the population was slowly declining in the last 100 years. Hard life with only a few choices, no jobs, poor connections to the mainland are usually the reasons people leave the islands and Svetac is no exception. It used to be the most remote inhabited island in Croatia. In 1951, there were still 51 permanent residents on Svetac, but since then the population was declining until the last local old woman (Jurka Zanki) died there at the turn of the millennium.

Today the island is said to be uninhabited. But, when we paddled there, we were soon greeted by a few friendly locals who spend most of the year on the island. Just during a few winter months, when there is nothing to do, they return to the mainland. So maybe the island is not really uninhabited.

donkey attack

Donkey locals were worse than airport customs and security. They wanted to check everything!

It was so interesting to see the contrast between Svetac and the neighboring popular islands of Biševo and Vis. There, tourist are just numbers. Masses of them come to enjoy the Vis beaches, eat good food, drink local wine, have fun in the bars and to see the famous blue cave in Biševo island. There is a whole tourist industry there to serve them. Masses of people arriving and leaving, no one really cares who they are, as long as they pay and keep coming back. It’s like a factory. I’m not saying this is wrong; it’s the way popular places are. But it was such a striking contrast to Svetac.

Here our arrival was something that doesn’t go unnoticed. Only a few people a year paddle and stop here. And by a few I mean like 3 to 5. 3 – 5 kayakers in a whole year. So when we arrived the locals came and said hi, we shook hands, introduced ourselves, we talked about living on the island, about sea kayaking, about paddling to Jabuka, about Marko (Croatian kayaker who I mentioned before, he paddled to every island lighthouse in Croatia including to Palagruža!) who was there just a couple of weeks before us, about the sea, the waves, fishing, turtles, about what they do here etc… Everyone was super friendly and I want to say thank you for welcoming us to the island.

landing on svetac island

Our kayaks parked in the harbor. Logs cemented into the grounds make pulling the boats out of the sea easier.

What Do You Do For Living in St.Andrija?

So what do they do for a living on St. Andrija? In the past, believe it or not, the island had its own industry. There was a resin factory built here in 1760. Resin was a sought-after raw material for shipbuilding and it was harvested from the pine trees on the island. Due to the excessive cutting of pine trees the pine forest was virtually wiped out and when this happened, the factory was abandoned. The island was for some time also owned by the church. They had their flocks of sheep here on the island, and the shepherds were the before mentioned people of the “impure” past. Shepherds were instructed to keep away from the Zanki family that later owned the island and lived on the other side of it.

Now there are wine yards and olive gardens on the island, taken care by the Zanki family. They also produce capers and have a few donkeys that stay on the island even when the family goes to Komiža for a few months during the winter.

The sea around the island is also rich with fish (kayak fishing guide) and lobsters. In fact, it used to be so reach with lobster that fishermen had special small ponds on the neighboring island of Brusnik where they stored caught lobster before transporting them back to Komiža. But more on that later.

feeding the donkeys

They insisted on cleaning the breakfast leftovers.

OK, so now you know a thing or two about Svetac, and together with Brusnik, this was the goal of our little expedition.

The Paddle to Svetac Island

Vis Island

We made it to Vis Island with the evening ferry. Our car was loaded with kayaks and kayaking gear and we needed to find a place to sleep, but the night was still young so we decided to check out one of the two towns on Vis island – Komiža. Summer was over and the crowds were long gone, but there were still people in the bars and restaurants around the “mandrač” (small harbor in the center of coastal fishing town), mostly sailors as Vis is a popular sailing location.

We walked around checking out the various sailboats anchored in the harbor, guessing which one is more expensive and then sat down for a beer in one of the bars. It was pleasantly warm for the beginning of October. I love this before the trip feeling, when everything is still ahead of you, but at the same time, it’s already happening!

driving

Driving through Vis island.

We picked one of the Vis beaches as our starting point, one that was as close to our destination as possible and at the same time accessible by car. We threw our tent behind the car somewhere close to the beach and went to sleep.

Paddling Over The Open Sea

Morning started with carrying both of our kayaks and all the gear from the car to the beach, maybe around 200m. A warmup workout before the trip. We really need to invest into a kayak transport cart with wheels which would make this so much easier.

For longer trips, especially in the colder part of the year when you need some extra clothes and a good sleeping bag it always takes a lot of time to pack everything into your sea kayak. It’s like an upgraded game of Tetris. First, you want everything to fit inside the kayak but at the same time you have to think which items you will need first. The thing you need first is almost always at the far most bottom of the kayak. So you have to be smart and think ahead. Packing everything into waterproof bags is also a must.

around the corner on bisevo island

Biševo and the rock layers above the sea.

When we were done, the pushed ourselves off the beach and pointed our sea kayaks along the coast of Vis towards Biševo Island. The plan was still not set in stone, either make it to Biševo and explore it and then sleep there, or make it all the way to Brusnik. We were making nice progress and we passed Biševo near Cape Pernikoza maybe two hours later. Just behind the cape there is an interesting cliff with multiple rock layers that remind  you of the leaves in a book. Since there was still enough time, we decided to leave Biševo behind and aim for Brusnik. Suddenly we were the only two people on the sea.

looking at st andrija island from bisevo

A long way to go. Looking at Svetac island when we passed Biševo.

For me, paddling over the open sea sucks. Mainly because paddling over the open sea is boring. Paddling along the coast you can set yourself little goals like, paddle to the next corner and then, when a new landscape opens in front of you, paddle to the next one etc… This way you can break your paddle into smaller, more manageable sections. The curiosity off what is around the next corner also helps you paddle. At the same time, the coast itself is always changing as it is passing by and it gives you something to look at and to track your progress.

Paddling over the open sea is the exact opposite. You can see your final goal from the start to finish and you can’t really track your progress because getting 1km closer to your goal doesn’t make any visual difference.

“Are we getting any closer? It looks the same to me!” is the most common sentence here.

At the same time, open sea also means more exposure and more problems in case something would go wrong, especially if the section is longer.

While we were wondering if Svetac is getting any closer or not, we made it half way to the island. Even with almost no wind, when you move out of the “shadow” of the islands, the sea becomes rougher and more exhausting to paddle. The damn island was still far away and the paddling morale was getting low. We needed something to break the monotony.

closing in on svetac island

Yep, it’s closer than before.

“Pfffsss”

“Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Wait, be quiet!”

“Pfffssssss”

We know a sound of a dolphin surfacing and this was it. We started scanning the horizon and after a few second I saw them, two dolphins coming out of the water in the distance. Meeting dolphins during sea kayaking in the Adriatic happens every now and then, just rarely enough to keep you excited when you see them. While I was wondering if it’s worth taking my camera out of the dry bag to take some photos (they were really far away), I noticed something else.

A piece of trash or a short wooden stump was floating maybe 10 or 15 meters away from our kayaks. One of the stump branches was appearing and disappearing into the sea. Weird.

“It’s a turtle! It’s a huge turtle!!”

I have seen dolphins while paddling like 10 or 15 times but I didn’t even know sea turtles live here. Let alone a huge sea turtles like the one just a few meters away from us. Damn.

We spent at least 30 minutes watching and filming the turtle before she got tired of us and swam away. That was the sickest animal encounter of my paddling career. Motivation and energy were back on 100% and for the first time, Svetac island seemed to be closing in.

brusnik island

Paddling past Brusnik island, one of the two volcanic islands in the Adriatic sea.


paddling past brusnik island

You can see right away that this island is built differently.

Soon we were paddling past the small Brusnik island, that we decided to visit on the way back, and Svetac was only 4 kilometers away.

Made It!

We arrived there late in the afternoon. It was great to stretch our legs and back after a whole days of paddling and sitting in the kayak. We covered around 31km (20 miles) and it was time for dinner and for a beer on the beach while watching another amazing sunset.

salty arms

If you want to “stay salty” then sea kayaking is the way to go. Throughout the day a layer of salt accumulates on your arms.

We went to bed early, partly because we were dead tired and partly because, there were surprisingly lots of mosquitoes on the beach in the evening. Next day, when a wind was supposed to be a bit stronger, we decided to have a lay day. During the morning coffee we were greeted by a herd of very curious donkeys.

Later we explored the island, talked with the locals, went swimming and made plans for the way back.

small pier on svetac

October swimming.

Funny, the wind was not that strong, but now the forecast promised stronger wind for the next day. Hah, not unusual turn of events. I was hoping that the wind will be as much from behind as possible and as little from the side, since the forecast was somewhere in the middle. If there is anything easier to paddle as a sea that is completely smooth is paddling with wind in the back when the wind just starts to blow, before the sea gets rough. You are flying with every paddle you make. So fingers crossed for tomorrow, we went to bed.

brusnik island from air

Brusnik island, a crazy Lord of the Rings looking island next to Svetac would be our next stop.

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