Earlier this year, our insurer lifted the ban on mariners wishing to visit Albania, so it wasn't a difficult decision for my husband Con and me to sail there aboard our Nauticat 51.5, Big Sky. We've sailed Big Sky 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 in seeing 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.
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 250-mile west coast just about in the middle.
We used our Garmin MapSource charts (mostly 10-year old British Admiralty) 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 navigational markers are out of place or missing. Albania has been out of bounds for mariners for decades. With a good lookout, however, we believed there wouldn't be any surprises.
Albanian waters are majestic and gloriously clear, luring mariners to drop anchor and explore, but beware! There are only a few bays where it is safe to drop an anchor as most of the coastline was heavily mined by the former Communist government. The Imray pilot guide book informed us that the mines "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 the safety of the former minefields. The chart indicates the less than a mile-wide cleared channel into the main Albanian ports of Durrës and Vlorë is "safe" for navigation. The rest is still defined as a "former minefield." 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 will be less risky &mdash perhaps.
Albania has just surfaced from Communism in 1992, and struggled with the transition to democracy which brought with it crime &mdash not the inherent character of most Albanians we'd met. They are the oldest race of people in southeast 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 Leke or 87 cents in US currency. 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 voyagers 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."
Engaging an agent
Sarandë was our first entry point into Albania, sailing north from Corfu, Greece. We'd pre-arranged our entry through e-mail 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 ($110); his smile and warm greeting was free &mdash 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 Leke or $9.28, which included electricity, 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 Sarandë. 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 Tunisian customs officials stood in our pilot house demanding chocolate. We handed them one of our two Lindt bars. They said "two &mdash 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. Sarandë is a small holiday resort for Albanians, with internet shops, cafes, hotels, and a beautiful heavily populated beach.
A distinct fragrance
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 scentâ€¦ not pungentâ€¦instead a light, pleasant tinge to the air. The further we motored into the bay, the more curious we became. Palermo Bay is a military and naval station, but we couldn't see any signs of military activity. Moving closer to the north side of the bay, rounding the promontory, eight 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 &mdash "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 Pasha during the Ottoman era.
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, 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.
Set upon by a storm
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 Vlorë.
Leisurely, I set about the task of making us a latte.
"Barb," Con called to me casually.
"Take a look at these clouds."
Rising ever so quickly over the hillside to the north and heading directly toward us was a black weather system about to interrupt our paradise. It moved rapidly, 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 less than a mile away 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 lightning bolt hit the very spot we'd just vacated! The Adriatic Sea is notorious for severe thunderstorms rising without warning, with an occasional water spout having been spotted.
Just over a mile out to sea, we knew there would be no going around it, so Con set our autopilot 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 lightning bolts when a sheet of lightning 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 The 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 knots, 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 &mdash 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 86° F weather.
We didn't escape the lightning unscathed. Our boat's autopilot was zapped. But, here's where the sport of sailing comes in &mdash 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. It'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.
Thousands of concrete bunkers
I lost count of the thousands 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.
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 harbors 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 half-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 as 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.
"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.
Barb Radu Sprenger 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. Visit www.sailbigsky.com.