The near-death story involving Chekhov and Croatia

I’ve got bored of writing what I’m supposed to be writing so I thought I’d tell the near-death story. A couple of years ago I went on holiday with my Mum to Croatia, to Korcula, an island in the south near Dubrovnik. It was a fantastic trip – beautiful scenery, great food, nice people, a nice relaxing time. Generally.

One day we decided to go on a day trip to the beautiful island of Mljet, largely taken up by a national park, with a lake and and island-within-an-island in the middle of it.

mljet again

 

We had a lovely day. You can walk through the woods or sunbathe by the side of the lake, or swim in the warm, calm waters. Actually, that was part of the problem. The interior of the island is extremely sheltered, so you have no idea what is going on in the world outside. According to legend, Mljet is where Odysseus was kept captive for seven years by the nymph Calypso. We said at the time you could see why he wouldn’t want to leave.

Odysseus and Calypso
Odysseus and Calypso

At the appointed hour we made our way back down to the harbour to get the boat back. As we came out of the sheltered forest it became apparent that the wind was battering the (more exposed) harbour, but we didn’t think much of it. Everyone got handed a sick bag as they boarded the catamaran but we all just laughed about it.

Once we were fully loaded the boat started up and eased its way out of the harbour. The water was a bit choppy. Then we pulled out into the open sea and immediately the cat started bucking and dipping around like a rollercoaster. People starting screaming, but screaming in the way you do on a fairground ride, where every yell tails off into self-mocking laughter.

Then we pulled further out and the cabin went deathly silent. Each wave sent the boat shooting up and plummeting down. If you looked out of one side all you could see were waves as tall as the boat, a slate-coloured wall with no sky, while on the other the horizon zipped up and down like a shutter. I became completely convinced that the boat would capsize – it was a high sided cat with a centre of gravity probably around the waterline, not a heavy-bottomed, storm-worthy vessel.

Realising how dangerous the sea was, the captain turned the boat around. Unfortunately for a while this made things worse, as we were now side-on to the waves. It was completely terrifying. Thankfully though we made it back. As soon as we got into calmer waters people began to leap up and run for the toilets – before everyone had been too scared even to throw up.

We filed palely off the boat and were told that they’d decided to wait for a bit to see if the wind died down. We were told to rendezvous in a couple of hours and all went quivering off to recover ourselves. It’s worth mentioning that there was only one hotel on the island, which seemed reasonably booked up; no one had brought very much money and that had been spent on lunch; furthermore, we were all only dressed in swimming costumes, towels and damp cover-up t-shirts from our time at the lake.

Mum and I found a bench somewhere reasonably sheltered and got our books out. This is where the Chekhov comes in. I hadn’t expected to do much reading so I only brought a slim copy of My Life with me, which is unusual as I don’t often leave the house without a portable library. I read the whole thing looking out to sea on the tip of the island, the wind battering against us; I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. We hardly spoke. After the allotted time we went back to the harbour and were told to wait awhile – the wind was still howling. And then we got back on the boat.

This is amazing to me, as the wind seemed to be of exactly the same strength as before, and yet a boatload of people got back on, compliantly collecting our sick bags even though just a couple of hours before we had all been convinced that we were going to die. This time they only stuck the boat’s nose out of the harbour before all hell broke loose again and we turned back and gratefully disembarked.

We were herded into the island’s one hotel while the guides wondered what the hell to do with us. Apparently putting up a hundred or so people for the night didn’t seem to appeal; they did, however, provide us with sandwiches, and we sat in a wind-and water-bedraggled puddle in the bar, comparing notes on exactly how completely terrifying it had been.

It got later and later; the wind still howled. We found out that it was the worst wind-storm for ten years; most boats were stuck in harbours. Eventually, at about nine o’clock, a boat struggled in, a low, sturdy looking thing that looked much more promising. We were loaded on again and struck out once more from the harbour. This time the wind had dropped a little and the low boat, smacking through the waves, offered less resistance. We forged on. It was dark, which was probably just as well, as the boat still tipped and plummeted with every wave; but in comparison to what we had experienced earlier it felt fine.

Eventually we made it back, docking in the harbour next to the grand Austro-Hungarian Hotel Korcula, about five hours later than planned. A boatful of tired, shivery passengers trembled out on to the harbour, dressed in damp beachwear, towels wrapped around our shoulders, much to the bemusement of the glamourous set sipping aperitifs on the terrace in front of us.

So, it turns out, the reason Odysseus stayed so long on Mljet probably has less to do with nymphs than prevailing weather conditions. But it is a beautiful place to get stuck.

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