Superyachts and Sailors: The Shifting Seafaring Culture of Kotor, Montenegro

by Thom Brown

Our On the Edges of Europe” columnist gawks at the superyachts in the ports of Montenegro, but while on a boat tour in Kotor, he realizes the historical reality of life at sea is a far cry from the life of luxury on display.

On the upper deck of a yacht, a mid-twenties man lay on his side in nothing but a pair of tight red shorts and jet-black sunglasses, abs glistening in the sunlight that bounced from the walls of his pristine white boat. He had wild locks of brown hair that rustled in the salty breeze and a champagne glass in his left hand. From the concrete promenade below, I watched on and wondered what he (or his parents) must do for a living to afford a boat like that.

I’d spent most of my time in Tivat, Montenegro, yacht spotting. It’s known to be one of the world’s most exclusive ports, having hosted A-list celebrities from Beyonce to the Beckhams. Dawdling with a deep-seated curiosity, I traced the shoreline from the aptly named Venice Square – a small harbor for boats separated from the sea by a luxury Italian restaurant – toward the designer shops that punctuated points along Porto Montenegro. A shop window listed yachts for sale, prompting me to envision myself in that lifestyle. When the smallest, most basic boat turned out to be $5 million, I re-assessed: maybe not then.

From Tivat, it’s a short drive to Kotor, where I was booked a boat tour with Montenegro Waves. My driver dropped me off at the entrance to the Old Town, where a bulky stone archway in the city walls provided a definite divide between the ancient fortified city and the modern boats that bobbed in the marina. Inside was a network of narrow streets that twisted together like a splat of spaghetti dropped on the kitchen floor, each road claustrophobically constricted by coffee shop tables and clusters of wide-eyed tourists.

After a few sweaty minutes of aimlessly losing myself in the Old Town, stopping at every corner to pet a gaggle of affectionate, free-roaming kittens, it was time to find the boat. I was met by three or four strong Montenegrin men in spotless white polo shirts. Climbing aboard the speedboat, I chose a spot on the long leather seat that lined the bow of the ship, placing myself directly in front of the quietly confident driver.

Besides me and the driver, there were three tourists from Poland and Estonia, another crew member, and our guide, Aleksandra. Unlike the men in their dazzling white shirts, Aleksandra wore jeans, a rain jacket, large black sunglasses, and a red baseball cap pulled low and secured tightly to her head. The boat pulled away, gradually building up speed.

“The water here is nice and calm,” Aleksandra said, “but when we get out of the bay near the open waters, it can be rough. We’ll go as far as we can, but if it is not safe, we do not go.”

Up the coast from Kotor was an idyllic beach town called Perast.

“Less than 300 people live in Perast,” explained Aleksandra, “but you wouldn’t know because of all the people who visit there. You can see how exposed it is; it was always under attack from invaders and pirates, unlike Kotor which is protected by the city walls.”

She explained how the houses were built from materials brought over from Croatia. This wasn’t a surprise; the pale stone and orange roofs reminded me of Dubrovnik.

“Are we going to stop at Perast?” I asked.

“No,” replied Aleksandra. “We’re going over there.” She pointed to a small artificial island made of concrete upon which stood a couple of stone buildings, the most notable being a large medieval church shaped like a ship.

“That’s Our Lady of the Rocks,” Aleksandra explained. “It was very important to the security of this area because it blocks the entrance to Perast and Kotor, acting like a fortification to stop invaders. That’s why, even now, sailors continue to come and place presents before they leave on their voyages.”

Legend told that a Madonna and Child icon was found on Our Lady of the Rocks in 1452. Sailors would come to leave rocks as an offering to Mother Mary, causing the island to gradually emerge from the sea over the next few centuries, eventually providing a formidable defense for the people. The reality, though, is much cooler: the military would seize ships and load them with rocks until they sank. These sunken ships became the foundation of the island.

As we explored the island, Aleksandra told its history in great detail, revealing her admiration for sailors and how they shaped modern Montenegro. Climbing back into the boat, we learned more about our guide’s personal story.

“My whole family are sailors,” Aleksandra said. “My father, my husband… it’s a way of life here. My husband disappears for three, four, maybe five months at a time, and I must stay home with our children. It’s hard, we miss him, and I pray that he is safe.”

While her expression was well hidden behind her sunglasses and hat, a hint of bottled-up sadness was evident in the way her voice quietly cracked. When I was dreaming of owning a multi-million dollar yacht in Tivat, it had eluded me that a life at sea has generally been one of turbulence, treachery, and death. Even with modern safety equipment, sailing remains one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

As promised, the sea became rougher as we gathered speed toward open waters. There was something exciting about the way my stomach somersaulted every time the boat hit a big wave, momentarily hung in the air, and then slapped back down on the water. Crew and passengers were launched from their seats in rhythmic unison, enjoying the weightless sensation before thudding back down onto the leather cushioning.

The faster we went, the less we talked in favor of savoring the thrill of the ride. As we powered past the skeleton shell of a rusted-away shipwreck, I ruminated on the contrast between boats as a symbol of luxurious relaxation and the sheer numbers who have died on them in the pursuit of a few coins to feed their family. The boat slowed, the roar of the engines softening to a whisper.

“Over there is a war tunnel,” Aleksandra said, pointing to a wide opening in the cliff face, protected from falling rocks by protruding rusty iron bars that outlined a pitch-black hole. “These submarine tunnels were built by the Yugoslav army during the Second World War and used until the break up of Yugoslavia. They help boats travel without detection from spy planes. They were covered with fake rocks and plants, but now you can swim or snorkel there.”

The boat drifted into the darkness of the tunnel. Within moments, we were encircled by a mixture of concrete and natural rock, the sea below fading from shimmering turquoise to an eerie shade of navy blue. We floated silently deeper into the tunnel until we reached a dead-end, where we turned and eased our way back toward the comforting embrace of daylight.

Further along the sea, we passed another island. Rather than a picturesque church, this one housed a brutal and imposing fort.

“That’s Mamula Island,” Aleksandra explained. “It was built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1853 to defend against attacks, but actually, it was never used for that. It was used as a concentration camp where they would torture political prisoners. Now, it’s a luxury hotel, but it’s very exclusive. We can’t even go there now; you have to book in advance and get permission to visit.”

I contemplated the idea of a millionaire – that young man in Tivat, perhaps? – lounging around in the same rooms where men were starved, beaten, and killed. Something about it didn’t sit right, but at the same time, why let a good building go to waste? Why not turn it into a place of pleasure?

A little further up the coast was the Blue Cave: one of Montenegro’s must-see natural phenomena. A low gap between the cliff face and the sea led into the cave, where the sunlight hit the water at just the right angle to bring out enchanting shades of blue. It was – and there’s really no other way to say this – really freaking blue.

This stunning scene, comparable to the most beautiful sunset, was what tourists came for. For me, though, it was just another reflection of the contrast between the superyachts and the sailors: the good, the bad, and the tragedy of life at sea.

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