Just after sunrise, ours is the only small boat cruiser anchored in the bay at Vis. Most passengers are still asleep, but for Captain Ante Letica, it’s just another working day. At 06.00, as the Jadrolinija ferry, the government-owned transport backbone of the islands and coastal towns, ploughs out of the harbour, we follow behind and head out to sea.
Croatia enjoys a long strip of 6,000 km mountain-backed coastline and over 700 largely unspoilt islands. The Adriatic is famed for its clean, clear, azure blue waters, a paradise for snorkelling and diving.
I’m on a small boat cruise from Dubrovnik to Split aboard the 148-foot My Way, which Letica bought in 2018 with the help of a loan from his bank. I swim every day from the back of the boat. We go in and out of tiny Venetian-style harbours, moor up next to Ottoman castles, and wander through the cobbled streets of Korkula, Starigrad and Hvar, little changed over the centuries.
Yet when the engines roar into life, or I catch the odd whiff of diesel fumes, I wonder how much damage small boat cruises are doing to the environment. In 2019, there were more than 350,000 boats on the water in Croatia.
“The future is scary,” says Letica. “The issue is traffic. More and more people are going on the sea, and sailing is becoming increasingly popular because the equipment is improving. So there will be more ships, but the Adriatic is a small sea with small ports. And with more and more flotillas, pressure on the ports is an increasing problem.”
Every five weeks, Letica stops in Split to refuel, taking 40,000 litres of fuel on board. Our week’s cruise from Dubrovnik to Split uses around 4,000 litres. The cleaner diesel he uses complies with recent, stricter IMO 2020 regulations, which reduce the polluting sulphur content of the fuel oil used on board ships. He says diesel is currently the most practical fuel; biofuels aren’t suitable for marine engines.
Small cruise boats emit a small proportion of total shipping emissions. Jerzy Herdzik from Gdynia Maritime University in Poland has estimated that shipping has generated between 2.5 – 3.0% of carbon dioxide pollution worldwide. Transport generates about a quarter of global emissions.
Could Letica have bought an electric boat? No, he replies. It isn’t just that batteries aren’t yet big enough for the itinerary; it’s about passengers’ expectations.
“Thirty years ago, our passengers didn’t expect wifi,” explains Letica. “They didn’t expect a t.v. in their bedroom. We didn’t have all these dishwashers, mobile phones or laptops to charge.”
My Way is very much Letica’s ship – he will fully own her once he pays off the bank loan he took out to buy her. His wife and grandson are on board for the first couple of days. Warm and charismatic, he treats the crew almost like family, yet they never cross the line. Discipline is tight. If there are any disagreements between crew members, they leave the boat. The ship is immaculate, the food excellent, but there is no waste.
Tourism generates around 20% of Croatia’s GDP, and operators must prove their activities create local wealth. However, as a semi-enclosed sea, the Adriatic is becoming increasingly vulnerable to impacts from economic activities such as tourism.
One critical environmental consideration for Letica is how to dispose of ‘black water,’ the wastewater from bathrooms and toilets. My Way’s black water is on board in a black box, offloaded in port at the end of each trip. He welcomes the more stringent regulations that have accompanied Croatia’s membership of the EU.
Croatia complies with the International Maritime Organisation’s Annex IV to MARPOL, prohibiting the discharge of black water at sea within 12 nautical miles of land unless it’s been or treated by a sewerage pump.
The idea of change doesn’t phase Letica – after all, he lived through communism, the last war, and the transition beyond. “Since the 1990s, we have had choices. It is possible to choose better equipment and fuel. Change takes time – it will take time to change ship engines. But we must follow what’s modern and best practice if we want to work in the tourism industry.”