The opportunity of superyachting
Croatia offers budding owners and charterers a spectacular, wild and beautiful playground to explore, but it also offers ordinary Croatians an extraordinary opportunity – to own and run their own superyachts.
“The further you go from Croatia’s mainland, the less people you encounter,” says Ivan Rakuljič. “And then you can just enjoy the silence, the nature, and explore the islands by yourself. You can cruise wherever you want.”
Rakuljič knows of what he speaks. It’s mid-May, and we’re standing aboard his 50m yacht Freedom – which he owns and captains – at anchor in the port of Split. We’ve spent the previous three days cruising the surrounding islands, taking in the sights and scenery, and drinking in the culture and local wine. Along with Greece, Croatia surged in popularity as a charter destination during Covid, largely in part to its early reopening. Those who came liked what they saw and keep returning.
Rakuljič has been navigating the Adriatic waters all his life. Born into a boatbuilding family, he grew up in the small village of Krilo Jesenice. Located on the coast between Split and Omis, it’s known for its beautiful beaches, secluded coves and, in an odd turn of events, boatbuilding heritage. “All of the boats that you see in this port,” he says gesticulating around us, “are all owned by my neighbours. We all come from the same place, just 15km from here.”
It’s a unique setup whereby the hulls are ordered and built at shipyards in Split, before being put into the water and towed to Krilo Jesenice where their owners finish the build themselves. What began as a cost-saving practice has transformed the innocuous village into a boating mecca – and a thriving local economic hub. During the winter months, when charter activity in Croatia slows right down, Krilo Jesenice resembles Monaco’s Port Hercules at high season, with 130 yachts sandwiched tightly together.
“As a boy, I grew up surrounded by boats, and I knew I wanted to have my own one day,” he says. Rakuljič’s father owned a 20-metre wooden boat, which he used for transporting cargo. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t have large ferries in Croatia like we do today. To build a house on one of the islands, people required small boats to transport all the building materials. My father made his living like that for 38 years, before deciding to convert his boat into a tourism vessel for day excursions.”
Able to hold up to 130 people at a time, the family made their money from day trippers for the next decade, before deciding once again to upsize. “We saw our friends and neighbours were starting to build bigger boats capable of taking guests for seven night excursions,” explains Rakuljič. “In 2009, we made the decision to sell our wooden 20-metre and we built our first seven-day cruiser.”
It proved to be the right decision. In the ten years that followed, the family built three more 50-metre cruisers, each capable of taking 36 passengers for seven-day charters around Croatia. In 2019, they sold the first boat, and spent the money converting Freedom into a £4.7 million charter yacht.
“All the boats go to dry dock every two years,” he says. “This winter was special because we spent it transforming Freedom. We finished the 2021 season on 28 October, and that same day she went into the shipyard for three months where she received a new paint job. After that, we sailed her back home and refitted the interior ourselves.”
Alongside a cinema, sauna, treatment rooms, pool, gym and a sun deck spa pool, the fully crewed yacht has 11 ensuite cabins (including two master suites) and sleeps up to 22 charter guests., Freedom is one of three Croatian yachts available for private charter. It’s a calculated risk made by Rakuljič in response to rising demand for high-end charter yachts that can accommodate more than 12 guests.
EU law only permits yachts like Freedom to cruise Croatian waters (with neighbouring Montenegro as the one exception). Freedom costs virtually half the price of a comparable 50 metre yacht and delivers a slice of superyacht life to a far wider audience of potential charterers.
On the day I join the boat, it’s Freedom’s maiden voyage since its 2022 refit. Rakuljič is unashamedly happy with the results. He’s stocked the boat with a decent selection of water toys, from an inflatable slide that plummets from the sun deck into the sea, to electric surfboards, SeaBobs and an electric hydrofoil board. On the day I leave, the boat is booked for three weeks by one American client who has chosen to treat his employees to a work perk of a lifetime. It’s a fine way to give back.
“The principal guest will stay for the entire trip, but each week a new group of his employees arrive,” explains Rakuljič. “He’s even bought a helicopter which is waiting for them in Split to make it easier for his guests to reach the boat halfway through the charter when we’re visiting the outer islands.”
The outer islands – or national parks of Lastovo and Mjet – are among Rakuljič’s favourite spots to visit, as they are rich in marine life with the best diving opportunities. He also cites Susak, a small island off the northern Croatian coast in the Kvarner bay, and the famed Kornati national park – the land of a thousand islands – as must visit places. “You drop anchor in the bays, which are protected from the wind and where the seas are gin clear,” he says. “Then guests can jump in the tender and go exploring.”
Here, the restaurants are small with only around 15 to 20 covers. Rakuljič highly recommends a visit though, as they catch their own fish, rear their own meat and provide an intimate service hard to find anywhere else. Freedom’s guests will be able to dictate their itinerary, weather dependent. If left up to the expertise of Rakuljič, they’ll be heading to Komiža on the island of Vis, situated on the northern side of the island, which itself is in proximity to Italy. Today Vis is recognised for its litany of incredible vineyards, but under Yugoslavian rule it was a private military island closed off to the public.
“It’s my favourite place to dock in Croatia,” he enthuses. “It’s wholly unique. The inhabitants even have their own accent, which most Croatians can’t understand. It’s like visiting somewhere entirely new, yet so easily accessible by boat.”
It’s fair to say that the Adriatic nation offers something vastly different to the usual superyacht haunts and playgrounds, but more than that it shows that superyachting – and even ownership – is more accessible than most people realise. Whether it’s being able to experience a superyacht charter for a fraction of the typical price, or the opportunity for a local family to trade up from a small wooden cargo boat to a superyacht, or whether it’s the economic influx that creates a vibrant local community, there’s so much good that comes to so many people. And that, in essence, also sums up Croatia as a cruising ground – the life aquatic on the Adriatic has never been more attractive.