During the Rio Olympics I was in a Croatian bar with the ubiquitous TV showing live sport, though as the games were in progress it wasn’t showing football. The event in question was sailing, and though I understood neither the captions nor the commentary, all I could see was the GB had a competitor vying for a medal.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries Great Britain was a world superpower based on one particular asset. The size of her navy. Only the Dutch rivalled us a master of the world’s seas. As an island nation that’s not too surprising; we had relied on seafaring skills for food supplies, defence, trade and transport throughout our history and were at that stage building an empire with our navy at its heart that would transform the wealth of the nation. (Damn those Wright brothers!)
Although I lived in a town with its own yacht club for many years, I never really developed much knowledge of sailing beyond being able to identify a laser class vessel by the insignia on its sail. Consequently I had no idea whether the men in the British boat (470 class) were likely world beaters or not. As it happened they were not and finished in 5th place (though we did top the medal table for sailing overall). Instead the gold medal went to Šime Fantela and Igor Marenić, the Croatian entrants. No wonder it was being given such prominence in the bar.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at their success however, for Croatia has its own maritime history.
Prior to the exploits of Columbus, the Mediterranean was the most important body of water to Europeans and a succession of Maritime Republics held sway, of which Venice was one of the most important and enduring, but Amalfi, Pisa, Columbus’ home Genoa and more also established themselves as city-states whose power was derived from the sea. And then there was Ragusa, though now we know it as Dubrovnik.
Of course the region produced natural sailors; modern Croatia may be small but its coastline is the most indented in the Mediterranean and runs to over a thousand miles in length. Then add in over 1200 islands and you have over 2500 miles of coastline; being sailors was inevitable. If you live on one of those islands (only 45 or so are populated) the boat is more important than any other vehicle, and so just like Venice, they put them to good use; one morning on the ferry to Dubrovnik we were delayed in Koločep by a group of men who climbed aboard to unload a pallet of roofing tiles. No cranes or derricks here, the whole job was completed in a matter of minutes by human chain.
Dubrovnik’s arsenal may not have had the size or significance of its Venetian counterpart (and now it’s a swanky restaurant) but this walled city held its own for 450 years until Napoleon intervened. I think they deserved that gold medal.