August 12, 2019 – It is, quite simply, the most heartwarming project in 2019. TCN catches up with Domagoj ‘Ribafish’ Jakopovic after the successful completion of Rokotok 2019.
He was the 48-year-old guy who made this 50-year-old guy cry.
An inspiration for thousands of kids on Croatia’s islands this summer. And he is only just starting.
The tragic and premature loss of his beloved 12-year-old son Rok caused pain which is unimaginable to any parent, but rather than wallow in self-pity, Domagoj ‘Ribafish Jakopovic decided to try and turn his tragedy into something positive, while honouring a promise he made to his son.
Not having the money to take him to Disneyland, Ribafish promised Rok that they would visit all 50 of Croatia’s inhabited islands together. At the time of his untimely death, father and son had visited just 8 of them.
Having scattered Rok’s ashes near their favourite beach so that Rok was with him in the Adriatic, Ribafish came up with a plan to fulfil his promise. With Rok beside him in the Adriatic, he would swim between all 50 islands over three summers, the first leg this year from Kolocep to Ciovo. On every island, he would meet local children and talk to them on the importance of nature, ecology, spending time as a family. On each island there was a treasure hunt, and each child promised to read the free gift of Ribafish’s book with their parents on his conversations with Rok. You can learn more about the project in my initial article on Rokotok 2019.
It is now a couple of weeks since Ribafish completed the first stage by swimming to Ciovo. Now a little more rested and back in his Zagreb apartment, he kindly agreed to another TCN interview with his thoughts on RokOtok 2019, as well as looking ahead to RokOtok 2020.
- It has been a few days since you completed RokOtok 2019, for which congratulations. You have had a few days to reflect on your achievement. How do you feel and was the experience different to your expectations?
Thank you very much, I’m very grateful to everyone who saw this as something nice and valuable, so they followed our journey, as you did. It’s difficult to do anything without the coverage of the good journalists… I’m sitting in my apartment in Zagreb, waiting to have an MRI of my shoulder to see how it can be fixed, writing reports for our sponsors, preparing a press conference… I miss the swimming, the adrenaline, the effort, the joy, and the children. And no matter how hard and gruelling it was, the whole thing on the boat and around it got under our skin. I’d love to rest, but I need to find another job and prepare the second season of the #RokOtok project.
- How do you even prepare mentally and physically for something like RokOtok?
There were two options in my head: the first one was to continue working for 20 hours a day and withdraw into the alcochol and my depression, and destroy completely myself and everyone around me. The other option was to attempt doing something good for other people. I decided to do the second thing, so I quit my job and took on a fight with bureaucracy, sponsors and people overall. I didn’t really have time to think about the physical preparations, but in the last 30 years I’ve tried either swimming or going to the gym every morning before work. Succesfully, more or less?
- There were so many highlights. Can you pick out a few special moments?
Three days before we need to get going towards Dubrovnik we started getting together the gifts for children, the flags, the swimsuit, and the final documents. Nobody in the team is sleeping anymore. Everything is late, we can’t seem to stand on our feet – even on glassy ones. But there are no feet whatsoever, the project is up in the air, there are people wishing the project would fail just so they could tell everyone later “I knew it, I told them, if only they listened to me…”
But, we get 500 kilos of gifts and boxes into the van and start towards Dubrovnik. And we forget that we need to pass the border, without any paperwork for the gifts. So, every customs officer can stop us and give us a hard time, if she or he is having a bad day.. Somehow we pass the border, jumping with joy, and I remember I don’t have – the swimming trunks. We run, we buy them, get stuff out of the van, into the boat, the boat is late, we can’t sleep because we’re so nervous, in the morning there are 10 TV stations, 50 journalists, I put on the wrong t-shirt, don’t put on the vaseline, we get going 10 minutes before the police arrive… But, we get going.
So, there, that second, after three months since I came up with the idea until the start of the project that came by in a trance-like state, that was the highlight of everything. We did it, man, we started, we started something in Croatia in three months, without being in a political party, without a single kuna to our name, something positive and kind… And then things really started, 2000 children on 17 islands, with the culmination on Čiovo, where there were 300 people, more than when the national football champion comes to Čiovo!
- What was the hardest part and why?
Physically, the pain in my shoulder, while we were beaten by 3,5-meter high waves, the wind was blowing at 26 knots and there was a nasty current between Mljet and Korčula. But, swimming for 6 hours with rests, the doctor, the lifeguard, the captain and the rest of the crew – you can do anything! Mentally, the desperation when you realize that people don’t do their jobs, which makes you helpless. All that, until other, wonderful people appear and everything somehow manages to fall into place…
- You touched and inspired thousands of people along the way (including me!). Can you tell us a little about the little event you did with local kids on each island. What was your feedback from them?
When the idea of RokOtok first appeared, I thought that the kids of around ten years old would come to the beach to meet me, so I came up with the story for that age group. But already on the second island I saw that parents with toddlers, 1 or 2-year-olds came, as well as some 15- or 16- year old teenagers – some of them had more impressive beards than I have! And it was difficult to teach them all, explain to them everything I wanted to such a diverse group, so that was quite a mix. I have experience teaching, I was both an elementary and the high-school teacher for four years, but this was really demanding.
Luckily, mostly everyone laughed, participated in discussions of ecology, why we can’t throw trash into the sea, how to maintain our islands, why it’s difficult to live on the islands during the winter, how to improve connectivity, which are the biggest and the highest Croatian islands, why you should talk to your parents, how to play in the nature more and better, why you should read… But the best part was when we went on the treasure hunt. I can talk for hours, but still this was the best of everything. In the end, we’d all hug, take photos, I’d sign their books and they made me promise I’d come back to their island one day.
- RokOtok 2020 is almost a year away. How will you prepare for that? There must be a lot of bureaucracy and planning.
First I need to have that surgery on my shoulder, recover and then start swimming. Trust me, I’m a bit tired now. Having an association (udruga) in Croatia is not an easy thing. You need to have about a dozen people who will dedicate a lot of their time to it, and do a very good job, because the bureaucracy here can’t wait for you to make a mistake so they can take your money. I hope that this year we’ll get started a lot stronger, tougher, come up with better games for the children on our events, put together even better gifts, and I might even write a book describing the first part of my journey. I think it will make people laugh a lot…
- And finally, RokOtok was inspired by the tragic loss of your son and your promise to take him to all 50 of Croatia’s inhabited islands. What do you think he would have said to his dad after he reached island 17, Čiovo, the last part of the first year of this amazing 3-year project?
“Dad, I’m hungry…” Just kidding. I don’t know. If I was a psychic, I’d be playing the lottery. Rok was a wonderful kid, typical for his age, he knew what he wanted and if he were here now I wouldn’t be swimming around the islands, rather I’d be conquering two or three with him, during our days of vacation together. I don’t know how he’d be developing, but I think he would love physics and chemistry, he’d be reading a lot and we’d spend the vacations happily, travelling around with smiles. I don’t know what he would say about this, but I hope he’s proud now and that he’s bragging around. It’s misguided to talk about that, since I miss him so much, and since I’d give a million islands to have him around for one more minute, so I can hug him again.
It’s irrelevant, my dear Paul, completely irrelevant… You need to live on, although one half of you fights it and just wants to give up. It’s a horrible feeling, and that’s why I can’t wait for the new RokOtok 2020, to pick up where I left off and talk to children how important it is to love life and each other, learn, travel and explore. Hold your fingers crossed for us, that we manage to do everything on time, get everything together both financially and organisationally, that we have a hundred people swimming and 5000 people welcoming us. That’d be awesome. Yes, let’s have a beer, I owe you one!
Learn more about the RokOtok project on the official website and please contact them if you would like to financially support the most heartwarming project in Croatia as Ribafish prepares for RokOtok 2020.
You can also follow the latest on Facebook.
And, in case you missed it (or want to watch it again), it was a great honour to catch up with Ribafish last month as RokOtok hit Jelsa. It remains my favourite TCN interview ever.