Marin Novaković has been at sea all of his life, his family history stretches back centuries at sea and he has personally seen and moved with almost all tourist trends.
I met Marin at the beginning of the season when I decided to do a sunset cruise in Split with the Total Split Editor – Daniela Rogulj, we decided that if we are going to write about touristic options in Split, we should really experience them firsthand (you can look forward to our account of the experience later). Marin came across as a passionate, yet humble man and it took a little digging to discover:
- The boat Polaris, that we were on for the cruise was built for the Normandy, D-Day invasion
- Marin’s family has a history at sea spanning back to the 17th Century
Once again, I was curious to learn more.
A family at Sea
My family came to Stomorska on the island Šolta in 1673, they were originally field-workers as during those times all of the villages were inland, away from the coast, for fear of attacks by pirates. But, as we knew it, there had already been two generations of fishermen in the family, which takes us back at least 400 years at sea. The village on Šolta now – one third of the citizens are my relatives – Novaković and most are fishermen or boat owners.
My grandfather had five sons, so it was a big family and they all grew up around boats. After the war, my grandfather and grandmother lived on the boat with all their children for a couple of years – Grandma was definitely the boss!
All the family on the boat
In 1943, during WWII, my grandfather was transporting refugees from the islands or mainland to Vis. From there, large boats were taking thousands, daily, to El Shatt in Africa – which was a complex for mostly Dalmatian refugees from 1944 to 1946.
One night an armed German boat came and sunk my Grandfather’s boat called ‘Sretan’, then in 1948, due to socialism, the government seized all large boats from families and boat owners. In one go, the majority of families were devastated. Before this, Stomorska had a proud tradition and one of the largest fleets, there were 48 boats in the village before the socialist system too everything.
Entering into tourism
My family still had a boat and started transporting wine – mostly selling wine to Italy. At that time, wine from Šolta was rare, it was hard wine (not so good for drinking), but it had a deep-red colour, so Italians were buying it to mix with theirs for the colour. It was a good trade and export.
The boats had special barrels, wooden barrels designed for the wine (read more about wine boats here). Some members of my family were also woodworkers, ship builders – all of my family were living from boats somehow, not just navigators, but everything related to the industry.
In the 1950’s ferries started to connect the islands with the mainland and it became cheaper and less risky to transport wine with the ferry. In that moment, they met some French people involved with scuba diving – my family were some of the first to do a 7-day cruise. Over the next few years, these guests chartered more weeks on the boat, my family continued transporting wine, then in summer they put all the barrels out and needed to scrub the boat because the whole thing smelled like a big barrel of wine. After 6 or 7 years, they quit transporting wine and began doing tours full-time.
They put soldier beds below deck in one space, the toilet was at the stern of the boat, the kitchen was outside, it was simple but everyone was happy. The first renovation was around 1957, they were the first to put curtains in between the beds – this was a revolution!
Guests cooking outside.
Continuing the tradition – my father was the youngest son, but at the age of 29 he bought a boat and called it ‘Sretan’ – my father was not a rich guy and truth be told Sretan was an old ship, she was built in 1900 so was in bad shape. When he bought the boat, his mother told him –
“Son, I will give you the money to buy 20L of petrol to pour over the ship and burn, don’t bring shame to our family with that boat”
But my father was a fighter and made it work, he bought the boat in February and had it ready in Juy for the first guests. I was with my father every day on that boat, it’s where I grew up. I was always afraid, that because I was the youngest, my older brother would get the boat. Unfortunately for him, the war started during his prime years and there was no tourism, so he became an engineer and I eventually got the boat.
Marin as a child
When I was just 22 years old, my father got very sick and couldn’t navigate the boat anymore, so it fell on me. 7-day cruising was popular in that time, but working with a good agency was hard, I asked my father permission to leave the agency so I could have ‘free hands’ to work as a liked with the boat. I always had a drive to do it my way, to show my lifestyle to the guests, to have a good crew and do a good job – at the end, guests were always satisfied, but the agents always found some issue, it turned me off.
Changing Tourist Trends: Diving, Biking, Cruising…
I began with divers for 7 years. It was a great product, but very hard work, 2 diving positions per day, a couple of night dives, full-board (breakfast, lunch and dinner) & divers can eat a lot and Sretan was not the best for the waves, she was originally a cargo ship – and we needed to be around Bisevo and Vis for the shipwrecks and plane wrecks, so it was tough. I had a great experience, we made a great cruise, I made many good friends, we had good crew and I was free to work as I liked.
I never looked at is as a business, it has always been a way of life for me.
After 7 years, I began to wonder whether there was an easier way to work with Sretan. So, I began a bike tour with Sretan, I had seen a few and thought it was a great product because our islands offer so much diversity, tours can be adjusted for young and old and for every level of experience. There are easy tracks along the coast or more difficult, inland, with the hills and mountains.
I didn’t know anything about biking, but I bought all my own bikes and learnt very quickly what works and what people like. It was (and is) a really excellent tour – every day you are on a new island, exploring. I am proud to say, I was one of the pioneers in this kind of tour.
After some years, I began to see that while our guests were happy and returned to Sretan, customers started wanting more – better accommodation, etc. So, I decide to buy a bigger boat. When I first saw Leonardo, I fell in love. I didn’t have the money to buy it, but I turned the world upside-down and thanks to my family, friends and the owner we managed to negotiate how I could buy Leonardo and keep Sretan. The team on Sretan were great, so they stayed there, only the Captain changed and I began afresh with Leonardo in 2010.
I eventually sold Sretan – it was a hard decision, but I had to do what was right for me. Everybody thought that I would sell Leonardo too and make something bigger – times were changing with tourism and to me I recognised is as a time to follow my colleagues and build a new boat, or move out.
Again, it was another hard decision, but I decided to move away from 7-day cruising so I could be with my family. I was thinking to do something else in my life – but I have a son and daughters and I didn’t want to be the one to quit this long family tradition.
One-Day tours, to be close to home…
So, I sold Leonardo in 2016 and bought Polaris – it took some time to arrange due to ‘complicated ownership’, but eventually I succeeded. Polaris was another boat I fell in love with, she was built in 1943, in Buffalo US, for the Normandy D-Day invasion. She survived WWII, worked as a tug-boat in France then came to Croatia in the 1970’s as a tug-boat.
The owners before me did a great job renovating and began doing 1-day tours. Now I am trying to grow the level of 1-day tours, to change the concept of tourism again – that one day tours can be better than just selling cheap, frozen fish to the masses and blaring loud music, or a party boat. That it can mean good food, service, experience. Not many people believe that I will succeed, most think I made the wrong decision, but last year we already made a good impression and we will continue to improve.
In this way I am happy, I managed to connect my life and my love from childhood – having a boat AND my new love – my family. We are now together every day, I get to go home every night and during school holidays my children are with my every day on the boat, just like I was with my father. I remember when I was younger, I would drive my father crazy because I was always around him and the boat and now my children are the same. This is our life. I will never force them to work on the boat to continue the tradition, just like my father never forced me, but the opportunity is there.
Marin with his wife and children in front of “Leonardo”
Marin is as genuine and passionate as you will find them at sea and if you want to experience it for yourself, you can find him every day offering his unique 1-day tours from the Split harbour on his gorgeous boat – Polaris. Coming from someone with a background in tourism and hospitality, I can say, that it really is a fantastic tour; not your typical tourist trap or cliché, for more information check out his page here.
All photos courtesy of the Novaković family.