Traditional boats of the Croatian Adriatic

Traditional boats of the Croatian Adriatic

Did you know that a piece of ceramics, claimed by scientists to be the oldest depiction of a ship in Europe (3500 BC), can be found right here in the Adriatic, or more precisely, in Grabac Cave on Hvar Island. This Mediterranean bay, which was at the crossroads of trading routes as early as prehistory, was not only an important location for merchants, but also chance travellers or, one might even say, the first tourists.


As a key strategic point, the Adriatic had been invaded by the Greeks and Romans for centuries, and was under Venetian rule for nearly three centuries. These are all indicators of the great local tradition of shipbuilding, which absorbed a variety of influences, yielding and harnessing a rich maritime heritage.


This is why almost every Adriatic region, nay island, boasts a different type of boat that was constructed by shipbuilders with the intent to best serve its owner by taking into account the dominant winds, waves and purpose in particular. Then, as now, shipbuilding underwent turbulent times and yet, despite everything, the knowledge and skill required for constructing ships prevailed against historical adversity and enabled seafarers to safely return to their ports, regardless of whether they were fishermen, merchants or pirates.


In the ages of Antiquity and the mighty Roman Empire, the Illyrians constructed various types of fast ships that caused damage to the Romans and were even used for pirating as far as Greece. The ships were never faithfully reconstructed, but some of them, such as the fast liburna bireme, were adopted by the Romans, while lembul boats evolved into present-day leut fishing boats. Some even believe that this Liburnian tribe utilised sidewheelers (liburna rotata), which would not be used for another thousand years!


It was not until the condura croatica, a wooden ship that dates back to the 11th century and was in the service of Croatian kings, primarily Peter Krešimir IV, that all the specifics became known.

Juraj Kopač
Following the discovery of the ship on the seabed off the port of Nin, a replica was made and is still displayed at countless festivals and traditional boat races taking place across the Adriatic during the summer.

Despite being used for trading, fast oar-and-sail-propelled ships up to 20 m in length, such as the Omiš arrows (sagittae), troubled the Venetians to such an extent that the Roman Pope had to lead two Crusades against the intrepid pirates from Omiš in the 13th century. Oars were primarily implemented for propulsion in the Early Middle Ages, followed by lateens and then square-rigged sails fluttering on the mast.


The ships were purposefully built, which is why the fustabrigantin and galijica ships were made in the Dubrovnik region. With the expansion of the Republic of Ragusa as a trading force and conduit between the East and West, the ships increased their tonnage and suit of sails and were used by the Ragusans for trading across the Mediterranean and beyond. The nava and the koka were flagships of the Ragusan flotilla. Shipbuilders appropriated certain details typical for ocean navigation and developed a new type of ship – the koka, followed by the karakun in the 16th century, marking the pinnacle of dominance of sail-powered ships over vessels propelled by oars.


The largest merchant ships at the time evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries with the construction of brigs and brigantines along the entire Adriatic coast. The social life and trade flourished in coastal settlements from Istria to the Bay of Kotor due to the shipyards there, until the advent of the steamboat and the construction of Hrvat (Croat), the first propeller-powered ship, in Rijeka in 1871.

Davor Rostuhar

While large merchant vessels dominated the world’s seas, the locals often relied on the gucbatanagajeta (falkuša), leutbraceraštilacloger and many other boats for sustenance and coastal navigation. Without them, the island and coastal economies would collapse and the history of Croatian shipbuilding would be incomplete.

While some of the bigger wooden sailboats are used to transport tourists along the Adriatic coast, the gajeta and leut boats are still moored proudly in small island ports as eternal memorials to the seafarers that traversed these coasts. History buffs will be interested in the fact that carved depictions of ships adorn the Church of St. Luke in Donji Humac and the bell-tower of the Church of St. Stephen in Stari Grad on Hvar Island, so they can channel their inner Indiana Jones by finding them and then boast about it on social media.

Damir Fabijanić

If you ever find yourself in Rovinj, make sure to visit the Batana Museum dedicated to the small Istrian boat, as well as the Falkuša Museum in Komiža on Vis Island dedicated to the fastest boat in the world, or the Fishing Museum in Vrboska on Hvar Island.

Igor Turčinov / TZ Murter

For several years now, the Museum of Wooden Shipbuilding in Betina on Murter Island, which tells the story of a small boat that provided sustenance to the local population, showcases these wooden stunners along with the entire breakwater, which was made into an outdoor exhibit, so take the opportunity and visit this unique place and testament to the millennium-long regional tradition of shipbuilding.