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The holly ship

Due to the length and importance of the opening remarks, we shall state it right from the outset. This text hasn’t been published to date, although it had been prepared for publication several times. Thus, the title and (partially) even the content had been changed from one occasion to another. It was first presented in 1998, at a gathering on the experience of wooden shipbuilding at the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU), under the title “The Betina gajeta – the holy boat”, and then again in the same year, in Betina, on the occasion of launching a condura, at a scientific conference Betina in the Croatian Heritage of Wooden Shipbuilding, entitled: “The Betina gajeta – the product of specific geographic, economic and social conditions”. The last attempt was related to a possible brochure, on the occasion of the last lateen sails regatta, held every year in Murter on the feast of Saint Michael, patron of Murter. The author of the text is also one of the initiators of the Latinsko idro manifestation.


The first shipbuilders who came from Korčula to Betina in mid-18th century adapted their boat construction processes according to the local needs. It is safe to say that when they arrived in Betina they had to have found a significant fleet of small wooden boats. In fact, 118 years prior to their arrival, the Murter and Betina people had already set foot on the Kornati ground as shepherds in the service of the Zadar patricians. As we now know from the first Austrian land cadastre (1824-1830), none of these people had Kornati as their place of residence (or domicilio, as it reads). It is therefore easy to conclude that they could reach the island pastures only by boat. In addition, both the Murter and the Betina people were already cadastral owners of estates located on the surrounding islands of Modrave and Prosika, which were also reachable only by boat.

It follows from this that when Master Paško Filipi came to Betina with his sons in 1745 to establish the first known shipyard, he must have found both the boats and the shipbuilders who built them. Of course, there is a possibility that these boats were built on neighboring islands or the mainland. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that the Betina shipbuilding did not start in 1745, and that there must have existed a universal boat used by the locals from these two settlements well before what is now known in the professional community as the Betina gajeta. However, we don’t know what this boat looked like since there are no data available. We will continue to make assumptions when we say that it probably resembled this newer boat, and that Master Paško and his successors took both the already well-known Korčula model as well as the one found in Betina, and persistently refined and adapted it to the needs of the local population.

It turned out later that the inhabitants of the neighboring villages on the islands and on the coast had very similar needs: the descendants of the family Filipi, or shipbuilders who learned the craft from them, established shipyards in the neighboring Murter, Šibenik, Biograd, Sukošan, Kukljica, Brbinj and Sali.


Why exactly did this boat and its relatives, the slightly larger leut and the slightly smaller guc and kaić, have such success in the Zadar-Šibenik waters? The answer seems simple, at first. Nowhere in the Adriatic Sea, nor in the Mediterranean, have so many islands squeezed together in as little area of sea as here. Of these, only 20 islands have permanent settlements. Each main island had several smaller ones, and in the case of Murter and Betina, the number rises to almost two hundred. When the need to maintain the estates is added to the needs of fisheries, all articulated differently from island to island and from settlement to settlement, it is quite evident that the vast majority of households could not function without a boat. Even the younger people still vividly remember the procession of sails heading for Modrave in olive picking season.


In most dictionaries (see References) gajeta is defined as a fishing boat. When talking about our gajeta, such definition should be approached with caution. Even if it is fairly accurate in relation to the second half of the 20th century, it can be said almost with certainty that it would not have been credible for the previous centuries. This is further confirmed by certain data obtained while browsing through relatively poor documentation on this issue. Thus, the “Operato dell’estimo censuario di commune di Morter” (no

information is available for Betina) of 22 June 1840 states that the fisheries in Murter is poorly developed and that the 138 gajetas at the disposal of the locals are not used for fisheries. If we know that in 1857, the first census year after 1840, there were 1084 residents in Murter, it follows that there was one gajeta per 7.8 residents. Considering the size of families at the time, it can be concluded that, on average, almost every family had a boat. However, the boat was not used for fishing.

This fact is even more evident from the List of fishing vessels composed even earlier, in 1792. According to the List, Zlarin had 76 fishing vessels, Prvić had 79, Murter 9 and Betina 15. Šime Županović, author of the book, literally states: “An insignificant number of fishing boats used for fishing sardines and smelts on the island of Murter indicates that most boats continue to be used for transporting livestock, people and goods to the nearby islands instead of fishing”.

However, this situation was radically changed in the last years of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century. At that point, the people from Murter and Betina were already cadastral owners in Kornati. Although, admittedly, the people of Sali were still undisputed masters of the sea in the area, new owners of pastures and olive groves were ready to seek their place in the waters, despite bans and conflicts. Long stays, large families, cheap and healthy food will force Murter and other Kornati people to turn more significantly to the sea, but also to gradually adapt their boats to new requirements. The lists of fishing vessels of the Directorate of Maritime Transport of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in Tisno for the years 1931, 1932, 1933 and 1934, although unreliable since they provide aggregate data for all five municipal settlements, clearly indicate that interest in fishing increased rapidly.

This interest from the beginning of the 20th century dictated a different definition of the hitherto exclusively laborer gajeta. From that moment on, the boats of the Murter and Betina shipbuilders had to meet the new requirements. From laborer-boat, as undoubtedly gajeta had initially been (and largely continued to be), they sought solutions for omnibus-boat, a boat that would meet all the needs of an island household. The problem was usually solved in two ways: by adapting the gajeta itself for multipurpose use, and by building different types of boats: better suited for fishing (batel, kaić and guc), fishing and transport (leut and gajeta), or only for small-scale fisheries and transport to the nearest destinations (lađa and gundula).

The boat we are referencing today is the result of that first solution, i.e. the adaptation to the new demands. Rare were families in poor and overcrowded Murter and Betina who could keep two boats. A single boat was required as a solution. One that is sturdy and robust enough to carry cargo, not too heavy on the sail and oar, with open bilge for holding both donkeys and goats, laborers and fishermen, load and fat, fish and stone… Keep in mind that the Betina and Murter households that owned estates on the islands lived in two places, and all the products of their labor ultimately had to cross the sea and end up in their domicile settlement. Therefore, a safe and well-equipped boat was essential for their survival.

Another component influenced the definition of the boat – its crew. The average size of seven meters allowed it to be managed – so to speak – by a family crew (an average of two members: the head of the household and another member). No one, not even a child, could be allowed to sail on the crew without being able to remove the oars, pull the lines (imbroji), loosen the ropes (brac)… Gajeta is a family boat, it is managed by women, children and the elderly. It is not a single-purpose vessel, shaped and defined for a specific crew and specific purpose. We think (and this should be further investigated) that there are very few places on the coast – if any – where a woman participates in boat management activities (rowing, sailing, fishing, steering) as much as here. There are known settlements, especially in the near vicinity, where a woman should not even be on the pier when fishermen set sail, let alone, God forbid, untie the boat on departure.

In short, gajeta was meant to be the sum of all the demands of this complicated geographical, proprietary, social and navigational structure. It had to represent several types of boats in one. The magic formula for solving this enigma was in the hands of the local shipbuilders, who were themselves laborers, fishermen and sailors in their free time. Complete practical knowledge of their clients’ circumstances enabled them to construct a boat that would be neither big nor small, neither heavy nor light, both open and closed at the same time, with excellent navigation capabilities, in the end… Only they could engineer gajeta, in fact a multipurpose boat, a boat for every occasion and every purpose. Today, for many reasons, this boat is more of a name than a content, less a reality and more a memory of the authentic island affiliation.


Boat was the most important member of a household with overseas estate, whether this estate was located in the remote Kornati, the neighboring islands or on the nearest mainland. The boat was looked after, taken care of and relied upon. As dogs resemble their masters, the gajetas were said to resemble theirs. Its needs were the first to be settled in the hierarchy of family needs: new sails, good oars, large anchor, sturdy mast and boom, new anchor line (šperanca)… Only an ill member of a household could disrupt the existing order of priorities. Last but not least, the boat needed a pier to be built for its safe stay, not only at the home port, but also at the overseas estate. Therefore, it should be remembered at this point that the physical features of Murter, with the piers at Hramina (now mostly buried), are in fact the result of ownership of a large fleet of small boats. Due to their many overseas estates and the great need for boats, the Murter people moved towards the coast (Croatian rural settlements on the islands were initially always located on a hill or on the slopes), built shacks (later converted into residential homes) and piers. Every street ended with a pier, a kind of an overseas estate terminal. Put together, these piers represented the first Adriatic marina. And all of this was happening at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today, when all gajetas have substituted wide hulls with slender bow lines, wooden covers with cabins and canopies, sails and oars with Fariman and Yanmar engines, traditional finishes with white varnish; today, when gajeta can only be seen in yellowed pictures and when the name is the only thing left from its content, it may seem like a pathetic phrase – the holy boat. But, its significance, past and present, in the minds of those who participate in its reign over the indented archipelago must never be forgotten. Boat was second only to God, Virgin Mary and the patron saints. People worshiped it, made sacrifices for it and relied on it. All family and economic relations, history and urban planning, arts, crafts, as well as material, spiritual and linguistic culture was built around it.

The restoration of this boat and the microcosm in which it ruled, the restoration – at least as a reminder – of the jobs it performed would also represent, hopefully, the restoration of those values which bring Murter and Betina, the Adriatic Sea and Croatia, closer to the point where they have been for centuries – towards the Mediterranean. One of the paths leading in this direction is the current regatta and the future construction of a training gajeta. This is only the ninth sail for Latinsko idro, and only the first stroke for the training gajeta. Neither of them is old and powerful enough to bring us to the finish line on their own. Therefore, we need the effort and help of all those who have heritage and boat at their hearts.

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