In the Albania of Anna Nina's youth, there was no sailing culture to speak of and an oppressive Socialist dictatorship in power.
Thirty years on, the dictatorship is long gone, but sailing in Albania still lags far behind its neighbours, despite its extraordinary coastline.
After leaving Albania to learn her trade on classic yachts in Italy and France, Anna Nina is now on a one-woman crusade to make sailing a part of her country's future.
A woman full of personality and charm, Anna has set up Yacht Club Albania to train young people who are passionate about sailing and hopes one day to found her country’s first Olympic team and become the youngest female commodore.
‘I met the commodore of the Antigua Yacht Club recently, she was so pleased to see a young female with the same ambitions,’ says Anna as we order coffee in her adopted home town of Antibes. She proudly shows off the Albanian eagle flag tattooed on her wrist, adding with a laugh: ‘It’s my way of publicising Albania!’
Every year, Anna takes on shipyard jobs- varnishing, painting and working in the bilge- to earn the money to fund the YCA, which she established five years ago in her hometown of Durres. Every penny she earns is used to train, put on events and buy second-hand boats to create a culture that will yield Albania’s first generation of sailors and hopefully, an Olympic sailing team.
‘We have an amazing coastline that stretches from Greece to Montenegro, half is Ionian and half is Adriatic,’ explains Anna. ‘Montenegro has become a huge force in yachting, as has Croatia, and it never used to be like that. Albania is the next spot for the Med. People want to check it out.’
Anna arrived in Italy at the age of 19 to work for the Yacht Club Italiano in Genoa and was inspired by the kids she saw learning to sail there. ‘I spent six years on land, first in the kitchen making sandwiches for the sailors, then I was in the office,’ she recalls. ‘When I went sailing for the first time at 19, it was with friends for a sailing check in a classic and I discovered my passion.
‘I spent all my time in the sea growing up, I’ve loved it ever since I was a child, so I knew I wanted to work in the sailing industry. It made me sad to see kids sailing in Italy when I knew that in Albania, no-one even knew what an Optimist was.
‘I just thought I could do this for my country and get kids going out on boats and that started everything. I needed to work on a sailing yacht, racing, meeting people and learning and then go back and do it in Albania.’
Anna worked for free as crew to learn as much as possible, making two Atlantic crossings before using her contacts to secure jobs in the shipyard (‘I’m small so I can get to places the men can’t,’ she laughs) or on board sailing yachts including Twiga, Moonbeam IV, Adela, Shamrock, Hallowe’en and Eleonora.
Everything she earns is invested back into Yacht Club Albania, which she established in 2009 following two years of research. She plans to train children and eventually create an Olympic sailing team: ‘It’s all my money. When I run out of money, I call my friends and they keep me in the industry by finding me jobs. If you leave the industry, you are out- but they keep me in touch.
‘When I go back home, I spend the money on an Optimist or on organising a sailing event. Last year I found a sponsor for the hotel but in other years, I have paid for the hotel and the food for everyone. It’s expensive,’ she laughs. ‘I should buy a house but a house isn’t my passion, I can stay in my mum’s house, or with friends. I’m not bothered about shopping, buying clothes or a new bag. I live for the sea!
‘I get so much from the sea, it’s time to give something back. I trained just one little girl in 2009, she took the Optimist and participated in Turkey in the 44th Balkan Sailing Championships. It was just three of us; me, the little girl and her mum with our flag!’ (see picture below).
It’s hard to believe that in a country with such an enviable coastline, sailing didn’t exist. ‘We had a dictator for 50 years and the country was destroyed,’ explains Anna. ‘My mum and dad knew you couldn’t talk politics because you would end up in jail but I didn’t suffer. I grew up close to the coast and always felt free and happy in the sea. It was a very natural upbringing. Many people like me left Albania to find a better future and a proper life. Albania had lots of problems to resolve, it was a land nobody knew, so the first years after the dictatorship were hard.
‘Now things are changing, Albanian waters were closed and no one could go there but now boats can come. There are commercial ports but no private marinas although they are starting to be built now. Sailing will be good for the future of the country. I don’t have an Olympic team yet but I am starting the kids on Optimists and Lasers in our first sailing club in Durres.
‘I have taught two girls to sail. We don’t have room for any more. I built three little dinghies in 2008 with a master who taught me at Amico in Genoa. I spent nine months working on them every weekend. I have two Optimists but I need some Lasers. They cost around €2,500 second-hand and I do the repairs. I hope we can open more clubs and get accepted by ISAF.’
Anna is hoping to find a sponsor, ideally a flourishing Albanian business, to see her ambition through. ‘The Albanian media help me a lot, it’s a good story to have a girl sailing round the world so they like to help me. I have set myself a 10 year target to make this happen. My friends think I’m crazy to spend all my money on this dream but when that first little girl hugged me and thanked me for the sailing experience, that was enough for me.’
She is also keen to get government backing for her project and is trying to arrange a meeting with the Albanian Minister for Sport. ‘There is only one person working in sailing seriously and that’s me. I want to create a traditional sailing school that will go on,’ she says.
‘I need extra support because we have to repair the boats, buy sailing equipment and supply clothes for the kids. The most important sailing schools in Genoa, Monaco and France are supported by their national yacht clubs and that’s what we need to happen in Albania. I want to see Albanian sailors everywhere. There will be opportunities for kids to become captains, stewardesses or sportsmen, they can race, work, see the world.’
Anna is excited about being part of Albania’s marine future. ‘We need to build infrastructure and some serious marinas and we need shipyards, cabinetry and sail-makers because there is nothing at the moment apart from the commercial port,’ she adds. ‘It will take a while but we must open the doors to the yachting industry. They are some beautiful spots which will be interesting to develop. It will take a few years but it’s an exciting time.
With her Olympic goal firmly in sight, Anna is also keen to pioneer an Albanian Classic. ‘Why not?’ she says with a smile. ‘It’s something to aim for before I retire! My friends around Europe want to come and race in Albania as we have some of the most beautiful waters in the Med. It’s only a matter of time.’