THE WRECK OF THE FRANCINA

INTRODUCTION

The north west coast of Menorca has witnessed so many shipping accidents that it is hard to contemplate. Many occurred in the early 1900's as a result of navigational errors or after suffering engine failures during the terrible storms that affect this part of the Mediterranean. One of the worse disasters ever to occur, took place at 5 in the morning of February 9th 1910, during a tremendous storm with hurricane force winds, when the luxury 2300 tonne French passenger/cargo steamship 'General Chanzy' en route from Marseille to Algiers, crashed into the cliffs close to Punta Nati on this north west coast of Menorca. As she immediately began to sink, her boilers exploded; there was only one survivor, the other 159 passengers and crew members lost their lives.
In 1921, the Spanish cargo ship 'Torre del Oro' broke down during another severe storm, whilst en route from Barcelona to Marseille and after drifting helplessly for many hours she was forced onto the cliffs close to Cala Morell where she broke in two and sank.
Another similar accident occurred in 1929, when the Greek cargo ship 'Ioannis' sank along the same coastline, incredibly, yet another accident happened in 1952, this time to the Spanish cargo ship 'Francisquita'.
In 1974 it happened again………….

HISTORY

The 'Francina' was a relatively small cargo ship of 963 gross tonnes, 456 tonnes net and 1378 tonnes deadweight (carrying capacity) measuring 87 metres in length and 11.88 metres in width.
She was built in 1962 by the SCHPS.L. SMIT & ZOON shipbuilding company of Kinderdijk, Holland and powered by a V14 cylinder, two stroke gas-oil engine delivering 2380 BHP.
Formally named the 'Yvonne' she was owned and operated by the Comptoir General de Transport of Marseille in France, where she was also registered. In 1968, the 'Yvonne' was sold to the Compania Nevegacion Francina S.A. who re-registered her as the 'Francina' with her port of registry now being Monrovia, Liberia.


The sunken Francina with her bow broken off

THE SINKING

On the Saturday morning 2nd of February 1974, the Liberian flagged ship M.V. Francina, operated by Dammer & Van Den Heinde of Rotterdam, Holland, set sail from Marseille bound for an unspecified port in Algeria with a crew of 13 men including the Dutch Captain, Mr J. Holtman.
She had a mixed cargo that included steel, oranges, detonators and a consignment of barrels containing chemicals which had been loaded into the aft hold.
The weather was poor with a strong south westerly wind and as forecast it would worsen. By early morning Sunday 3rd of February, as the Francina approached the northwest of Menorca from where she would pass through the channel separating this island from Mallorca, the forecast cold front had rapidly crossed over the Mediterranean. The heavy overnight rain had now given way to a force 10 north westerly gale, driving the sea into mountains of foaming water.
As the Francina steadily navigated her way southwards, pitching and rolling, shuddering as the great swells slammed into her bow, continually awash with water, the crew on watch in the wheelhouse had little concern over the near zero visibility, as their two powerful radars clearly showed their position in relation to the islands.
Some two hours after daybreak, th tired crew suddenly heard a muffled 'BANG' followed a few moments later by a dense plume of black smoke rising from the area of the aft hold. The captain was very concerned; frightened of the possibility of a further more serious explosion, he made his decision instantly; "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the Francina, position 8 miles north of Punta Nati, Menorca, we are on fire"
It was 10am Sunday the 3rd of February as the French radio station Toulon Radio received the message. According to newspaper reports, this message was immediately retransmitted and then received by the Mallorcan coastal radio station 'Palma Radio', whether or not they had received the first message directly from the ship is unknown.

In turn, whilst Palma Radio now advised the Naval station in Mahon, the Ayudancia de la Marina in Ciudadela had received a message from the lighthouse at Punta Nati, that a ship was on fire some 5 or 6 miles offshore, although the type of vessel could not be defined owing to the terrible sea conditions.
Alerted by this message, he now received instructions from the Naval Commander in Mahon to make ready any available boats and should the weather conditions improve, get out to the Francina in order to assist her in any way possible. This would prove impossible, the only boat available was a fishing boat, the seas were mountainous and conditions were not going to change for at least 24 hours; knowing this he set out for Punta Nati to asses the situation on site.
Meanwhile, aboard the Francina, believing there was nothing that could be done to save the ship, the captain had already given the order to abandon ship; he would never know of the tragic events that were to follow over the next few hours.
As he and the crew struggled to release one of the lifeboats, one of the supporting ropes jammed, leaving the lifeboat suspended at a 45 degree angle. Trying desperately to release this, the Captain slipped and fell overboard. Without thinking, the other crew members ran to fetch some ropes which they threw into the water, they shouted and shouted for him as they desperately searched the rough grey water, waiting, hoping for him to resurface; nothing, he was never seen again.
After what seemed like an eternity, the stunned crew finally donned lifejackets and took to two inflatable life rafts, leaving the stricken ship to her own doom, engines still running.
Upon arrival at Punta Nati, the Ayudante de la Marina was not alone; many dozens of curious had now gathered on the cliff top to watch the event. Gradually as the ship drifted south eastwards in the strong winds, closing in on the coast, this whole mass of people slowly moved with it along the clffs towards Cala Morell.
The Official now made for Cala Morell, from where he hoped to mount a rescue operation, at least for the crew.
At this time another large ship had appeared. Having heard the Mayday signal, the Algerian freighter 'Gazuethe' had diverted from her route in order to try and help. She circled for quite some time, but owing to the tremendously rough conditions was unable to approach the Francina. Later, although she could detect the orange life rafts in the water, she left; both the life rafts and the Francina were now dangerously close to the cliffs, making any rescue attempt impossible.
Cala Morell is a quaint little village, nestling around a small bay on the northwest coast, some 5 kilometres east of Punta Nati. Somewhat protected from the north or north easterly winds, it is relatively vulnerable to a north westerly as was the case this day. Many Menorcans spend their weekends here, where they have small houses and boats. As the Ayudante de la Marina arrived, crowds had arrived on the beach where many of the inhabitants were preparing their boats. There were heated arguments with the Guardia Civil at times, who in order to prevent further tragedy tried to stop the locals setting sail. Some were already out in the bay, riding up and down over the large swells, trying in vain to get out to sea.

Cala Morell, on the northwest coast of Menorca
Some other inhabitants of Cala Morell who had walked along the cliff top, had by now been back to collect some ropes, having seen how the two life rafts had drifted helplessly toward this forbidding coastline. They were now within metres of the Punta de S'Escullar, where the huge swells crashed mercilessly onto the rocks.
Suddenly, afraid for their lives the occupants of one of these life rafts jumped into the sea and tied to swim away. One of the men was instantly hurled up accros the rocks by a huge wave, being left 8 metres above the water line. Although he suffered a broken ankle he was saved by the help of the people on the clifftop who threw him a line. Some time later two other men were pulled safely out of the water by one of the boats that had courageously, above all odds, ventured out into the terrible sea, for another though it was not so good, they had recovered two lifeless bodies. By late afternoon a fourth survivor was to swim ashore in Cala Morell, exhausted and close to death.
During the afternoon, whilst all the drama had taken place outside Cala Morell, further to the west, the crowds of onlookers who had followed the still burning Francina, witnessed an awesome sight, as she finally made contact with the cliffs. The noise was colossal as the huge steel ship was rammed into the rockface by the heavy seas. The huge waves now began to rise up and break right over the top of her, waves that would now over the hours to come, break her back.
As darkness began to close in, red lifejackets could still be vaguely seen I the dark water below the cliffs, it was unknown if the bodies within them were still alive or not. With the conditions as they were and the lack of equipment, the search and rescue operation had to be put off until the next day.
By late morning Monday 4th of February four more bodies were recovered, while three were still missing. On the following day the Francina broke into two and began to sink. Over the next two months two further bodies were washed ashore, bringing the final balance of the tragedy to 4 survivors, 8 dead and 1 missing; the Captain is still missing to this day.

One of the sailors of the Francina tragedy was laid to rest in the Ciudadela Municipal Cemetery, this is the tombstone.

IMPORTANT NOTE

In times of drama and tragedy many facts are often misinterpreted or badly reported and that the exact facts are often never to be known.
It is believed that the fire onboard the Francina, occurred as a result of barrels containing chemicals, having shifted owing to the very rough seas. Following this, one or more barrels may have split open, where upon contact with the air the chemicals may have had an explosive reaction. This opinion was reported to the "Menorca" newspaper by one of the survivors; the Second Engineer, N. Reibroek, who also stated that these were loaded into the aft hold.
However, according to information obtained from an ex Naval Official, who at the time was involved in the investigation of the accident, for the Lloyds register of Shipping in London, this information may not be quite correct. There are reports that the fire and smoke came from the forward hold and NOT the aft hold.

Had the fire been in the aft hold where the chemicals were loaded, it would have been far more serious; a chain reaction would have been set off very quickly, consuming the entire cargo of chemicals, resulting in a huge fire. Furthermore, during the ensuing investigation, it had been said that at the time there had been a major scare of a possible ecological disaster along this part of the coastline, owing to the fact that very dangerous chemicals had leaked into the sea. Had these chemicals caught fire, there would have been little or no product remaining to leak into the sea, given the time it took for the vessel to run aground and break up.
It would therefore appear that the explosion and following fire may have been caused in some way by the detonators, which would have been loaded in the forward hold, AWAY from the chemcals. Detonators if disturbed cold explode, the resulting fire though would in effect be less intense, possibly only involving other cargo situated in the same hold. Finally also worth mentioning, is the fact that from photography of the sunken ship, it is clearly visible that the francina broke into two at around the midpoint of the forward hold. This break up may have been initiated by a fire having weakened her structure at that position.

A diver swims over the remains of the V14 engine that powered the M.V. Francina

THE DIVE

Today, the remains of the Francina lay at the very base of the cliffs in a shallow cove known as Es Raco de Sa Cova, situated just to the east of the Punta de S'Escullar, some 2 kilometres to the west of Cala Morell.
Although much of the ship has at some time been salvaged, it is nevertherless an interesting site for divers, notably for those with less experience as the water is relatively shallow at this site. There are still very many pieces of wreckage remaining, wreckage that is spread over an area measuring some 85 metres in length by 30 metres in width, in depths ranging from 5 to 12 metres. There are parts of the hull laying bent and twisted, half buried amongst the huge boulders that litter the seabed in this area, together with parts of masts, other metal debris and dozens of tools.

In the area where the bow broke up, there are piles of heavy anchor chain together with a large winch and two anchors. To the stern, most of the V14 engine remains still attached to a sizable steel plate, together with gearbox, propeller shaft and a huge propeller, that has over the years become embedded in rocks. In this same area there are literally hundreds of parts of a smaller engine, possibly that of the generator, including a crankshaft.
Although the marine life is not on the scale of the other deeper wrecks found around the island, there is still quite a lot to discover once the exploration of the wreck site is over. Taking a closer look within the nooks and crannies of the hull plates will reveal quite a few Octopus. If by chance one is to be found in the open, follow it for a while and one will see how its colours change so dramatically according to the background it is over; they even take to the colour of rust as they clamber over the metal parts. Within the remains of the masts, small Conger eels are sometimes seen together with Moray eel.
Recently, during a dive there we were amazed to find hundreds of juvenile Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), most of them no larger than 5 centimetres, almost impossible to see, due to their superb camouflaging as with the Octopus.
Late August is a really good time to see a lot of marine life around Menorca and we were only reminded of this as we returned to the boat. Suddenly the water above us darkened, and looking up, there was a dense mass of fish just below the surface, thousands of small needlefish (Belone belone) had gathered to form a huge shoal.

LOCAL CONDITIONS

The wreck is suitable for all levels of experience as the water is shallow and no currents affect this area. Only wind driven wave action or large swells may preclude a dive here, which it must be said is quite common as the site is exposed to the prevailing north winds.
Although there are very few dive centres that come to this wreck site, should divers have their own boat and decide to visit the site this way, they should do this with caution, have a good knowledge of the local conditions and be well informed with a reliable weather forecast. Apart from the nearby Cala Morell, the nearest port is that of Ciudadela which is quite a distance away. Wind conditions are notorious for their sudden onset or change in direction around Menorca.

 

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