WRECK OF THE FRANCINA
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
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
'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.
Francina with her bow broken off
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
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
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
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
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.
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
on the northwest coast of Menorca
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
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.
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.
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
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
|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.
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
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