WRECK OF THE FRANCISQUITA
Punta nati lighthouse and the north west coast of Menorca
the cliff top gazing out to sea, close to the lighthouse of Punta
Nati, one ponders the overwhelming number of shipwrecks that have
occurred along this particular stretch of coastline.
In February 1910, the luxury French passenger steamship General
Chanzy slammed head on into these cliffs, resulting in the loss
of 156 lives. Then on October 26, 1921, the 1300 tonne Spanish
cargo ship Torre del Oro drifted intothe same desolate coastline
and broke in half, after having suffered numerous engine failures
during a night of hurricane force winds. Twenty eight crewmembers
lost their lives.
In April 1929, yet another, the 8000 tonne Greek steamship Ioannis,
December 1952, the Francisquita and in February 1974, the Dutch
cargo ship Francina. Each time, except for the sinking of the
Francisquita, the disasters were as a result of tremendous storms,
but why so many?
How did the Torre del Oro end up here when she was en route from
Barcelona to Marseille, some 120 nautical miles away to the north.
Here the sea
is strange, it is rarely calm and there are unpredictable currents.
On so many occasions we have sailed out from the Ciudadela area
on an absolutely calm sea, towards these wreck sites of the north
west coast, only to have to return after suddenly encountering
huge swells. It is almost as if this stretch of coastline is spellbound.
Of these five shipwrecks few remains have so far been found, except
that of the Francina where a substantial amount of broken wreckage
remains, at the base of the cliffs in shallow water, and that
of a complete cargo ship, sitting upright on the bottom of the
deep blue depths, some one and half nautical miles north of Punta
.This is the story of the Francisquita.
HISTORY and SINKING of the FRANCISQUITA
Built in 1944 by Tomas Ruiz de Velasco S.A. in Bilbao, the Francisquita
was a relatively small cargo ship of 437 tonnes gross, measuring
44.7 metres in length and 7.98 metres in width. She was powered
by a 4 cylinder diesel engine of the Sociedad Española
de Construccion Navale. Since her construction she was owned and
operated by A. Elcoro- Iribe and registered in Seville. On the
10th of December 1952, Captain Norberto Alvarez Diaz together
with 11 crew and one female passenger, set sail from Seville carrying
100 tonnes of sugar beet pulp destined for Ciudadela in Menorca
and a consignment of cork bound for the port of Palamos, just
north of Barcelona. Having unloaded this consignment first, she
left Palamos at 17.00 hours on the Tuesday 16th of December bound
for Ciudadela. Soon after sailing, the Helmsman apparently fell
ill and the ship had to call into Barcelona to contract a replacement
for him. Finally the Francisquita was on her way to Menorca.
the worse of the storm which had blown Sunday and Monday was now
past, the weather was still poor with frequent heavy rain showers
and an increasingly strong wind as she sailed further off shore,
the ship was pounded by huge residual swells making it a long night
for the crew. What exactly happened in the hours to come is not
quite clear, but as far is it has been ascertained, the captain
went to sleep at 3 in the morning leaving the Helmsman in charge
in the wheelhouse.
Suddenly at around 6 in the morning the Captain was awakened by
a very load noise and once up in the wheelhouse he was horrified
to see that the ship was very close to the cliffs below the Punta
Nati lighthouse and immediately made the order for the ship to reverse
away. It was only a few moments before he realized that the Francisquita
had lost her rudder and then to make matters even worse was informed
that the ship was taking on water in the engine room. It is believed
that the Helmsman mistook the Punta Nati lighthouse for the lighthouse
at the entrance to Ciudadela harbour and only at the last minute
having realized his mistake did he turn the ship sharply away from
the coastline, at this time striking a rock located just below the
cliffs with the ships rudder, tearing it off.
Now having reversed some two miles off shore, the Captain
realized that the ship could not be saved, she had no steering and
water was pouring into the engine room so fast that it would not
be long before the engine would stop.
for the Francisquita shortly before sinking, here
accompanied by the fishing vessel Valldemosa.
the SOS had been received by various stations, it was the night
watchman at the Spanish Naval station at Cabo Bajoli, who had already
advised the Ciudadela Port Authorities of the presence of a ship
that was possibly in trouble, having noted the erratic way in which
she was navigating. At first light, the fishing vessel Valldemosa
set out towards the Francisquita with members of the Port Authority
aboard together with several fishermen, who had volunteered in case
a rescue operation would be necessary. At the same moment, the Trasmediterranea
ferry Ciudadela which had been delayed overnight by rough seas,
diverted from her route to Palma towards the troubled ship. Alerted
by the SOS, the Spanish Navy had also sent out the destroyer Almirante
Mirada from the Naval base in Mallorca and scrambled a seaplane
from nearby Pollensa, to coordinate rescue operations from the air.
The Francisquita was now some 2 miles north west of Punta Nati and
in a precarious situation, taking into account that she was listing
badly to her port side and still taking on water as she rolled and
swayed in the huge swells. On arrival at the site, the ferry Ciudadela
made an attempt to throw some lines to her, with the idea of towing
the stricken ship to Ciudadela, but this proved impossible. Meanwhile
the fishing vessel Valldemosa who had arrived earlier, had already
rescued 8 crewmembers from the ships two lifeboats. (there
was no mention of the female passenger at this stage, perhaps she
had disembarked at Palamos)
As the situation worsened, the ship now awash with water, the captain
and 3 remaining crewmembers finally donned lifejackets and
abandoned ship, they were swiftly rescued by the brave crew of the
fishing vessel. Moments later a gigantic swell rose up over the
deck of the Francisquita, smashing into the wheelhouse and completely
flooded the stern. Then slowly, stern first she began to sink. After
several more minutes only her chimney and bow were to be seen, then
at 12.30 on the 17th of December 1952, she very suddenly disappeared
beneath the steel grey sea.
Following the accident to the Francisquita, the investigation into
the causes and responsibilities led a 5 year court case. Finally
Captain Norberto Alvarez Diaz was found guilty and never sailed
The huge stern
rises up some 11 metres above the bottom.
wreck of the Francisquita is the most spectacular and
challenging of dive sites around the entire coastline of Menorca.
Laying at a depth of 50 metres and at a distance of 1.4kilometres
north of Punta Nati, her offshore position means that she is not
always easy to reach; winds are often unpredictable in this area
and sea conditions may often become quite rough within a short
period of time. Even on calm days, currents may reach 3
4 knots in the uppers layers of the water column, making the dive
physically very demanding. These conditions together with the
great depth, which in many cases can bring on the effects of nitrogen
narcosis and the obvious risks of decompression sickness, makes
the planning and completion of a dive here of the greatest importance.
As a result she is only suitable for divers of a very high level
of experience and even those with sufficient experience should
always seek the assistance of the best equipped local dive centre
or individual professional guides who have an in depth knowledge
of the wreck site.
reef, where myriad fish species congregate to feed, seek shelter
As we descend
through the warm and exceptionally clear water, at first and for
what seems to be for a long time, there is nothing to see, only
a big blue emptiness, then slowly at a depth in excess of 25 metres,
a long dark shadow becomes apparent. Drifting on and on downwards,
gradually the picture becomes clearer; it is almost unbelievable,
out of the dark blue depths, suddenly there is a complete ship
sitting upright on the gravel bottom, almost in perfect condition,
a spectacular sight.
Although some deterioration is now evident; there is a considerable
amount of rusting on parts of the hull and only some years ago
the forward mast collapsed, the Francisquita remains relatively
well preserved after 55 years at the bottom of the sea. Over these
long years she has become very well encrusted with all forms of
benthic marine life; algae, brightly coloured sponges, bryozoans
and deep water corals abound here, as cold currents upwelling
from the nearby deep waters off the insular shelf, provide waters
rich in nutrients. This rich food source, together with the great
structure of the wreck itself, provides a superb artificial reef,
where myriad fish species congregate to feed, seek shelter and
At a depth of 42 metres, now level with the wheelhouse we stop
our descent and begin to swim around and over the stern, in order
to obtain an overall picture of this superb wreck. The stern section
is of considerable size, rising up some 11 metres to the top of
the funnel, from a depth of 50 metres on a course sandy and rocky
bottom. Around this swim many thousands of Blue damselfish Chromis
chromis, interacting with similar numbers of brightly orange
and purple coloured swallowtail sea perch Anthias anthias.
This beautifully coloured fish reminding me of the Red Sea reefs,
where their similarly coloured close cousins are so abundant.
By a large hole in the base of the funnel a very large grouper
Epinephelus marginatus, perhaps 90 centimetres in length,
hovers watching carefully. Although these fish have become relatively
rare around Menorca, due to overfishing, several large specimens
are commonly seen around or within the wheelhouse area.
Descending through the starboard gangway now, a large Moray, Muraena
Helena, is slowly swimming into a doorway and into the wreck.
on down into the now empty holds, we are careful to keep well clear
of the bottom, in order not to stir up the fine silt, which would
make photography impossible. Carefully looking around with torchlights
we came across an excessively large Scorpionfish, Scorpaena scrofa,
who would pose for many photos. As I approached to within 30 centimetres
to fill the wide angle lens, the fish would not even raise his defensive
poisonous dorsal spine. Slowly we retreated not wanting to disturb
him any longer.
Now as we emerged from the aft hold, very slowly drifting upwards
through the transverse steel girders, we were suddenly surrounded
by hundreds of Amberjacks, Seriola dumerili, these large
fearless predators swimming fast to and fro over the wreck, then
circling us, until suddenly breaking away and vanishing again into
of the Francisquita Wreck............................................
Drawing © Oceanic Research & Publishing Ltd
reaching the bow, which is almost as dramatic as the stern as it
rises up 6 metres off the bottom, the whole area was obscured by
another vast shoal of Blue damselfish intermixed with Swallowtail
sea perch, and above these up in the blue, perhaps 20 or 30 very
large Dentex hovered slowly silently, riding with the slight
current as it rose up over the wreck.
All too soon our adventure was coming to an end, as I checked my
watch and cross checked the dive computer, we had now been in the
water for 19 minutes on a plan of 20. As we now very slowly began
to ascend above the wreck, swimming back toward the marker buoy
line at the stern, I realized that many more dives would have to
be made to explore this ship in more detail. I thought about many
other marine life that were to be found here; Electric rays which
had been seen in the past, together with large Stingrays, Dasyatis
pastinaca, Conger eels were certainly somewhere down inside
the wreck and those huge shoals of Barracuda.
We now reached the safety line and began our long slow ascent back
to our sunlit world. After 20 minutes at this depth it would take
over 30 minutes to reach the surface again.
Close up of
looking up from
within the hold
The bow section
A diver swims
outside the wheelhouse