THE WRECK OF THE FRANCISQUITA


Punta nati lighthouse and the north west coast of Menorca

INTRODUCTION

Sitting on 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 Nati……….This is the story of the Francisquita.

The 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.

Although 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 ship’s 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.

Last moments for the Francisquita shortly before sinking, here
accompanied by the fishing vessel Valldemosa.
Although 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 ship’s 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 again.

The huge stern rises up some 11 metres above the bottom.

THE WRECK TODAY

Today, the 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.


An artificial reef, where myriad fish species congregate to feed, seek shelter and breed.

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 breed.
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.

Continuing 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 the blue.

Scale drawing of the Francisquita Wreck............................................ Drawing © Oceanic Research & Publishing Ltd
Upon 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 the bow

looking up from within the hold

The bow section

wheelhouse

A diver swims outside the wheelhouse

 

mmmm

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