On the evening of January the 20th 1681, two Dutch Galleons accompanied
by a warship, set sail from Mahon harbour for an unknown destination,
unaware of the tragic events that lay ahead.
After an hour or so, whilst sailing along the east coast of Menorca
under a favourable southerly breeze, their sails began to flutter
as the wind suddenly changed direction. Great black storm clouds had
began to build up over the island. As the thunder rumbled even louder
with the lightning becoming closer and more intense, the wind and
the sea now stood completely still. As the first large droplets of
rain fell, the wind began to blow again, soon it would be gusting
with an extraordinary violence, lashing heavy rain through the riggings
of the 3 great ships. As the crews fought to reset their sails, the
wind and white horses became more and more furious
Within an hour the Tramuntana, Menorca's most treacherous wind, was
gusting to over 100 kilometres per hour.
|Dawn came, the
sky was blue again and the wind had ceased - but there was no sign
of any ship. All three lay broken-backed at the bottom of the sea
off the east coast of Menorca. Part of the remains of the warship,
the "Wassenaer" have been located off the north east coast,
she was carrying 300,000 Pieces of Eight, Silver bars, un unknown
quantity of gold, together with 56 canons. Of her estimated 200 crew,
there were only 25 survivors.
Wassenaer, buiot in Rotterdam 1666, sunk Menorca 1681.
at 28 meters depth may be that of the
on a remote beach is definatly that of an
old ship, possibly the remains of the Wassenaer
for much of the year, Menorca enjoys beautiful weather and is a paradise
for divers, storms such as this one , that sank the galleons some
300 years ago, occur frequently during the winter months, often reaching
such a force that they still cause havoc to modern shipping. Only
recently, an Italian ocean going yacht, designed to withstand the
worst storms off South Americas Cape Horn, sank some 80 kilometres
north of Menorca, caught by sudden mountainous seas and hurricane
On the 18th of December 1981, the 4800 tonne Panamanian cargo ship
"Benil" took refuge in the bay of Cala Tirant, which is
located to the south east of Cabo Cavalleria, when a north westerly
storm developed winds of 80 kilometres per hour. During the morning
of the 19th, the wind turned to the north east and drove 8 metre waves
into this bay, the Benil broke its anchor chain and despite having
her engines running, was driven onto the rocks where she broke up.
It is interesting to note that this ship was owned by none other than
the Turk, Bekir Celenk, the person who had paid 3 million dollars
to Ali Agca to assassinate Pope John Paul II, in May that same year.
At a recent global Meteorological conference, one of the subjects
discussed was the particularly unique weather phenomenon that affects
the western Mediterranean Sea, including the speed at which low pressure
systems can suddenly develop in the Gulf of Lyons. Specialists agree
that it is still at times impossible to predict such storms, even
at short notice.
Although hurricane force winds have long been the single greatest
threat to shipping and continue to be so today, until a few decades
ago many other important factors also contributed to the endless shipwrecks
that occurred along Menorca's desolate coastline. Firstly, and above
all, the position of the island itself; geographically Menorca lies
almost exactly in the centre of the western Mediterranean basin, putting
it in the path of shipping ever since man began to navigate the sea.
Marine navigational charts may have become relatively accurate by
the late 19th century and the location of the island accurately plotted,
but the ship's captains still had no way of knowing their exact positions
in times of poor visibility. They had no radio, radio beacons or radar.
To make matters worse, poor visibility or not, most of Menorca's coastline
was uninhabited, there were no lights, nor any lighthouses until 1857,
when the first was built at Cabo Cavalleria. One can only imagine
the consequences to ships at night in times of fog, rain or storm.
the Benil, Cala Tirant 1981
Chanzy departing Marseille
Marcel Baudez being cared for in Ciudadela
ON A GRAND SCALE
One of the worst disasters ever to occur, took place at 5 in
the morning of February 9th 1910, during a tremendous storm
with hurricane force winds and giant waves, 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 the northwest coast of Menorca. As she
immediately began to sink her boilers exploded.
loss of the Lamoriciere
scale of the disaster was only revealed at 8 in the morning
on the Saturday 11th, some 48 hours after the accident,
when the sole survivor 23 year old Marcel Baudez, presented
himself to the farmhouse of Son Escudero asking for help.
Within days the terrible truth would be known; 159 persons
had lost their lives in this accident.
Three years later a lighthouse was put into service at
Punta Nati, after years of petitioning by the Menorcan
authorities to the Spanish government.
An interesting point here is that the company that owned
this vessel, the French 'Compagnie General Transatlantique'
have lost a staggering total of four passenger ships around
Menorca. Their last loss occurred on Saturday 10th of
January 1942, this being even more tragic than that of
the 'General Chanzy', when the 4700 tonne transatlantic
passenger ship 'Lamoriciere' lost engine power and began
to drift helplessly off the east coast of Menorca, again
in gale force winds and in very rough seas. Quite how
she developed a leak and sunk is still not quite clear.
One theory suggests that having been discovered in her
precarious state, she was attacked by a roaming German
submarine, since after drifting for many hours, she sank
very suddenly some 6 nautical miles off Cabo Favaritx;
277 persons lost their lives.
terrible accident occurred, again in similar weather conditions, but
this time off the south west coast close to Cala Turqueta. During
the night of January 2nd 1929, after having endured many hours of
some of the worse weather conditions in living memory, causing her
to go off her intended course, yet another French ship, the 4500 tonne
cargo 'Malakoff', steamed head on into the coastline, splitting her
bow open and sinking almost immediately. Although this time there
was a lighthouse close by at Cabo Dartuch, the heavy sea spray and
driving rain had reduced visibility to such an extent that the crew
never saw it. Twenty eight lives were lost.
These sinkings, are only examples of an impressive catalogue of shipwrecks
that have taken place around the shores of Menorca over the centuries.
From relatively modern, well preserved cargo ships, to ancient Roman
ports and wreck sites that are still being rediscovered today, the
number is overwhelming. Ever since sketchy records appear to have
began in the 16th century, there have been an astonishing 420 recorded
accidents and incidents to date and it is quite possible that there
are many more unrecorded wrecks, certainly along the north coast,
owing to the nature of the winter storms and the fact that even today
this coastline remains almost uninhabited.
Finding these shipwrecks or wreck sites though is no easy task; it
involves a considerable amount of research, followed by much more
time at sea with specialized equipment. It may at times only take
hours to find something, but usually it may take months or even years,
as exact locations are either incorrect, unknown or kept secret.
Remains of the
hull of the Malakoff
are no end of legends and rumours with no exact locations identifiable,
including one of a submarine laying off Cala Pilar, and another of
an 11000 tonne military freighter laying off the east coast. A certain
fisherman has on several occasions brought up parts of wreckage in
his nets, including ships' air vents, from a location some miles off
Cabo Favaritx and has said that he thinks that there is a large ship
down there, this in 260 metres of water. Another talks of the same
finding, this time in 170 metres of water. Upon further questioning
they guard their secrets, unwilling to disclose the position of this
wreck. Is this the wreck of the 'Lamoriciere' that so mysteriously
sunk in 1942? We have been over the area with sonar and find that
the gently sloping sea bed suddenly drops from 175 metres to 240 metres;
has this ship gone down in this area and broken in two as did the
To make matters even more complex, Menorca, has been repeatedly occupied
over the centuries by the Romans, the Moors, the Castillians, the
French, the English and the Catalans; all of whom have continually
changed the names of beaches, coves and headlands, resulting in the
fact that none of the listed wreck sites can be pinpointed from modern
Although unfortunately, many of the Roman ships and Galleons of later
years have weathered away, today there is almost nowhere that the
remains of these ships and their cargos cannot be seen. There are
cannons and old anchors lying all over the sea bed, around the Isla
del Aire almost every dive reveals cannon balls, musket shot and no
end of copper nails that once held these wooden ship together, not
to mention the Roman Amphoras.
Recently however, a new and very exciting aspect of Menorca has been
discovered; the shipwrecks of more modern times, many of which remain
today almost intact, sitting upright on the bottom as if they were
still navigating. These sites are of very special interest, not only
because it is something quite unique to encounter and swim around
a ship at the bottom of the sea, but also because they act as an artificial
reef, attracting an overwhelming abundance of marine life.