SHIPWRECK ISLAND
DANGEROUS WATERS
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.

Dangerous waters
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.

Dutch warship Wassenaer, buiot in Rotterdam 1666, sunk Menorca 1681.

Anchor located at 28 meters depth may be that of the
Wassenaer

Wreckage found on a remote beach is definatly that of an
old ship, possibly the remains of the Wassenaer
Although 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 force gusts.
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.


Uninhabited north coast

 


Wreck of the Benil, Cala Tirant 1981


General Chanzy departing Marseille

 


Sole survivor Marcel Baudez being cared for in Ciudadela
DISASTERS 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.

Tragic loss of the Lamoriciere
The 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.
Another 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.

SHIPWRECK ISLAND
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
There 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 Titanic ?
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 charts.
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.

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