Warning: Excessively long blog post ahead. Scan ahead for the pictures, if you prefer…
We just returned from a sailing trip to Menorca: Dulcinea and myself, as well as our friend and skipper Bravo, her cousin Alpha and another friend, Delta (names have been changed to safeguard the nautical theme of this post). Bravo, with whom I occasionally sail in Barcelona, had asked me to accompany her on her first real “crossing” as a Patrón de Yate, which is the qualification required to sail from Barcelona to Menorca (it allows boating at distances of up to 60 miles offshore). I, as “mere” Patrón de Embarcaciones de Recreo, am allowed to skipper boats at no more than 12nm from the coast. From Barcelona to Menorca is a little less than 120nm (220km), so you are never quite 60nm from Spanish shore.
Thursday was departure day. Dulcinea and I had packed our bags the night before and she went to work that day, while I took our gear to the port. There, Bravo and I dealt with last minute preparations and packing. Alpha and Bravo bought the rest of the food, plus 30 large bottles of water, and I bought a few minor missing items (e.g. a small folding table on which we could eat outside, in the cockpit).
Everything takes more time than you expect — planning and packing at home, then getting the boat ready: final weather, map and GPS checks, safety things and comfort things, food and all the rest. The plan was to leave as early as possible, but I suspected we’d not leave before 18h. Dulcinea arrived at the port directly from the office, around 15h30, and Delta showed up even later. Indeed, the five of us didn’t cast off from our slip at Barcelona’s Port Forum until about 18h30.
Thursday – Friday: Port Forum (Bcn) to Fornells: 120nm (23h)
Our first target — the crossing itself — took us southeast, to the port of Fornells, located in a pretty bay on Menorca’s north coast. Later, we planned to head for Mahón, where we had booked a mooring for the rest of our nights on the island. It was the start of August — high season for vacationing Europeans — so we paid a fortune to book a mooring in Mahón, in case we needed it…in fact, we ended up staying there only one night (while paying for four!). Everything, of course, was weather-dependent, and we ended up being lucky on this front. Another time, we might risk it without a booked mooring, relying on always being able to anchor somewhere, but as this was a “first” in many ways for us, we were being extra-careful.
We originally planned to leave Friday, but the weather window looked better for a Thursday night departure, and the boat turned out to be free a day early. We feared running into a tramuntana (the strong north wind funnelled by the Pyrenees, typical of the Costa Brava and Balearic Islands), and our plans would depend on watching the weather — seek shelter in the south when a north wind blows, and in the north when a south wind blows (and stay in Mahón if it were looking to be especially miserable).
I expected the crossing to Menorca to take about 24 hours. Because the wind was not strong enough for us to make 5 knots (or even 4) simply sailing, we motor-sailed most of the way. A boat like the one we were sailing (Beneteau Oceanis 31) has a 130 litre diesel tank, and its 21HP motor only uses 2 or 3 litres per hour of motor-cruising, so it can run for two days straight if necessary. With the light wind about 45 degrees off our bow, the sails increased our motoring speed by 0.5 to 1 knot (to about 6 knots).
At night, the three of us with experience (Bravo, Delta and I) took two-hour watches. I had the 4-6am shift, though I also sat up for part of my companions’ watches. I don’t sleep well while in vehicles, whether plane, boat or car, and this was no exception. I slept intermittently, perhaps from excitement, perhaps because it was too warm in our berth — you can’t open the hatches when sailing due to possible spray, and the need for the boat to remain watertight.
Our trip coincided with a new moon, and the sky was clear and spectacular. Meteors, satellites and the Milky Way were all to be seen. Even more amazing was the bioluminescence, which entranced me all night, helping to pass the time during my watch (’til the gradual arrival of sunrise). Some types of plankton (e.g. dinoflagellates), emit light when “scared” — in theory to attract larger predators to kill whatever smaller one is threatening them. In this case, our propeller wash and the splashes of our wake were the “danger” that triggered these sparks and pulsing, coordinated flashes of light. Other, bigger blobs glowing in the depths below our wake were surely bioluminescent jellyfish. Really an incredible experience — for me this made the trip worthwhile, and all within the first few hours! From time to time, a large boat was seen on the horizon — one ocean-cruiser passed relatively close during my watch — but mostly we were alone with the black sea and the black sky, both illuminated from within by glowing nebulae, galaxies and stars…
On Friday, we crossed the deepest point of our trip — 2300m of water under keel — and soon could see the vaguest outline of Menorca’s cliffs and mountains (if you can call it’s highest point, Monte Toro, a mountain, with its towering 358 metres). In the afternoon, only 10 or 15 miles from our objective, we hove-to for lunch and a deep-water swim. We then leisurely motor-sailed in to Fornells, radioed the marina for a slip and docked around 17h30 — 23 hours after departure from Barcelona. In the evening, a bit wobbly with “land-sickness,” we split up for a while — Dulcinea and I hiked up to the watchtower and dramatic rocks that overlook the town and bay, whereas the others chilled out with drinks at a terrace. Later, we regrouped for a celebratory dinner in a restaurant at the port.
Saturday: Fornells to Isla Colom (via Addaia): 14nm (4h)
Every day I watched the forecasts. Besides the marine weather forecasts from the Spanish weather service and port authority, I also downloaded GRIB data from the NOAA’s simulations and 8-day predictions. They proved quite helpful in knowing which days would involve changes in weather, and having a rough idea of what to expect down the line. It helps if you know how to interpret the data a bit. The forecast CAPE data showed that Saturday would be a bit unstable. Indeed, as we sailed out of Fornells — in tourist mode, towing our newly-inflated dinghy — and along the northeast coast of Menorca, we saw plenty of lightning strikes over land and out to sea, ahead of us, as well as dark clouds that formed and moved across the island to the south. We watched them carefully (and a bit nervously), and adjusted our speed to let them pass us by.
To kill some time, and for the fun of exploring an interesting port, we sailed in to Addaia. Bravo wanted to see it and to practice using the detailed port maps she’d bought, all of us keeping eyes open for its unexpectedly-placed red and green lateral buoys. Also, we kept a close eye on the depth sounding, since the long, windy bay eventually gets too shallow to navigate by yacht.
Later, we rounded Cabo (Cape) Favaritx with its lighthouse and headed down the east coast of Menorca. The weather had seemed to be improving, but now there were new dark clouds over the island, seemingly headed our way, and shortly I noticed two or three funnel clouds that eventually reached the ground…tornadoes and lightning are not the kinds of things one wants to see while floating on the ocean, so we headed for a sheltered bay to anchor and to sit out the rain that was just starting.
We anchored alongside numerous other boats (it is high season in the islands!) next to Isla Colom, in about 4m of water. As we prepared lunch, it stopped raining and we happily watched the weather “evolve” its way south, giving our area a pass. Things continued to improve and, after lunch, we snorkeled and enjoyed the water under a hot sun. As we snorkeled, Bravo pointed out a striped moray eel tucked in along the plants of the rocky shoreline, 3m down.
Inspecting our boat from below, I discovered the bane of boaters: a frayed rope coiled around the shaft of our propeller. I dived down repeatedly, gradually untying the knots, and succeeded in removing it. Luckily it had been sliced through by our prop (who knows when? perhaps even before we left Barcelona), but an ensnared cord is always a serious concern because if it seizes things up, it can wreck the motor.
What a change a few hours can bring — sunset featured a spectacular display, as the golden sun dropped out from behind a narrow band of cloud. We had planned to reach Mahón that day, but called ahead to the marina to tell them we were quite happy where we were, and not to expect us any time soon.
Sunday: Isla Colom to Cala Macarella (via Mahón): 35nm (7h)
After a morning spent snorkeling and enjoying Isla del Colom and the area (we happily encountered only one or two jellyfish, which make people around here nervous because their stings really do damage), we hauled anchor in the afternoon to drop Delta off in Mahón. He had friends to see on the island, and we would be hand the boat over to him for his own sailing adventures, but not until Wednesday morning.
So we went for a brief drop into Mahón (aka Maó, in Catalan), principal city of Menorca and one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. The harbour is 5km long and, at points, 900m wide. Much of the harbour is well over 20m deep. It’s a beautiful place to sail, with lots of room to manoeuvre.
For something different, on the way in, we turned right and detoured around Isla del Llatzaret, through a narrow channel on its north side before continuing to the main marina. (A lazaret was an isolation hospital, to quarantine people with infectious diseases.) We dropped Delta off at the port’s gas station (closed on Sundays after 14h, so we sighed heavily, and didn’t fill our tank), then headed for the south coast. It was already getting a bit late to make it to our target — beautiful Cala Macarella or Cala Turqueta at the western part of the south coast — but we charged on nonetheless. The main thing was to be safely anchored before dark, since anywhere would be unfamiliar territory for the remaining four of us. To make it more complicated, any decent cala was sure to be full of other boats by so late in the day!
We motor-sailed around Punta Prima (leaving Isla del Aire to our south) and along the south coast. We cranked along at six knots and did indeed make it to Cala Macarella, where we anchored before 21h. Our position was not ideal; far enough away from the rocky cliffs and an exposed rock, but a bit too close to the next boat, for our liking. All night we watched nervously as the strange winds moved each anchored boat in different ways.
Not long after midnight, as I “slept” below, I heard my voice being urgently called. Bravo got me up to inspect the situation. Our bow had just passed within a few metres of the neighbouring boat! Not good; not good. But it was too late to try to redo our anchoring in the moonless darkness, and besides, there was no better place available in this cove. So we had to keep a half-eye open all night, sleeping poorly (again/still) and tracking the strange shifts in position of the boats. No contact was ever made (we “unfashionably” had our fenders ready just in case), and with the morning light I dived down to inspect the seafloor situation.
It all made sense, now. I saw that our neighbour had anchored very poorly, with far too much chain out, most of it lying in a few piles on the sand. His actual anchor was more or less under our boat, but we had been deceived by the fact that the weight of his excess chain effectively “anchored” him in another spot. If there had been strong winds it would have been more clear. But this explained the strange, unpredictable motions we’d seen overnight.
Monday: Cala Macarella to Cala d’en Porter (via Cala Turqueta, Cala Coves): 19nm (6h)
After the semi-stressful night, the good news was that Cala Macarella was a beautiful spot to snorkel. Just after getting up, I plunged into the clear water and was surrounded by hundreds of fish. For me, these underwater explorations were the best part of our trip — that and the bioluminescence of our crossing.
After breakfast, we all took a trip to Cala Macarelleta, a cove tucked in just beside Macarella. The “girls” got in the dinghy, while I, wearing snorkel and flippers, towed them. Dulcinea and I had hiked here last year, and found it to be a spectacularly beautiful place. This time (August makes all the difference), we found it to be packed to the gills with people, and quite disgusting in the murkiness of its water…not to mention the smell. Probably thanks to vacationers “illegally” dumping their boats’ septic tanks while anchored. Ugh. We lasted only a quarter of an hour before deciding I would tow them all back to our boat.
We got the boat ready, then hauled anchor to check out nearby Cala Turqueta, another beautiful spot (again, it had been more beautiful outside of the summer “peak hours”). We did not stop there, instead heading east to make some progress back towards Mahón. We had to be back by Tuesday night, since our flights home left Wednesday morning. Also, the forecast for the following day was for strong E or SE wind and waves. If we started back today, it would make tomorrow’s “rough bit” a bit shorter.
We headed out for the deeper sea, where we could dump our own holding tank, and where the ladies washed their hair (but not in that sequence!). Then we spent a leisurely day sailing (ah, finally, the blissful silence of no motor!). We explored various calas, checked out several anchoring options, then settled on Cala d’en Porter. It has a dramatic lounge/club (Cova d’en Xoroi) carved into the side of its cliffs, and we knew that would be a great spot to watch the sunset. Nearby Cala Coves would have been a beautiful (and protected) place to spend the night, but was far too busy for us to jockey for anchorage there. We made several attempts back at Cala d’en Porter (also quite full), and when another boat departed, we grabbed her spot. We anchored beautifully in the sandy bottom with 3.5m depth, putting out almost 20m of chain (in case the wind and waves materialized), and I dived down to check it. Solid as a rock; our best anchoring yet!
Later, we rowed our dinghy to the beach and hiked up the cliff for drinks and to watch the sunset. We didn’t make it to Xoroi in time, but went to another bar on the clifftop, overlooking the bay. (In the above photo, we are the boat at top, nearest the beach.) When we came back down, we had to row in the dark against some waves, but managed fine (all four of us straddling the dinghy, two paddling, our legs wet but our gear safe in dry sacks).
We ate a very late (midnight) dinner, and sleeping was uncomfortable, as the wind rotated us to receive the incoming waves abeam, and we all ended up a bit queasy from the rolling motion. Also, the warm wind brought a slight smell of sewage, which didn’t help things. This uncomfortable situation exacerbated Dulcinea’s anxiety at the prospect of the next day’s weather, and I tried to reassure her all would be fine. There would be wind and waves, yes, but if the prediction held, I knew it would be well within our own (and our boat’s) abilities.
Tuesday: Cala d’en Porter to Mahón: 17nm (5h)
The next morning brought a bit of drama. Dulcinea worked herself into quite an anxious state. If the waves were already “this big” here in the bay, how would they be outside? I tried to reassure her, but also (perhaps mistakenly) told her that if she really didn’t want to go with us, I could take her ashore, and from town she could get a taxi. By road it’s not far from Cala d’en Porter to Mahón, and we could meet up with her there. I didn’t relish the possibility of rowing our little dinghy in to the beach, with its breaking waves, so luckily she didn’t seriously consider this option.
Our skipper, Bravo, tried to reassure Dulcinea, but her approach seemed to have the opposite effect. In the end, however, Dulcinea decided there was nothing to do but to swallow hard and get on with it. We hauled anchor and headed out of the bay. As forecast, there was a good Xaloc wind blowing (also called a Sirocco, which is a SE wind from North Africa), around Beaufort force 5, mostly around 20+ knots, with some large waves. We motored against this, not going overly fast, instead riding the waves up and down to avoid slamming the boat. It was not as bad as we’d braced for, although there were certainly plenty of 3m waves to climb up and over. Not a lot of other boats were seen sailing, that day! It was a couple of hours until we rounded the cape (at Isla del Aire), and there our angle to the wind changed as we headed north, so we were able to shut the motor off for an hour or so and quickly sail to Mahón on a beam reach (wind off to one side).
In the harbour, we made a few manoeuvres (for example, a detour into a bay to greet our friend Delta, who was sitting with friends at a waterside café), then moored temporarily at a public dock, in order to retrieve our towed dinghy and lash it up on deck. This turned out to be a bit of a tense moment. A dinghy is heavier than it looks, and the boat was lurching around with the waves in the outer harbour area. There was some tension between myself and Bravo, as she helmed the boat somewhat tentatively while I tried to manage the rest of Operation Retrieve-Dinghy, up on deck. We got through it, though, and were soon moored in our slip at Port Mahón, some of us needing a bit of space and “me time,” but all glad to be there, safe and sound.
We spent the afternoon cleaning up the boat, packing our gear, having much-needed showers at the marina. In the evening, we went for a wander, looking at the super-expensive yachts and sailing vessels docked in the port. Then we had a “farewell dinner” with Delta and then…slept! For real, this time, I think my body forgot I was still on a boat.
In the end, we sailed about 205 nautical miles (380km), over six days. We spent one night at sea, two moored in ports, and three anchored in coves. There was no veteran charter captain to watch out for us: our fate was largely in our own hands, and we handled it fine. At the end of the trip, we were absolutely wiped out…it took several days to recover (I had a mild fever and intestinal thing, which I suspect may have been from ingesting some of that delightful August cala water — or just from lack of proper rest).
I don’t know when I’ve been more physically and mentally tired. A sailboat is a small space to share intimately with other folks, who you may or may not know that well (at the start, at least). So it wasn’t, maybe, a “vacation” in the traditional sense. My hands were shredded. Each finger seemed to have its own scar or exposed bit of flesh, and my palms were totally dry and peeling (in spite of regular applications of sunscreen and moisturizer). The hands hadn’t bothered me — better said, I had more important things to think about — during the trip, but on arriving home, my palms and the soles of my feet shed a few layers, lizard-like.
Vacation? Perhaps a bit too romantic a term; an adventure, yes; an experience, to be sure. Not to be repeated in the nearest of futures, I suspect…but perhaps, one day.
Postlude: This sometimes happens when I have intense experiences… For several days after this trip, I would awaken in the middle of the night in a semi-delirious panic, convinced I had to go up on deck to scan for other ships, or check that the anchor was holding, or to turn the engine on, since we were using too much electricity and thus draining the batteries. It was so strange and confusing, since at the same time, I was semi-aware of being in bed, in our bedroom. Luckily, things are back to normal now, and when I awaken in a sweat, at least I know I’m in bed, at home, on terra firma, in Barcelona.