Sailing The Spanish Isles



By Tom Morkin

It has now been seven weeks, three islands and 12 anchorages since our arrival in the Balearic Islands of Spain and the livin’ has been pretty easy. In fact, we’ve changed our original plan of staying one month cruising these isles, to two months. This rather radical agenda change is part and parcel with our “rigid policy of infinite flexibility.”
The Balearic Islands of Mediterranean Spain – Menorca, Mallorca, Ibiza, and Formentera – have way too many splendid anchorages surrounded by rugged cliffs of sedimentary rock often pocked by caves both above and below the waterline. Throughout the isles, the cliffs are interrupted by fine white sand beaches. The water is almost everywhere clean and clear enough to see the anchor 30 feet below the boat.

The Balearic Islands of Spain are just 50 miles from the coast of Spain and, not surprisingly, very popular cruising grounds for Spanish and European sailors.

Naturally, these islands have not gone undiscovered. Only 50 nautical miles from the southeast coast of Spain, they’re the cruising grounds for Spanish and European sailors. Sharing anchorages with other boaters is the norm in these islands, and often many of the boats return to their marinas by evening, leaving us alone to enjoy the anchorages in solitude. In Roman times, these islands were called Pityusae (Pine Islands) and they run in a northeast-to-southwest axis. Beginning in the northeast is Menorca, not as spectacular as its more mountainous western counterparts and with not quite as many anchorages, but not so developed, so it has a more rural charm.  It also boasts possibly the best natural harbor in the entire Med: Mahone Bay.

Menorca Island boasts possibly the best natural harbor in the Med: Mahone Bay.

Mallorca, the next island southeast is the largest and most developed island of the Balearics. It is an island of spectacular beauty, rolling hills and rugged mountains with a coastline containing countless small turquoise colored inlets or coves called calas. Although few of these calas provide all-around shelter, under the right conditions they make for a cozy anchorage usually for no more than a handful of boats. The famed Palma de Mallorca, a city of almost 400,000 people,  one of the megayacht capitals of the Med, and truly a mecca for the rich and famous, is located on Mallorca.  Southwest of Mallorca by about 45 miles is the once-famous “hippy” capital of the Med, Ibiza, and almost adjoining it to the south, the low, flat, sandy, beach-rimmed island of Formentera/Espalmador. Our plan was to work our way down the chain from northeast to southwest poking our bow into whatever bay or inlet caught our fancy.

Mahon Bay was our first stop in the Balearics and our longest at 17 days. Not only its natural beauty, but the knowledge that we’d never have such a secure anchorage for the rest of our tour of the Western Med, plus the proximity to a plethora of archeological sites, plus the gently rolling hills seemingly designed for hiking and cycling, plus the new buddies we met, plus the great swimming, plus, plus, plus made it a very easy place to hang for a good while.  

The pretty village of Es Castell is where we left the dinghy and launched our bikes to go shopping and exploring when Feel Free was at anchor in Mahon Bay.

The 3,500-year-old village sites consist of stone lookout towers, burial sites and large gate-like structures called Taula that would not look out of place at Stonehenge. Several of these old Taula village sites are located around Menorca but, strangely, only Menorca and not on the other islands. To this day, experts can only speculate on their function. Early during our 17 day “holiday” in Mahon Bay we hooked up with a young Belgian couple, Ludo and Laetitia of the 27-foot steel boat Ata Jata.

Easily young enough to be our own children, Ludo and Laetitia of Ata Jata were as much a breath of fresh air as they were a rarity in the Mediterranean where our fellow neo-geriatrics hold sway.

It is a matter of some interest to me that in 2009 the likes of young cruisers such as Ludo and Laetitia are so few in number and represent a much smaller percentage of the cruising community than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. It appears that for a number of sociological and economic reasons, 20-somethings and 30-somethings aren’t as willing to drop their jobs and shell out a huge percentage of their net worth and set sail for a couple of years or more, as in the past. Our young Belgian buddies, on the contrary, seem to have no qualms about leaving their jobs and converting their hard assets into liquid assets. Like us, they plan a summer in the Med, then will be off to the Canaries after hurricane season.
It was hard to leave Mahon Bay knowing that we would not enjoy such a serene and secure anchorage on our tour through the western Med. The decision to sail the north coast of Menorca was made for us by the winds. The rule is simple in the Balearics: if the wind is from the south, you sail the north coast; if the wind is from the north, you sail the south coast. In our case, the winds dictated the north coast with a two night stop in the long fiord-like Fornell’s Bay before moving on to the exquisitely beautiful Algayerens Bay where we first began to realize that a lot of Europeans who frequent Spanish beaches opt to spend their hard-earned cash on things other than bathing suits.

Fornell’s Bay on the north coast of Menorca, is long and fiord-like. We spent three days there before moving on to Algayrens Bay.

Another nice thing about cruising in the Mediterranean is the Med Net, a network of Mediterranean sailors who meet every morning at 0730 on a frequency of 8122 (kilohertz or megahertz) on their long-distance radios (single-sideband). Every morning a different net controller starts the net by asking if there are any boats with medical or priority traffic; this is followed by the weather section during which time someone reads the five-day weather forecast for approximately 10 weather regions of the Mediterranean. Following the weather section, cruisers can check in and report their positions, ask questions, report information that may concern other sailors. The Med Net makes it easy to keep in touch with fellow cruisers.

The previous day’s Med Net weather forecast called for moderate southeast winds for our crossing to Puerto Colom, some 50 miles southwest on the southeast coast of Mallorca. At 0600 one could hear the familiar rattling sound of the anchor chain being hauled aboard by the electric windlass and piled into the anchor locker. Within 30 minutes of leaving the anchorage, the southeast wind filled in as promised and propelled us gently and quietly for the 13 hours to the beautiful port town of Puerto Colom. Some days, it’s just too easy. To top off a great day, Pete and Julie Kranker of the lovely Tayana 52 Sojourner whom we hadn’t seen since Indonesia in 2004, happened to be at anchor in the bay. Our anchor was just buried in the sand by the time Pete and Julie climbed aboard Feel Free with their party bag full to overflowing with food and drink. We had a lot of catching up to do.

Here’s Pete and Julie of Sojourner. We hadn’t seen them since 2004 in Indonesia so it was a fun reunion with lots of catching up.

Although we had been warned about the extent of development on Mallorca we were still amazed to see bay after bay and beach after beach chockablock with mansions, condos, apartments, hotels and all attendant businesses to serve them.
We stayed in four other anchorages on Mallorca, each with white beaches, hundreds of colorful sun umbrellas, beach chairs and throngs of naked and near naked sun worshippers who obviously hailed from every corner of Europe. These European weather immigrants vastly outnumbered the locals. It was pleasant enough for a couple of days, but I knew it was time to leave for Ibiza when all the naked bodies started to look the same.
We set sail for Ibiza’s south coast some 50 miles away and enjoyed a mellow broad and beam reach to Cala Boix where we rolled the night away dreaming about beds that didn't move

Sailing along the coast of Ibiza conjures images of Bali Hai and South Pacific. Indeed, we were told that those two famous movies were set here.

Espalmador on the island of Formentera was much more our style, although filled with many yachts on moorings we were able secure one of the remaining moorings and spent 3 lovely days beachcombing, hiking and mud bathing in the mud baths.
As expected the Balearics just got busier as the summer approached. This we took  as our clue to start making our way to the west side of Ibiza, our jumping off point for the Costa Blanca on the mainland coast of Spain.
All in all, we enjoyed our seven-week stay in the Balearics. Clearly we only scratched the surface, but we did get a taste for the islands. Not surprisingly, the least developed island of Menorca was clearly our favorite. Should we ever revisit the Balearics I would be content to spend all our time on this one peaceful island and leave the other island to the hordes of sun seekers.