Call For a Tow

An Interlude At Menorca


By Tom Morkin

After a two-day passage from Tunisia, we made landfall at Mahon Bay on Menorca’s east coast. This nearly landlocked bay was the scene of much bloodshed during the 18th and 19th centuries as the British, French, and Spanish fought for control of the strategically valuable piece of waterfront. We immediately appreciated what a great all-weather anchorage Mahon Bay was and recognized such secure anchorages were to be the exception for our summer cruise through the Med, so we made the best of it by staying put for two weeks. Feel Free became our condo in Menorca.

Mahon Bay on Menorca Island is large and well protected, a perfect place for Feel Free and crew to hang for a while.

It was a lovely restful stay. All boat systems appeared to be working, so it was a maintenance-free “holiday.” Weather concerns were minimal, the anchorage was a dinghy ride to the services of Mahon town, yet far enough away and visually separated to give a feeling of remoteness. To top it off, the rolling hills that were filled with blooming wildflowers, not to mention a couple of 300-year-old forts that offered magnificent ocean views, provided an excellent excuse to go for long walks.

There is excellent hiking and cycling around Mahon Bay, among wildflowers in bloom, historic forts, and prehistoric sites.

After spending the winter and spring months living cheek by jowl in marinas both in Malta and Tunisia, we were so happy to do what we longed to do – simply live on our 51-foot by 13-foot floating home, gently swinging to the wind, all the while secured to the bottom of the bay by a 65-pound hook-shaped piece of steel connected to a rather longish section of chain.

As the boat swings on her tether, your vista changes as if you were in a semi-revolving restaurant, that is, one that revolves 30 degrees one way, then 30 degrees the other way. The lazy man’s way of scanning the horizon! Why turn your head if you don’t have to?

Life on a cruising sailboat is spent in one of three states – passage making, tied to shore usually in a marina, or at anchor. Clearly, over our years of cruising, the vast majority of time has been spent at anchor and that’s a good thing. Sure, the sailing and passage making is often rewarding and enjoyable, but it’s a curious phenomenon that even on idyllic passages, one spends a lot of time figuring out how many more days and sleeps before making landfall. I’ve never met anyone who slowed his/her boat down on a passage to extend the passage time. Marinas are nice places to be for short periods. There is no arguing with those convenience and safety factors, but in time the high density living, obstructed horizon, not to mention the expense, take their toll. But life on the hook, that’s a different matter.
Lying at anchor is a happy version of no man’s land. You’re not on land but you are close to it and can easily access its amenities. You’re not at sea but you can enjoy many of its advantages – the peacefulness, solitude, beauty, and the list can go on. Then, there’s the freedom of it, the freedom to stay or go, to change your neighbors and neighborhood, to view a city skyline or remote beach, to be among many or alone.

There’s a world of views from the cockpit. These are all from Feel Free’s cockpit in Mahon Bay.

Once upon a long time ago, lying at anchor inevitably meant being disconnected. Before cell phone, wifi, and satellite days, when you were at anchor, your link to shore was basically a VHF radio, and who’s got one of those who isn’t on a boat? But now, in the “good-old-new days,” life has gotten a lot better. Now, being anchored at the back of the beyond doesn’t preclude phoning, via cell phone or computer, surfing the web, tweeting and twittering, and no doubt other ways of connecting with the outside world in ways I don’t even know about.
Contact with home used to mean monthly or bi-monthly telephone calls from dingy telephone booths in different parts of the planet, now it’s as easy as hitting some pads on a keyboard and then the send button from the comfort of the boat. That removes a lot of stress from those on the boat and those at the home front.

On board entertainment, which used to consist of Scrabble and chess for us back in the dark ages of cruising now also includes satellite radio (with its 60-plus channels), watching movies and documentaries on the laptop and more and more satellite dishes are seen aboard cruising boats, especially on multihulls.
I hesitate to say that all this technology results in a paradigm shift because, for cruisers, the sea is still the sea, the wind still blows as it always has, boats still float in much the same way as before, and certainly being seasick still sucks. However, it has changed cruising in many ways, most of them good, but clearly not all.
On the plus side of the ledger:

  • We’re a little safer. Help may not always be a phone call away but it often is.
  • We get better weather info more often.
  • Replacement parts needed to affect a repair can be ordered while at sea long before reaching shore. This minimizes waiting around port for that essential widget to arrive.
  • Making reservations for marinas, restaurants, flights, rental cars, excursions, ordering things by phone or internet, have all been made easier for life aboard and removed a lot of drudgery from cruising.

On the negative side:

  • These modcons appear to make cruisers spend more time on their boats playing with and fixing these technological marvels, and less time visiting the places they’ve sailed to, less time meeting locals, less time beachcombing, and I believe, less time interacting with their fellow cruisers.

Maybe life is just a little too cushy on board. Why make the effort to put the dinghy in the water to go to the cruiser barbeque ashore when it is so easy to put the dinner in the microwave and watch a couple of videos on the computer? Why go to the trouble of organizing trips ashore to see what the country has to offer when you can get it on the Discovery channel?

Once while at anchor in Brisbane, Australia, we saw no signs of life on our neighboring boat for three days. We began to worry if they were alright – had they succumbed to carbon-monoxide inhalation, explosion on board, drug overdose? There was absolutely no visible activity. On the fourth day, I went over and knocked on their hull, fearing the worst. The hatches were all closed and curtains drawn. Eventually I was greeted by the skipper who emerged from a darkened boat and reported that all was well. He and his mate had been aboard happily watching movies and playing video games for four days without leaving the boat.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, why did they bother to go to the trouble and expense to buy, maintain, and sail their boat halfway around the world only to do things they could have done from their suburban home in North America?

Clearly, life has gotten a lot better for cruisers and we look forward to even more changes as satellite communication becomes more affordable and widespread in the cruiser community.

The winds of the western Mediterranean come in many names. While in Mahon Bay, we were treated to a Mistral or Tramontana.

Just so things didn’t get too uneventful, we were treated to one of the Med’s displays of fury in the form of a mistral or, as it’s often called in Spain, a tramontana. This wind from the northwest to northeast (depending on your location) is occasionally brought to people of the south of France (Gulf of Lion area), Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearics, and even as far south as Tunisia.

Unfortunately it’s not a rare occurrence and requires nothing more than a high-pressure system in the north Atlantic in the area around northern France and a low system in Italy, especially southern Italy. These two systems will produce the winds from the north quadrant that are funneled between the Pyrenees and the Alps producing ship-breaking winds in the Gulf of Lion and beyond.

Perhaps the winds in the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the coast of Central America would resemble a mistral. It is certainly as feared and respected as a tehuantepeccer.

As it turned out, we were to have a ring-side seat for a mistral and although Menorca would not feel the full effects, we were promised Beaufort Force 8 winds (35- 40 knots) for 36 to 48 hours. The approach of the mistral was viewed more with interest than anxiety because not only were we in a landlocked anchorage, I had serendipitously discovered a large mass of concrete in 17 feet of water just forward of the boat to which I secured a mooring line. As previously stated, Feel Free is not insured by a commercial insurance company so we look for insurance elsewhere.

Ours was a “blue-sky mistral” and feeling secure in our anchorage we were inclined to spend our time beachcombing the outer coast at the peak of it, feeling grateful to be where we were and feeling sorry for those poor souls who by bad luck or bad management were caught in its fury.