Windsurf Round Menorca (1998)
Menorca is a good place to recharge batteries. I've been continuing a very simple life: some exercise, some work, occasional human contact. The borderline hermit life is restful. The shops are a long enough cycle away to encourage self sufficiency with what you have. The coastal paths are wild and empty. It's an island...
Twenty years ago menorca was also the island in my sights to windsurf round. Britain at that stage was a dream I had no idea how to achieve. But menorca... That was a good first step. It was the first time I windsurfed round home. It only took another 17 years to do the same for my birth home. You'll understand that I needed to up the pace to take on Europe...
A twenty year anniversary seems like a good reason to share.
See the end of the account for some corrections and observations.
Around Minorca on a Windsurfer
The Mediterranean island of Minorca measures 65 km from east to west, and 40 km from north to south. Its coastline consists of limestone cliffs rising to several hundred metres at places, punctuated by sandy beaches. A crow flies (point to point) minimum distance for circumnavigating the island is around 160 km. Yachts regularly make the voyage around the Island, but to the best of my knowledge there have been no successful attempts by windsurfer. Myself and colleagues from Minorca Sailing Holidays attempted the rounding in April 1998.
Should I stay or should I go?
We woke up early on Thursday, ready to make the most of the daylight hours, and convened on the beach at Ses Salines. The weather was perfect - apart from the total lack of wind. Unless a breeze filled in soon the whole trip was a non-starter.
The wait and see approach took us to Bar La Palma in nearby Fornells where we consulted the local fishermen for meteorological predictions. "It's not going to be very windy" said Tolo - a weathered fisherman who also windsurfs. That's good - very windy for Tolo is a force 10 Tramontana wind (basically the Mistral). If it gets very windy Tolo goes sailing with a 3.4m and contorts his 15 stones through various breeds of loop. Given his advancing years Tolo truly is a radical fisherman.
The palms lining the street outside were starting to move so we headed back to the beach. The mirror like water was now blemished by mogul fields of ripples and before long the whole bay was shimmering under a force 2 south-westerly breeze. It was still early so we decided to take this opportunity for the rounding.
"Hola Hola Hola. What have we got here then?"
The support boat, a 6 metre RIB powered by a 60 HP outboard, was loaded with fuel, more fuel, food, drinks, spare masts and mast feet, booms and sails, daggerboards, radios, mobile phone, and foul weather clothing. Everything was tied down and we were ready to go. Cue the Guardia Civil to further frustrate our efforts for an early start. The friendly bobby complete with gun, mirrored shades and Schwarzenegar style gait, wanted to see the papers for our boat. Now as luck would have it we had one of the few registered rescue boats in the whole of Minorca. Unfortunately however, all the papers were 25 miles away in Mahon, and without papers Arnie was ready to terminate our expedition. Tim Morris, Minorca Sailing's top man, was drafted in to negotiate on our behalf. Tim knows some funny handshakes and some time later we'd won a reprieve. We were to present the papers tomorrow, and we could use the boat to go 'camping on the other side of the bay'. We weren't going camping but we were going to the other side of the bay. Kind of. By the long route.
Fortunately, Arnie never actually looked in the boat. Had he done so he surely would have been curious to see the amount of equipment we were taking on such a short journey. Eventually, at 10.00 am, we stepped on our boards and started running downwind to the mouth of the bay.
Bernat Coll Pons, Miguel Short and myself were the sailors - two Minorcans and a Brit and all three of us experienced raceboard sailors. In Bernat and myself especially, the ambition to windsurf around the island had been incubating for a long time. Miguel was actually filling in for Fiona Tulloch (British) who was resting after her victory in the Spanish Cup the previous weekend. Fiona was crewing the support boat with Carmen. Driving the boat was Nico, a dependable and enthusiastic character, and an asset to have as back-up.
Before long we were reaching across towards Cavalleria lighthouse, occasionally planing before the high cliffs blanketed the wind. Rounding the headland the wind became steadier and filled and we soon passed through the gap between Illa d'es Porros and the mainland. Glorious sunshine accompanied us as we beat upwind in near perfect conditions. The shearwaters resting on the surface took to the air as we passed them, and others came to investigate before continuing their fishing. Occasionally shoals of tiny fish would jump in front of us as we pursued them towards Cuitadella. As the birds feasted on their fish we sipped on the energy drink in our Camelbaks.
Cavelleria to Cabo Mal de Pasar (The North Coast - part 1)
Cavalleria to Ciutadella is a long way upwind and as we got closer the curve of the coast made each km more of a true beat. The wind was also increasing and as we rounded the north-western tip of the Island our boards were slamming repeatedly into the confused seas. Adjustable downhauls and outhauls pulled tight, we were all looking forward to finding some shelter where we could take a short break and assess our progress. In these conditions tacking was proving problematic as the effects of tiredness contributed to mistakes that normally you would never make. Over the radio Nico informed us of the latest weather forecast which was for the winds to continue increasing from a south-westerly direction.
Miguel, his light weight better suited to less windy conditions, decided to retire at Cuitadella where landing was easy. Once on the south coast landing anywhere would be difficult so it was a sensible decision to stop before being forced to. While Miguel abandoned his board in the old capital and joined the support team, Bernat and myself preferred to maintain our upwind progress by keeping offshore and sailing on alone. The brilliant sunshine was now being broken by large sections of cloud and it felt cold. Out of sight of Nico but in radio contact, we continued slamming the waves until we reached a tiny sheltered cove near the SW tip of the Island. There was no beach to land on but at least it was out of the wind and the waves. The water here was smooth but there was already a swell wrapping around and into the cove. The rise and fall of the water made an eerie sound echoing off the cliff walls and we were glad when the support boat bounced in off the waves outside to accompany us.
We re-fuelled the emptied Camelbaks, useful now as weight-jackets as well as for drinking, and picked at some food. We all knew that if conditions continued to worsen it was unlikely that the circumnavigation would succeed, but it was also good for morale to all be together at this point and positive about continuing. We hoped that once around Cabo Mal de Pasar the beat would be over and the long south coast reach could begin. Cabo Mal de Pasar translates as 'point that's difficult to pass'. It is.
Before long Bernat and myself headed out again - anxious to get going before the weather worsened. Once outside of the cove it was obvious that the wind and waves had already picked up and conditions were really quite difficult now. Harness lines were pushed further back and daggerboards were kicked back to control the railing. The steep waves were causing the daggerboards to pop out of the water and the nose to slam badly, but with only a few miles to go, and the prospect of turning around just as bad, we pressed on. After another half an hour of upwind sailing, making 4.5 hours in total, we finally rounded Cabo Mal de Pasar, pulled the mast-tracks to the back, and started tearing off downwind.
The South Coast
Downwind was fast. The sea state was too confused and big to say that it was comfortable, but it was fast. It was also using different muscle groups to going upwind and before too long my thighs had the same overworked sensation as my arms. The boards were also being continually battered as they crashed into, over and through the waves, and it came as little surprise when things started breaking. Bernat’s slot flusher gave up first causing the daggerboard to fall down at inopportune moments and the board to capsize. Next went his UJ as he ploughed into the back of a wave. The support boat had spare UJs but no spare slot flusher and in the overpowering conditions Bernat decided to retire. He sailed off downwind into Cala Galdana - the only beach on the south of the Island sheltered enough for the boat to be able to stop.
The conditions were also taking their toll on the rescue boat crew and Fiona took the opportunity to remain with Bernat at Galdana. I waited a kilometre or so offshore, in regular radio contact, until the transfer had taken place. The support boat could see me long before I could see them and after another ten minutes they urged me on my way. I was concerned that they had spotted a fishing buoy rather than a windsurfer but continued nonetheless. The problem was that flat out on a raceboard in a big sea is much faster as a RIB can risk going in those conditions. The difference is that if I wiped out it would probably be OK, but if the boat wipes out then there’s a major problem. Inevitably I wiped out, and as I still couldn’t see the RIB anywhere, I took the opportunity to rest and let them find me.
Sure enough, within a few minutes a big red bow was bearing down on me. The crew, previously wearing T-shirts were now wearing offshore jackets complete with hoods and slightly concerned expressions. At times Nico was having to gun the boat to avoid being swamped by crumbling waves. We gathered that we were all OK, I downed another energy drink, and we continued on our way. We were about half way along the south coast section and there was nowhere to stop until we had finished it.
Within a few minutes I had lost the support boat again. By now the wind was a solid force 5 with the biggest waves around 3 metres in height. The only way to sail it was flat out, anything less resulted in getting dumped. In the biggest gusts I just sailed broader and headed for the biggest troughs which gave some shelter from the wind. The board was being blown around and jumping and crashing into waves. My ‘strategy’ was simply to sail until I crashed and then rest while the boat caught up.
This cycle was repeated probably a dozen times. At one point I dejectedly told Nico that I was feeling really tired. He gave me an energy drink and told me that Mahón was only 15 miles away! De-rigging at sea was a seriously unattractive option and whilst I could still sail it was the easiest thing to do.
The abuse was beginning to take its toll on my board now. The mast track was slipping due to repeatedly ploughing into the back of waves, bits of skin were peeling off the chines of the windward rail and I noticed at my next crash-stop that the mastfoot had developed a piece of protruding metal. The boat caught up, I changed the mastfoot and waterstarted away again.
I had never heard of Punta Prima but I shall never forget it. In a big sea It’s the first place that you can stop at for about 25 miles from a westerly direction. The coast starts to bend round away from the waves, the water goes Caribbean blue as the seabed changes to sand, and if you tuck up in the corner of the bay you can shelter from the wind and the waves almost completely. I gybed in the flatter water and sailed straight to the beach. There were two other windsurfers having a good day wavesailing with sub 5m sails. As I sailed into the bay I was almost euphoric. I thought that on another day I’d like to sail at this beach rather than to it.
Nico Carmen and Miguel were almost as happy as me to reach Punta Prima, we all knew that the worst was over. Whether we were going to complete the circumnavigation or not - nothing catastrophic was going to happen. Once back on the north coast the water would be flat and the strong wind much easier to cope with. We had a good rest, refuelled the boat and the Camelbak, and eat a little. I cranked on as much downhaul as I could manage and slid the harness lines even further back. With the adrenaline draining from my body, my thighs and forearms suddenly started to cramp badly. I dived to the sand, treating the already mystified onlookers to some impromptu beach aerobics as I struggled to unlock my stricken limbs. Having regained movement we set off again, wanting to reach the north side of the island before the wind increased any more.
Sailing out through the breaking waves, past the other windsurfers, it seemed so much easier. There was still quite a lot of slamming into waves but I was in control and the waves were smaller, and rounder. The waves on the south coast were square by comparison. Heading downwind, the more direct route of boat seemed to compensate almost perfectly for the faster speed of the board. My broad reaches and gybes took me across its wake several times, each time almost identical to the last, as we made our way to the next spur of land.
The North Coast - part two
In a matter of minutes we rounded La Mola and the waves disappeared to be replaced by chop. In theory there was now a broad reach all the way to Fornells and we were eating up the miles very quickly indeed. A continuous water jet was coming, not out of the daggerboard slot as usually happens on fast reaches, but from the tiny hole where the fin bolt goes. This really was a fast reach - even on this flat water the boat was falling behind. In the biggest gusts I sailed broader and the board just went quicker. It was just as windy as the south coast and the big gusts were still hard work to control, but now there were periods of relative comfort too.
My biggest problem now was cramping muscles so I radioed the boat to tell them that I was going to take a short break. I made for a sheltered piece of water and took a few minutes welcome rest while the boat caught up. Nico knows the north coast very well and he was enthusiastic about our progress. At this rate in another hour we’d be back in Fornells. Not surprisingly the support boat crew were also quite happy at this prospect. We eat some biscuits and got going again.
There was a final break just before Cap Favaritx. The low cliffs around Favoritx lighthouse meant the wind close to the shore was consistent, and I blasted past within shouting distance of some tourists clambering on the rocks. They looked on as I came from the horizon in one direction and disappeared to the horizon in the other. The sun was shining, quite low in the heavens now, and everything seemed perfect.
A straight line to Punta Codolar and then to Punta Redonda with brilliant views of the coastline in-between as the evening drew in. As I approached Fornells the rising cliffs blanketed the wind which became more variable and gusty. After a few wobbly minutes the constant wind funnelling out of Fornells bay hit me. I slid the mast track forward and kicked the daggerboard down, and after two short upwind legs a waved fist signalled the completion of our journey. After nine hours and 100 miles I had sailed around Minorca.
As we motored back to Ses Salines we saw Fiona and Bernat on the beach, they had been driving around the Island trying to spot us - worried that the boat had turned over in the big seas. Their happiness and relief matched ours and it was a fitting end to an amazing day.
Corrections and observations
The original contained a few harmless errors fixed in this posted version, a few inaccuracies corrected below, and a few omissions:
- In April 1998 I was 24 years old.
- We all used raceboard gear. Mine was a Mistral Equipe 2 board Tushingham 7.5 Raceboard sail.
- Point-to-point round Menorca distance is 68nm = 126km (not 160km!)
- Cabo Mal de Pasar = Cap d’Artrutx
- Miguel Short = Miquel Marquez = Quelet: a gentle and humble man of the sea, who sadly passed away last year.
- I searched and searched for a lost picture of us all with the loaded RIB, which may still turn up. We'll see.
- We were lucky with the weather