September 2003

Back to the Balearics
 
In mid-August we left Akka in Italy (near San Remo) in order to make a quick trip to California where Rob umpired the US Team Racing Championships in San Francisco, then to LA for a wonderful visit with Lisa and Guild. We returned to Akka on September 1 and spent a frenetic day getting ready for the overnight sail to Menorca to meet our friends Dick and Carolle Rose. The passage was mostly downwind in strong winds, easy and fast. As we passed the Bay of Lions, lightning illuminated the entire sky for minutes on end. Despite the lack of a moon, the light was so bright that we could see objects on deck. There was no action in our vicinity, though we got slashed by some rain squalls in the last 10 miles or so of our approach to Mahon. Once inside the large and well-protected harbor, we moored at a "floating island," a small square floating dock with mooring space for 20 boats, stern to, fully equipped with electric power and fresh water.

Next morning we met up with Dick and Carolle. We started our exploration of Menorca by renting a car and scouting out potential anchorages. Additionally, we visited some of the archeological sites that Menorca is rich in. Most date from about 2000 BC: "Taulas," well-chiseled Stonehenge-like monoliths placed in a "T" formation; "talayets," half-cave, half-stone dwellings with interior carved stone columns supporting the roofs, and "navetas," strange large ship-shaped burial chambers. They were quite fascinating.

Mahon was celebrating its annual Festival of Thanksgiving ("Gracia"), so we stayed to see it. Like all fiestas on Menorca, Gracia features fabulous horses that rear up on their hind legs as they parade through town. The horses are gorgeous: tails "clubbed" and bound with flowers (fabric), gleaming coats and glossy long manes. Their tack is also beautiful: flowers on bridles, a chest strap with a brass heart medallion at its center, saddles with high velvet-lined backs, and saddle cloths of black velvet embroidered with flowers. The riders are formally attired: black redingotes, white shirts, black bowties, vests or cummerbunds, white jodhpurs, black boots and bicorn hats. The riders range from teenage to gray-haired; some appeared to be families, and about 1/4 were women, most of whom appeared to be under 30. The mayor, wearing his chain of office, and a priest in cassock and boots were among the riders.

On Saturday evening, some 132 horses and riders paraded through the narrow and often steep streets of the town. The better horses (riders?) could stay on hind legs for about 8 seconds. Some horses pawed the air with their front feet; others simply kept them still. Most horses pranced forward while they reared up, though a couple stood still and one or two jumped into the air, landing again on their hind legs alone! Making this sight even more amazing was the fact that the crowds were not safely on the sidewalk but out in the street among the horses and riders. Daredevil (macho) guys try to touch the medallions on the horses' chests while they rear. People in the crowds also reached out to help support the riders, but this was clearly not needed.

Sunday afternoon featured a "jaleo," which our dictionary translates as "ruckus". It began with another parade, but this time the horses and riders passed in front of a review stand in the main square, where a brass band endlessly played "Pasa Doble" and other rousing music. The square was packed with people; there was no obvious passageway. As had happened the night before, the horses walked and reared (to great cheers) right through the crowds. Each horse and rider also came up to the review stand, which the horse touched with its forehead. (There may have been some religious statue or plaque there that we couldn't see.) Then, after all 132 horses passed, they returned in groups of four, and, in front of the review stand, all four horses pranced on hind legs in a sort of dance. The riders were almost horizontal, clinging with incredibly strong thigh muscles. They weren't gripping their pommels, their reins were slack, and they often were holding their hats in the air as a salute. Remarkable horses and remarkable riders. Nobody (as far as we could tell) got hurt, though we'd heard that in previous years some riders (including a former mayor) have been killed when their horses toppled over backwards.

That evening, though we didn't stay to watch, they raced the horses in pairs through the narrow cobblestone streets, which had been covered with a layer of sand for the event.

The reason we didn't see the races was that we had finally gone cruising. We had a beautiful but short spinnaker run just 10 miles up Menorca's east coast to the pretty little bay and village of Es Grau. We dropped our Bruce anchor quite near the shore, where we were protected from all wind directions except northeast. It blew pretty hard that night, but the anchor held well. In the morning a man came by in a dinghy and told us (in English) "You think it blew last night? You haven't seen anything yet. The Tramontana is coming. It will blow 40 knots for three days. Better put out another anchor." So we took his advice and put out the Fortress anchor. Sure enough, it started to blow, with heavy rain. Not 40 knots, in the harbor at least, but over 30. We spent the time reading, discussing racing rules, and repairing the outboard.

The next night it blew harder -- some gusts well over 40 knots and spume flying off the waves in the tiny harbor -- and we were glad we were on 2 anchors. By evening of the third day the wind had subsided, the outboard was working, and we enjoyed an evening drink in town.

We left the next morning to sail the 12 miles to Fornells. We had a lovely beat to a narrow entrance that opened into a large shallow bay, and we anchored at the head, past the small town. A beautiful quiet evening turned into a starry night with almost a full moon. We went to sleep, enjoying the peace and quiet after the previous windy nights. At about 5 am, the wind started to build again. At 6 am, we all came wide awake when the anchor broke free and we started to drift. We hurriedly all got up, raised the anchor in 30 knot winds, motored back to the town in rain and hail and picked up a nice safe mooring, brewed coffee and tea, and recovered our composure. The winds continued at 20-30, with gusts to 40, all day in gorgeous sunshine, but it was too rough to take the dinghy into town. The scenery was lovely, with a pretty, little white-washed village near the mouth of the harbor, the island with ruins of a fort and range lights for the cliff-lined entrance, and a sparkling expanse of protected bay.

Fornells has a sailing school for Brits, featuring brand-new racing dinghies, including several different kinds of skiffs. People come for a week, take lessons in any kind of boat (or windsurfer) they want to do, and race every day or so. We later met some of the students, who said they race skiffs back in England, so they come to the school every year to perfect their performance. There were 90 people attending the school the week we were there. At the height of the season, in July and August, there are more than 300. From our point of view, it was great theater, as our mooring was near the jibe mark so we watched them handle 30+ knots with varying amounts of success!

We were feeling bad for Dick and Carolle, there on vacation and trapped on the boat. Fortunately, they're sailors so they understood; but we all definitely wanted to put to sea. The next morning the wind subsided enough so that we could go into town and walk to the edge of the cliffs at the harbor entrance to look at the sea outside. The waves were breaking in huge clouds of spray, 40 feet or more in the air. It was a no-brainer to stay put another day.

The next day brought yet more heavy wind. At this point, we began to rethink our plans. Carolle and Dick were to leave in two days to return to the U.S. and we were leaving the same day, on the same flight to England, where Rob was to umpire the British-American Team Race in Cowes. We had intended to return with Akka to Mahon and leave her on one of the "islands" there, at about €40 a night, but there we were in a lovely harbor on a safe mooring which was free! (The moorings belong to the YC in Mahon and are only used in July and August; otherwise they're first come, first served, and free.) We all agreed that the most prudent (and by far the cheapest) thing to do was to leave the boat in Fornells. We hoped to find a local "marinero" to keep an eye on her for the week we'd be gone.

We noted a beat-up old ski boat, about 16' long, going to the ketch moored behind the large island in the harbor. Since it was clearly not the ketch's dinghy, we figured it was somebody from town, paid to check on the deserted boat. We waved madly to the guy and he came over to Akka. It turned out he was not a marinero; he was Sebastian, the owner of the ketch, and also owner of the entire island, with its ruins of a fort, houses and range lights! When we asked about a marinero, he said that he went back and forth daily, and he'd be glad to check the boat as he went by. We exchanged cards -- he's a retired dentist -- and so we had peace of mind while we were away. In fact, when we were in England, he sent us a text message on our mobile phone reporting that Akka was fine!

One of the first things we did upon our return to Fornells was to take Sebastian out to dinner. We had a great time, talking about island life, boat life, history, politics, and boat repair, all in our faltering Spanish and his wonderfully patient Spanish.