Saturday 13 April 2013

Sailing the inland sea of Mar Menor, Spain

April 10, 2013

The two nights we spent in beautiful Cartagena were just as enjoyable as our first and second visits to the delightful port last year but we were still keen to be moving on. Our next destination was the inland sea of Mar Menor, just 24 miles north-east around Cabo de Palos. We’d tried to sail this unique body of water on our way to Gibraltar in October but when we lined up for the transit through the canal into the sea we were radioed by the operator of the lifting bridge with, ‘English sailboat, bridge broken. Don’t know open today, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow.’ As a result we backtracked and headed on, disappointed that we hadn’t been able to enter.

We were hopeful the Spanish had managed to fix their bridge by now and we would be able to go inside and explore the 12 miles long and 6 miles wide, (about 20 by 10 kilometres) inland sea. We left Cartagena around 9.00am and motored along the coast in just three knots of breeze. About an hour after rounding Cabo de Palos the afternoon wind sprang up over our stern. We didn’t bother the sails though as we were arriving off the entrance to the canal in Mar Menor at Purto de Tomas Mastrae.

It was 1.40pm. We planned to anchor and wait until the scheduled opening time of 5.00pm, however, we radioed the port to make sure the bridge was operational before we wasted our time again. We were pleasantly surprised to hear the bridge was not only working but would be opening at 2.00pm, leaving us just a short wait circling offshore outside the entrance.

Entering Mar Menor, Spain's inland sea.
The canal is one and a half nautical miles long (2.8 kilometres) with a very narrow, extremely shallow channel. We elected to play it safe and let a ketch, which we were confident had a deeper keel than ours, enter first and play trailblazer while we followed. As the clock ticked down towards 2.00pm we proceeded through the channel very slowly with an eye glued to the depth readings on the echo sounder. We thought we had our timing just right as we made the turn a few hundred metres short of the bridge right on 2.00pm.

Nope! This is Spain and all things happen in slow motion if at all. ‘Manyana’ they call it. We, and the ketch in front, were now committed in the narrowest part of the channel, trying to hold station in 15 to 20 knots of cross wind and hoping the bridge operator would finish his coffee and raise the bridge before we were both blown onto the mud. We had all of 90 centimetres of water showing under our keel in the middle of the channel and could clearly see how quickly it shallowed towards the rock walls lining the edge of the canal.
Thankfully we finally saw the barriers drop to stop the traffic over the bridge and a couple of nerve wracking minutes later we could discern the bridge ever so slowly beginning to open. We stuck in the middle of the ketch’s wake like glue as it eased down through between the raised sides of the bridge.

After passing by through we heard a British yacht on the radio call up the marina seeking urgent assistance. They’d anchored outside the entrance to wait for the opening but when the afternoon wind sprang up they’d swung and dragged and were now aground on the beach with a rising wind and swell blowing them further in. The marina simply advised them to call a private contractor and offered no further help. We couldn’t get back out as the bridge was closing behind us and were not sure what help we could have provided in their circumstances anyway. We could only hope they could get off without damage on the high tide a couple of hours later.

We all breathed sighs of relief when we cleared the channel and exchanged friendly waves with the crew of the ketch before unfurling the genoa, turning the engine off and sailing into the wide expanse of Mar Menor itself.

Once away from the shoreline the entire inland sea has a depth of only five to six metres and with virtually flat water despite the 15 to 20 knots of wind it was very pleasant sailing. The boat was getting along very comfortably with just the headsail so we didn’t even bother raising the mainsail.  With its universally shallow water you can virtually drop anchor anywhere but we chose to put in a couple of long tacks to spend the night off Isla de Mayor in the southern part of the sea. It was a very strange feeling cruising along totally surrounded by land. We could imagine this would be a fun place for windsurfers and dingy sailors. Good wind and small waves, what a perfect scenario.

Our peaceful anchorage of Isla de Mayor in Mar Menor
We arrived in plenty of time to enjoy a chill out afternoon with a couple of after passage beers.  Overhead we were entertained by seven jet fighters from the naval airbase on the northern shore practicing formation flying overhead. We followed that with a great meal of Karen’s lamb shanks in the cockpit bathed in the light of an awesome sunset.

The free airshow we enjoyed in Mar Menor

Cartagena to Isla de Mayor, Mar Menor 32.4 Nautical Miles - 6 Hours 58 Minutes - Average speed 4.7 knots - 6.3 knots
We sat at anchor the following day simply relaxing on the boat, devouring books and enjoying our surroundings. What’s the rush?  Life is good on Alcheringa.

Unfortunately the contract for the sale of our rental property back in Australia had fallen through so the house was now going to auction on Saturday morning (3.00AM Spanish time) so we had to get to somewhere with good phone service so we could direct our agent at the auction. The solution would be a short cruise up the coast to anchor inside the big breakwaters at Torreveija for a few days. There are three marinas available but there’s plenty of room inside the harbour. We wouldn’t need to use one unless we wanted to fill with water or such. Torreveija is just about the most secure anchorage on this whole section of the coast and the town offers all the services we could want.  

Our pilot guide book listed opening times for Mar Menor’s lifting bridge as 11.00am and 5.00pm so we planned to negotiate our way back out the narrow channel at Friday morning’s opening. We were up reasonably early and had the boat ready to go in plenty of time. Too much time actually, so rather than sit and wait we thought we’d do a lazy circuit of our little Isla de Mayor to see what was on the other side and then make our way across Mar Menor to arrive at the canal entrance at the appropriate time.


We were enjoying our sightseeing around Isla de Mayor until .........
We were moseying along nicely at a leisurely three to four knots past a very impressive stately mansion on the island while keeping a close eye on our Navionics chart on the I-Pad which indicated an ample three to four metres of water ahead of us. Suddenly the depth gauge showed the bottom shallowing extremely quickly, at the same time Karen calling shallow water ahead. Rob pulled the boat straight into neutral but, even before he could engage reverse gear,  the keel hit an uncharted shallow spot and the boat stopped dead in the water.

Karen was thrown forward in the cockpit spilling her I-Pad across the deck. Fortunately we had been going quite slowly so we were able to reverse straight back off into deeper water. Our investment in an expensive, water proof, shock resistant case for the I-Pad also paid dividends as it survived the impact unharmed. Karen however was definitely going to be sporting a good sort of bruise on her knee where she banged it into the deck.

We were all a bit shaken as Rob very slowly helmed the boat well clear of the island and, hopefully, any further surprises while Karen and Marc checked all areas below for any indication of water in the bilges or other damage. It was a relief to find no sign of trouble so we resumed normal speed and headed for the canal entrance. The problem was we were now touch and go to make it in time.

Rob radioed the port office to confirm the bridge would be opening at 11.00AM with the thought that if they knew we were coming through it might buy us another few minutes. That’s when we found out the schedule had changed and the bridge now opened every two hours during the day from 10.00AM onwards. We went from having no time to an hour to wait.

We made the most of it. After anchoring just outside the canal entrance, Rob donned the snorkelling gear for the first time since the Balearics last summer. We wanted to check there was no damage below and the only sure way is to dive under and have a look. As Rob stepped off the swim platform and was engulfed by the icy water the scream he emitted through the snorkel echoed across the calm anchorage. He charged down the side of the boat thrashing the water like an Olympic 50 metre freestyle contestant before disappearing from view.

A check of the keel to hull joint showed no sign of any cracks or movement and the only visible evidence of our grounding anywhere to be found was the loss of a half metre by ten centimetre strip of our nice new anti-fouling paint from the bottom of keel bulb. Rob was back to the stern, up the ladder, through the cockpit and heading below for a hot shower in one continuous, high speed blur, mumbling repeatedly ‘Shit that’s cold’ all the way. It may be spring but it looks like the snorkelling gear will be stowed away again for some time yet.

After our not so fun and games, we exited through the open bridge at noon, VERY carefully navigated our way out the narrow channel and rejoiced at being back in the nice deep Mediterranean. A pleasant 9 – 10 knot breeze had filled in nicely giving us a very enjoyable three and half hour run to Torreveija on a broad reach across almost flat seas under clear skies and warm sunshine. Now that’s more like it.


Near perfect downwind sailing conditions along the Spanish coast. Nice change.

The Spanish Naval Aviators even took to the sky again to provide us with an even more impressive aerobatics show than the one they turned on for our arrival. Muchas Gracias Chicos! (Thanks very much guys!)


What a farewell from Mar Menor.

Isla de Mayor, Mar Menor to Torreveija 21.6 Nautical Miles - 4 Hours 56 Minutes (Including time at anchor)
Average speed 4.1 knots Max 7.1 knots

We’re now anchored up in Torreveija with our fingers crossed that our auction goes well to top up our seriously depleted cruising fund. Wish us luck.

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  1. Ouch, sorry to hear about the grounding. But then, good news to hear how strong our 43s are!

    Sounds as though all ended well and you are enjoying considerably warmer weather than us here in the Solent.

    Love hearing what you are up to - please keep the morale boosters coming!

    Best wishes


    1. Thanks Julian. Touching bottom is always a scary experience but fortunately no damage done. Oh well, they say there's two types of sailors, those that have run aground and those that tell lies. Cheers

  2. HA HA HA. Great entry. Muchas Gracias Chicos! LOL.

  3. Hi Guys.
    Discovered your blog by accident and have now read all your posts.
    You really are living the dream. Keep the updates coming as they keep some of us inspired, particularly as we head into winter here in OZ.

  4. Hi Richard, Welcome aboard. We're so glad you have enjoyed our blog and hope you ride along with us on our little adventures. We'll cross fingers it's a mild winter in Aus for you this year. Cheers

  5. Hi guys, when staying at Mar Menor, did you notice the jellyfish ? did you go swimming at all there? the water is supposedly like the dead sea´s and stays warmish all year round.

    1. Hi, I have to say we didn't spot any jellyfish when we were there in early April and I did snorkel down to check our keel after a gentle bump with the bottom and it was FREEEEEEZZZZZING!!!!! Because the whole Mar Menor is so shallow it is warmer than the sea outside but still cold in winter and early spring. I can vouch for that. Cheers


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