Sunday, 15 February 2009


Built on a beach in the region of Murcia in 1924, the schooner Thöpaga transported goods up and down the Spanish Mediterranean coast. But like others of her breed she struggled to compete with engine-powered craft and eventually became obsolete. By the 60’s she was rotting alongside many other similar boats in the port of Ibiza. Most of these craft either sunk or were burnt but Thöpaga’s lines caught the eye of Gerard Delgado. The young man bought the hulk, restored it and put the resulting schooner to work.

He took her to the French Caribbean and here the boat transported all nature of goods between the islands. The main concern of the schooner’s owners, Delgado and his partner, Nicole Legler, over the next 35 years was keeping the boat alive. Receiving no funding for maintaining an historic vessel this required constant work. Thögapa represented France as Esperance 88, sailing to Australia to celebrate the bicentenary, and then continued doing charter work around Ibiza and Formentera.

In July 2008, after a refit that included replacing the keel, she left Ibiza to sail to Brest for the traditional boat festival. Having refuelled at Vigo on the Galician coast she set off across the Bay of Biscay. Nearing Brest, 65km west south west of la Pointe de Penmarc’h on the Breton coast Thöpaga sank, a mayday was issued and the crew were airlifted to safety. It is assumed that the boat hit a container.

The owners remained in Brittany where they hatched plans to study the possibilities of refloating Thöpaga. Working with a French and British team they located the wreck and sent down a robot sub to examine the boat’s condition. They found that the boat was in good condition but some damage had been incurred, most notably from a trawler net, which had broken the bowsprit and was still entangled in the rigging.

As the winter storms roll across the Atlantic Delgado and Legler know that Thöpaga, at 130 metres under the surface, is safe from the weather. The main dangers facing the boat are trawler nets, particularly those used by the Spanish. (The Spanish, it comes as no surprise, use the biggest nets.) While funds are gathered and a team is assembled the owners worry that their boat might be irreparably damaged where she lies. But they also know that if they ever do manage to refloat her she will no longer be their boat, the enterprise will have gone far beyond their means and they will be forced to sell her.

As Delgado says on a documentary recently shown on Catalan TV, “If we do it, we are doing it for the boat.” They will also be keeping a part of the Mediterranean’s sadly neglected maritime heritage alive.

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