Saturday 18 October 2008

El levante

The silent seas that follow the end of the pleasure boat season signal a return of the fish and the other world that exists under the still-warm waters is re-inhabited. Hoping to do some late season snorkelling on a recent trip to Ibiza I took my mask and tube only to find a levante wind blowing rain and waves onto the east coast of the island.

Sitting on a rock watching the show unfold in Talamanca Bay I saw one boat break away from its moorings and end up on the beach, luckily avoiding a concrete spit. Then a small open boat moored near the breaking waves filled with water and sank while the other craft danced and weaved like Ibiza’s most ardent clubbers.

Low pressure over the Tyrrhenian sea occurs two or three times a year around the spring and autumn equinoxes. The conditions conspire, the isobars converge and wind brings waves trundling across the maximum fetch of western Mediterranean. This levante is not the same as the more famous ‘levante’ (often anglicised to levanter) that, caused by differences in temperature between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, blows fiercely in the straits of Gibraltar. But despite its lack of renown the results of a bout of levante, depending on the depth of the depression, can blow the Med’s millpond reputation out of the water.

In autumn when the sea is still warm the levante brings a clogging humidity. Veils of penetrating salt mist ghost inland, rust flowers flourish and the evening sky is a watercolour of nicotine and jaundice. For those affected by the weather the wind usually raises the spirits but the levante, blowing over a queasy sea, comes with an aftertaste of disease and decay. The mestral and tramuntana from the north are violent and unequivocally dangerous but they are salad fresh, heathly, uplifting, energising winds. The levante, though rarely as strong, serves up over-salted doom on a platter of dread.

Large waves gnaw at the shore and sands shift in the raging undertow. All ports on this coast are built with a sturdy wall to the easterly swell. Occasionally, however, currents sweep sand across harbour mouths forming sandbars that turn the waves to towering monsters. A few years ago, with a levante blowing the Guardia Civil were called out of Torredembarra port to aid a windsurfer, their boat was swept up by the waves at the harbour entrance and dashed onto the rocks. Thankfully there were no fatalities. But in 1970 a sandbar forming just off the harbour mouth at Arenys de Mar, north of Barcelona became the scene of tragedy as two yachts were returning to their home port having dropped out of a regatta. I read about it at El Mar és el Camí.

The levante has now past and the sea is calm, I have snorkelled (the sea is still just warm enough) from an anchored OB, swimming minefield carefully through clouds of jellyfish, undulating like the falling blossoms of grotesque glass trees.


chris sollett said...

we're always on gota fria alert at this time of year, although it hasn't actually happened for about 6 years. It's a shame, part of me really want to see all the pijos on the golf flooded out of their swanky but carelessly built designer homes.
I hope all is well with you all.
Come and see us soon :)

Ben said...

Yes, there hasn't been an extreme autumn gale for ages.