Position: 41°20’12″N 9°15’23”
“There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.” – Napoléon Bonaparte
In the little graveyard on the uninhabited island of Lavezzi there is a plaque carved in crumbling white marble. Translated from French it reads: TO THE MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS OF THE LAND AND THE SEA THAT FOUND DEATH IN THE SHIPWRECK OF THE – SEMILLANTE, THE 15th OF FEBRUARY, 1855, AROUND NOON.
The Sémillante was a 60-gun frigate sailing from Toulon with 301 crew and 392 soldiers, bound for the Crimean Peninsula. The Crimean War was noted for its odd alliances, the Ottoman Empire, France, Sardinia, and Great Britain lined up in battle against Russia, and for its incompetence and butchery. Given some 96,065 French soldiers died in the conflict (most from disease, not combat), the 392 in the hold of the Sémillante must have known they were gambling their lives with poor odds.
The Straits of Bonifacio are as beautiful as they are notorious for bad weather. French Corsica lies to the north and Italian Sardinia to the south. Mistrals blow through year-round but are particularly violent in the winter. Summers and early autumn, however, are idyllic. There are plenty of safe anchorages with good holding and the entire area is now a nature reserve. Italy is home to the Maddalena Islands, while the French held onto Lavezzi and Cavallo.
Islands in the Straits are rocky with jutting, rounded boulders etched by centuries of blasted sea air. Someone smarter than me described Lavezzi as, ‘moulded like a thousand Henry Moore statues.’ A simile that only works if you’re over 50 and grew up near the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field.
Navigating through the archipelago isn’t hard these days, but I wouldn’t want to do it at night. Dotted with lighthouses (I love lighthouses), there are still plenty of unlit daymarks and other buoyage to miss or bump into. Then you must contend with the armada of charterers who flout the rules of the road in blissful ignorance. With Covid depressing all tourism, I can’t imagine what this place is like in the height of a normal summer. Fortunately, our electronic charts appear accurate enough to keep us out of trouble.
Even in bright sunshine from the top of Caprera Island, it’s easy to imagine the entire area clammy with mist. Dense and wet. Throw in gale force winds and breaking waves, you can understand why Corsicans and Sardinians are famed sailors. On February 15, 1855 conditions were foul. With few aids to navigation, the Sémillante had lost its way in the swirling fog and gusting winds. The fully ladened, therefore sluggish, ship could not be controlled in the conditions. The captain would have ordered the nauseous soldiers below decks to keep them out of the way. The treacherous reputation of the Straits was common knowledge. His crew, the experienced ones anyway, understood the danger and were likely terrified.
There was no saving the ship. She ran hard aground on Lavezzi. Of the 693 souls on board no one survived. Neither sailor, nor soldier. Not a one. Either the violence of the storm instantly broke the ship apart, dashing all hands against the rocks, or she holed and flooded so fast that in the shock and panic escape was impossible. Six hundred bodies washed ashore. Only one was recognizable – the captain’s. The other 92 fell into the long arms of Davy Jones. Lavezzi’s lone resident, a leper, went mad as the horror washed up at his feet. 242 unmarked graves dot the walled cemetery, the rest presumably interred en masse.
A large memorial stands on Lavezzi. Shaped like a church’s steeple, it is easily accessed by dinghy. For all that, the story of the Sémillante (it means ‘sparkling’ or ‘frisky’) is mostly lost. Yet, the tragedy finally inspired the deployment and maintenance of fixed aids to navigation. One of those things we take for granted these days.
Walking Lavezzi in the fading light of the evening gave us a chance to watch Henry’s statues change shape and form as their shadows deepened. Smooth carapaces with flowing overhangs and knife-sharp lacunae lend a sense of motion and whimsy. Access to the lighthouse is either discouraged, or forbidden. We went with discouraged, and walked past the sleeping stone guards and took some photos of the battered, abandoned-to-automation, building.
If you go, charter a sailboat and drop your anchor in Cala Giunco. Arrive early to claim your spot. Otherwise, there are plenty of day trips available from Bonifacio. Or you can rent a rib (rigid inflatable boat) and drive there yourself. Just don’t take your dog. They’re not welcome on the natural preserve that is Lavezzi today.