That Whale Incident!

Several readers have asked me if Rosie's whale encounter in To Run Before the Sea was inspired by a real event. Yes, it was, and here is that story.


When All the Adrenalin's Gone

During a solo passage from Bermuda to The Azores in 2018, my beloved sailboat, Island Spirit, was whacked over onto her beam ends by a sperm whale. The following narrative of the incident and the days following is abstracted from my Boat Logbook and contemporaneous notes in my journal. It may be useful to note that Georgina is my name for the vessel's electronic autopilot.

Saturday 19th May
0442: 37° 42.0" N 57° 00.1" W Hove-to
(4 days out of Bermuda, 1500 NM from destination, Horta)
 
It all went pear-shaped yesterday afternoon, an hour or two before sunset. Georgina had the con in rough seas, twenty knots of wind on a starboard-tack broad reach. Gazing in my customary trancelike mood at the long swell to starboard, I saw, rising out of the chaotic ocean, a more impressive than usual hump of green water. Snapping out of my reverie, I braced for what I thought was a freak wave. It was then I saw it: lifting out of that alluvial mound, the great tail-flukes of a whale. I breathed in sharply, but could not still my overwhelming joy. But, while thrilled at the good fortune of glimpsing such a spectacle at close quarters, I thanked better fortune that the animal had been no closer when it chose that moment to dive. For, when a whale has gained sufficient re-oxygenation, and it commits itself once more to the deep, it does so with scant regard to the mayhem it may leave behind. Another danger is when a boat sails between a mother and her calf when a more intentional – and more dangerous – defensive action might be expected. It is better, therefore, for a captain to steer well clear of any large cetacean. I was pondering on these facts – gleaned from the tales of other yachtsmen – when, in the corner of my vision, a dark shape loomed to port.
 
Then came a great punch on the hull and we lurched sickeningly to windward. As the washover flowed into the cockpit, I grabbed the wheel and fought to hold on. When the water reached my shoulders, I took a deep breath as the pea-green deluge washed over me entirely. The emerald darkness continued to deepen to the extent I thought it was all over. We were going down.

After an eternity, the boat righted herself – as she was designed to do - and I got a second drenching from a sheet of water spilling from the mainsail. But I had survived. As I took stock, I became aware of a frantic beeping from the console. Poor waterlogged Georgina had lost the con. Taking the wheel to bring Spirit back on course, I was soon aware that the boat lacked her usual gazelle-like agility. The forestay seemed excessively slack, and both sails had assumed an unseemly shape. Still, we were making way, so I would investigate that later.

My first task was down below. We had shipped a lot of water into the saloon, so I spent the next two hours baling out with hand pump and bucket. Then, too exhausted to eat, I collapsed into my sopping wet bunk.

That was then.
Now, three hours later, I've woken up battered and hungry. And I just noticed the saloon table-top has been crushed by the cladding around the post that supports the mast. This is a shocking discovery, and explains why the rig has gone slack; the mast must have dropped. This is confirmed when I see the inverted shape of the coach roof. I swear loudly, then lapse into the silent dread of realisation; ultimately, the mast is supported by the keel. If some of the keel bolts have sheared, we're in big trouble. A lost keel is 'game over'.

Georgina is still out of action; not surprising after her total immersion. It is now calm, with little wind – the Azores High. I need to make ground north, or I could be drifting here for days, so I start the engine, furl in the genoa, and get underway.
 
Saturday
1130: 37° 50.3" N 56° 56.5" W Course 030 Speed 6 - motoring. Damage survey: Mast dropped 5cm, status of keel unknown, 3 broken g/rail stanchions, wind turbine broken, autopilot unserviceable, radar head lost, mainsail damaged.

 
Diesel exhaust fumes waft around the cockpit as we gurgle our way northwards – oh I do hate motoring.
I'm quite concerned about the rig. The shrouds and forestay are slack as a witches tit, and without wind in the mainsail the mast is lolling side to side, jerking the boat and yanking horribly at the chainplates. I've got the EPIRB (portable emergency beacon) with me in the cockpit – the first time it's been off its mounting since I fitted it. I've also got an ear-worm keeping time with the throbbing note of the engine; to quell it, I sing it out loud - very loud:

'Always look on the bright, side of life, tada, tada, tada-tada-tada…'

I often sing in a crisis, helps me to focus.
 
Sunday
0230: 38° 36.0" N 56° 28.5" W Course 045 Speed 3.8

 
We picked up a bit of wind last night, so unfurled the genoa and killed the engine. I was dozing in the cockpit when out of nowhere, an astonishingly distant memory unfolded itself. To a background of sombre marshal music a German radio announcer describing, in apocryphal tones, Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest. I was six-years-old, and we were living in West Germany. That melancholy announcement – coming as it did on the back of the overheard conversations of adults about the Russian invasion - had filled me with a dread I barely understood.
Then I woke fully to an ominous creaking and groaning from deep within the hull. The noise has stopped now – Spirit is sailing herself nicely. Back to sleep.
 
2100: 38° 35.7" N 54° 25.2" W
Hove-to to eat and sleep.

 
Inspecting the uppers, I notice a couple of bolts have shaken out of the gantry, and one of the sprayhood struts have snapped. The poor old girl's falling apart. I carried out some temporary repairs.
In the navy, I spent months at a time at sea, but on a warship, you're never alone - unless you're the captain. I've been captain of my own boat for four years, and dealt with many potential disasters, but I have never felt such stark loneliness as now. I guess it's the prolonged feeling of helplessness - when all the adrenalin's gone - that's getting to me.
 
Monday
1415: 38° 50.2" N 53° 09.3" W Hove-to.

 
1240 nautical miles to Horta; I've stopped for a food break. Although exhausting, hand-steering is a welcome distraction; hard to think of anything else while concentrating on staying on course. It's during these rest breaks that the ripples of bowel-clenching anxiety come flooding back. Keep busy, Michael.
 
Tuesday
1105: 38° 53.6" N 52° 09.2" W Course 090 Speed 5.5

 
I woke this morning to a cold drizzle. During last night's gale, a mainsheet block failed, leaving the boom flapping uselessly out to leeward. All fixed now. I took the opportunity to inspect forward and found loads more to do: repairs, re-lashing etc. Now, once again the old girl's sailing herself with a bungee-strap holding the wheel (though not always reliable and needs watching). The first sunshine in three days bringing improved morale. But that north wind is c-cold.
 
0950: Radio contact with Dutch cargo vessel, MV Singelgrach for a wind forecast: S-SW, 15kts
 
Passing quite close to me, the Dutchman notices my damaged rig and offers assistance. There's nothing he can do, of course, except take me off. No way that's going to happen. Island Spirit isn't just a boat, she's my home. Though I was glad of the opportunity to let someone know what happened, in case... you know. So many boats just disappear without explanation. Essential to keep to a routine, one day at a time; get back in the groove and deal with each problem as it comes.
 
Wednesday
1100: 38° 38.9" N 51° 02.1" W Course 095 Speed 7

 
Another lovely day: wispy cirrus cloud high up, but plenty of sunshine. Wind SE at 15 knots: sailing close-hauled with the helm tied-off – she's holding it well; giving me time to write this, gaze out at the sparkling sea, and even nip below to make a cuppa. I'm feeling quite elated after the recent troubles.
 
2022: 38° 42.1" N 50° 00.0" W Course 150 Speed 5.5
 
1000 miles to Horta! On tinned food now; tonight it's beef stew with powdered mash.
 
Thursday
0726: 38° 43.6" N 49° 20.0" W Hove-to (again!)

 
A right hooley blew up in the night – it's still gusting 35 knots. We made a total of 94 miles in the past 24 hours.
I'm feeling indecisive:-
a) Apart from the occasional demolition-ball wave, it's relatively comfortable, hove-to.
b) With this westerly wind, I'll be a prisoner of the helm if I go now.
c) The wind is manageable for downwind sailing.
d) The swell is formidable - high risk of a broach; with my rig compromised as it is, that could be fatal.
I'm tempted to try anyway because action is preferable to sitting in the saloon, reading, sleeping, and eating my dwindling food supplies. And drinking my precious water.
Should I go now?
No, fuck that – stay safe!
I've thought a lot about my daughters since that whale strike, and the grandchildren, two of whom I've never met. I'm determined not to perish out here alone on a wild and unforgiving ocean. For distraction, I carry out an inventory of supplies and figure out how best to eke them out for another couple of weeks. I could be hove-to for days. There's nothing more I can do except to stay focussed and carry on. Is it possible to be bored and scared shitless at the same time?
 
1515: 38° 47.0" N 48° 54.3" W Hove-to
 
960 miles to go. Huge morale booster this afternoon: I found a packet of chocolate hobnobs I'd forgotten about.
I'm becoming inured to all the scary noises of being hove-to in roughers: the rattle of the slack rigging, thunderclap waves assaulting the exposed hull, water gurgling and gushing beneath, the ominous creaking of the chainplates, and a host of random groans and rattles; phantom voices telling me I'm an idiot for ever embarking on this mad enterprise.

Nine Days Later…
Friday 1st June
1040: 39° 27.6" N 33° 46.5" W Course 120 Speed 7
 
I usually enjoy the passage more than the arrival. This time, not! The water tank is empty and I have only ten litres of bottled water left. There’s not much food either. But still, only 247 miles to go.
 
Saturday
0326: 39° 14.9" N 31° 24.0" W Course 100 Speed 5.5

 
I’ve been on watch all night due to the proximity of land and fishing vessels. The island of Faial lies 135 miles ESE. The sweeping loom of Flores lighthouse is visible to the north - a beacon of deliverance? In buoyant spirits, anyway.
 
Sunday
1630: Docked at Reception Quay in Horta Marina, Faial.

 
Berthed right ahead of me, Norsa - Norman & Sara, my Welsh buddies from Antigua. And there to take my lines, Norman himself, who, the moment I step ashore, grabs me in a big hug, causing me to well up. I’m choked speechless.
'Get yerself booked in, old chap,' he growls, 'then come aboard us for a curry and a beer or two.'
I did just that - and got thoroughly smashed.
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