Updated: Sep 20
It is what every sailor dreads. Hitting something submerged at night. For sailors crossing the North Sea the fear is of a container. So many fall off ships and, because of trapped air, take several days to sink. Of course, you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that statistics make it unlikely, but the fear remains.
Crossing the Pacific, especially in the favoured trade wind areas the chances of hitting a container are orders of magnitude smaller still. But that does not mean there is nothing to hit.
SV Raindancer was a strong, blue water cruiser, about the same size as Skyfall and skippered by a very experienced sailor. They transited the Panama Canal a month ago. We are in the same 'Pacific Cruisers' social media group. Their account, posted in the group, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.....
"Hi, everyone. First of all thanks for all the support. We are still feeling pretty drained by everything but I wanted to put out a piece of the story to answer everyone's questions all at once. So here goes.
We were sitting in the cockpit of Raindancer, enjoying some home made pizza that Bianca was making from a recipe one of her friends had given her. It reminded us of a day we had had in the Galapagos before our departure. It was a beautiful sunset and our crew, and the crew of Southern Cross, shared a memorable evening together, eating pizza and talking about how lucky we were to be sailing across the Pacific Ocean with friends and the journey that lay ahead of us.
Fast forward one month, and there we were, the four of us, myself, Alana, Bianca and Simon. On a 3100nm passage to the Marquesas from the Galapagos,with about 1400nm left to go. Cooking up that tasty pizza. We had good winds, sunny skies and were making about 6 knots. The second pizza had just come out of the oven, and I was dipping a slice into some ranch dressing, when it felt like we ran into a concrete wall. I heard a loud crashing noise together with a metal clanking. I heeard Alana yell, "We hit a whale". Looking to port, I saw a huge whale and blood gushing out of it as it began swimming down.
I told everyone to check the bilges and went down myself to check for water and collision damage. Within 5 seconds the high water bilge alarm went off and I could see water rushing in from the stern of the boat. At that point I knew the damage was significant and that we were likely to lose the boat. The crew began gathering safety equipment, supplies, emergency gear, electronics and they did a good job of it. i went to the back of the boat to search for the source of the water. At this point maybe 30 seconds had gone by since the moment of impact.
Whilst I was searching the aft bilges, rudder, stuffing box area the water had already filled up above the floor. It was difficult to locate the source from the inside with the water level already so high alreaady. At that point I was certain the boat was going down - and rapidly.
I decided to make a last attempt to plug up water intrusion from the outside. On my way out I helped bring out the liferaft and grabbed and set off on of the EPIRB's and made a VHF radio MAYDAY call. I deployed the liferaft and it inflated as advertised. At this stage I realised the sails were still up and the boat was moving forward, putting tension on the painter of the liferaft, which had automatically deployed a sea anchor. Afraid the painter might break, Bianca and I quickly took down the sails. Simon asked me, " should we launch the dinghy?". I said absolutely.
After helping Simon and Alana launch the dinghy I put on mask and fins and jumped overboard with a tarp. I saw the damage instantly. There were multiple holes or cracks, the largest around the prop shaft. It seems part of the whale must have hit the shaft with a strong force and bussted open the fiberglass around the shaft. It was a very arkward hole to try to plug with rags and a tarp. It had a stainless steel shaft in the middle and the holes were more like caves with broken pieces of fiberglass around and inside. In addition I noticed large cracks along the base of the skeg where it meets the hull. I tried to plug the hole with the tarp but it kept coming out. I tried to wrap the tarp around the damaged area consisting of the rudder skeg and prop shaft and tie it around itself but the ocean swell made that difficult and the boat was already 2/3 full of water. At that point I decided to forego my efforts and focus on the safety and survival of the crew. We started to load the dinghy up with as much supplies and emergengy gear as possible. At this point we could no longer fill up water jugs as the water level was already above the sink. The toerails were inches above the water. The girls were both in the dinghy waiting for Simon and I to join them. i paused for a moment, trying to think if there was anything that I might be forgetting, or anything else I could do. I then took a moment, a split second, to take in the scene of what was happening. i could feel my emotions rising to the foreground but I quickly shoved them back down and Simon and I stepped into the water just as the toerail went under. I then swam to the liferaft. When I waas in, I looked back and could see the last 10ft of the mast sinking at an unbelievable speed. Our liferaft painter (which is designed to break before being pulled under by the boat) was still attached to the boat. Alana noticed it and shouted to cut it. Luckily I had my leatherman in my pocket and cut the painter as it was coming under tension. The boat and all of our belongings were gone, sinking to the bottom of one of the most remote parts of the oceans.
We took a moment to breathe, then began organising and taking an inventory of the items we had managed to secure. The sun began to set and soon it was pitch dark. And we were floating right smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a liferaft and a dinghy. Hopeful that we would be rescued soon, Alana and I were in the dinghy which was secured to the liferaft by three lines. Flying fish kept jumping in the dinghy and the wind increased. A crazy moment floating in hte ocean, looking up at the stars. Someone was always looking out for ships and we made a MAYDAY call on our handheld radio every hour.
At about 0500 Simon spotted tthe first lights. This was shortly followed by radio contact from SV Rolling Stone. We all screamed with relief when we heard Geoff's voice over the radio. We were damn near rescued and all we had to do was to safely transfer ourselves and our belongings onto the Leapold 45 catamaran. I activated my personal AIS device and set off a flare to help them with the exact location.
Once they approached, we all got into the dinghy as the transfer would be easier. They brought us in, one by one and we clambered aboard over their sugar scoop transom, timing the waves with every jump.
We were rescued. A huge thanks to the crew of Raindancer, who made my job so much easier. I am so proud of everyone for staying calm, gathering safety equipment and the way everything was handled.
A huge thanks to the entire sailing community for coming together to aid in our rescue. Onre thing I have always loved about sailing is the people. I am thankful to be part of such a supportive community.
Thanks to the Starlink community. Without Starlink our rescue would not have gone as quickly or as smoothly. Technology saved our lives.
But the biggest thanks goes to our rescuers and Captain Geoff of SV Rolling Stone for going out of their way to save us. Taking four strangers into their home all the way to French Polynesia.
It is true, I am sad to lose the boat. It was everything to me. It was more than just what I was doing, more than my home and my belongings, it was part of who I am. But, at the end of the day, the most important things were rescued."
For those interested, the boat had a Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hih9tlvktI
This story is incredibly rare. I believe only three boats have been sunk by a whale in the last ten years. The good news is, that thanks to modern (satellite) technology, even rare disasters like this should not be fatal. Still, it is a real 'eye-opener' as we will be crossing the same ocean in around six weeks (our slot to transit the Canal is now booked for March 31st)