What’s the proper course of action when your sailboat’s pummeled by a whale and sinking? Keep a cool head, advises Nick Barran. And make sure your life raft’s well equipped and your satellite phone’s charged.
That’s exactly what they did aboard Mureadritta’s XL, on July 25, when Nick and a crew of three were on their way back to California after competing in the West Marine Pacific Cup and their 40-foot ILC was rammed by a whale about 450 miles north of the Big Island of Hawaii. The good news is that all four crewmembers are safe and back on dry land. The bad news is that the boat, a total loss, sank.
In a telephone interview with Nick from Honolulu, he recounted the tale with an affable manner and the same sense of calm that served him so well during the ordeal.
The crew saw a pod of about four whales, including a calf, and had actually changed course slightly to give them a wide berth. At about 0715 local time, they were getting back on course when the calf swam down the port side of Mureadritta’s XL. The mother, perhaps trying to protect the calf, or just to get back to it, rammed the starboard side, forward of the chainplate. The impact was felt and heard, rather than seen. The crewman on the port side only saw the dorsal fin of a pilot whale, which immediately dove under after striking the boat. They didn’t see the whale again, but Nick said, “She probably had a good gash on the nose, or at least a pretty bad headache.”
Nick immediately started the bilge pumps as water began to pour in, and started the engine so that he could charge the satellite phone.
“I knew there were three things I had to do: stop more water from coming in the boat, bail the water that had already gotten into the boat, and prepare to evacuate,” he said.
He instructed the crew to stuff soft sails into the gaping hole. They even passed the No. 4 headsail underneath the bow for an attempt at an outside wrap. All this while bailing at the same time, and with Nick encouraging non-stop photo taking with the three cameras they had onboard.
When it became clear that they had to abandon ship, the crew gathered about 17 MRE’s, 15 gallons of water, warm clothing, and essential personal items such as ID’s and medicine, and tossed it all into the life raft. Along with the satellite phone, they also brought along a handheld direction finder, the boat’s EPIRB, and individual EPIRB’s for each crewmember, which Nick said were “very efficient.”
A busy and extremely organized one hour and 10 minutes elapsed from the time the whale hit the boat to the time everyone was in the life raft. However, since they weren’t close to the shipping lanes, they had no real hope of spotting any cargo vessels any time soon. And, since they had made been making good time, they estimated that it would be at least three days before they had a chance of seeing another returning boat from the race.
However, a few well-placed phone calls to the Pacific Yacht Club, (a friend there was a ham radio operator), to the Coast Guard, and to Nick’s son who was back on the Big Island, kicked the rescue mission into high gear.
“At about 0945,” Nick said, “we heard the engines of a C-130 Coast Guard jet and looked up to see it right above us.” The Coast Guard had no vessels in the area, but there were three other ships within 90 miles of the life raft. The cargo vessel Maersk Darwin, on its way to China, changed course and reached the crew around 1930 that night.
Just 12 hours elapsed between the time the whale struck the boat and the time the rescue vessel arrived on the scene. Daylight, good weather, and the absence of injuries aided the process, but what really helped save Nick and his crew were preparedness and levelheaded thinking.