Your Stories, From The Edge


One Whale Of An Ordeal

Story and Photos By Donna Foth & Darryl O'Sickey
Published: August/September 2012

The unlikely odds of an improbable encounter with a whale leave these two sailors with valuable cruising lessons on being prepared — and, unfortunately, with a broken boat.

In December 2010, we flew down to Mazatlan in Mexico from Idaho to sail our Pearson 367, Luffin It, planning on a quiet few months of sailing down the Pacific Coast of Mexico to Zihuatanejo. We had purchased Luffin It the year before and this was our third cruise. After several pleasant months sailing to Zihuatanejo, we started north toward Puerto Vallarta, which we figured would take us 10 to 12 days, taking our time and dropping anchor along the way.

Photo of Humpback whales visiting the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico
Humpback whales visit the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico from mid-October until late March.

March 2nd began uneventfully. Around 11 a.m., with the sun shining, the winds light, and the air a pleasant temperature, we raised anchor and sailed out of Barra Navidad toward one of our favorite anchorages, Tenacatita. We saw only dolphins and manta rays en route, and in the afternoon around 3:30 p.m., we turned off the motor and were sailing at 3-4 knots, as we turned into Tenacatita Bay.

Then suddenly, BOOM! We felt a violent heaving of the boat and then the stern dramatically being lifted out of the water. Darryl yelled that we had run aground. But as we jolted back and forth, I saw the flipper and dorsal fin of a large humpback whale off our stern and starboard side. After the initial impact, our boat was thrown over to starboard at a 40- to 50-degree angle. The sound of the whipping of his tail as the whale tried to free himself from the boat seemed to last forever. We hung on to anything and everything, just to stay in the boat, and felt an intense pounding on the cockpit sole for several, seemingly neverending seconds, as we were thrust back and forth. And then, silence, as the whale swam away, seemingly unhurt. As best we could determine, his flukes had gotten trapped between the back of our keel and the rudder skeg, and the thrashing was his attempt to free himself.

Photo of the authors aboard their boat
Darryl and Donna aboard.

We quickly looked under the main cabin sole and discovered water rushing in. We grabbed our life jackets and Darryl called a mayday over our VHF. The electric bilge pump was running, but not stemming the inflow. I grabbed the manual bilge pump and started pumping. We started the motor, felt a severe vibration in forward gear, and started preparing items to take if we had to abandon ship. Luckily for us, three dinghies from several boats in the anchorage just one-and-a-half miles away came zipping out within 10 minutes. They hooked up to us, came aboard with portable bilge pumps, and helped Darryl assess the damage while I steered the boat. Our friends on 40 Love brought their sailboat out in case we needed to abandon ship in a hurry.

We stabilized, and once we started the motor and put it in forward, the water leakage from the prop shaft seal slowed down significantly, letting us slowly motor into Tenacatita and drop anchor. Fellow cruisers continued to help; Bill from Fai Sin suited up in his wet suit and checked for damage under the boat — finding a bent strut and prop shaft, a broken lower rear section of the rudder, the exhaust pipe almost closed off, and the exit ladder bent. There also appeared to be scrapes — perhaps from the barnacles on the whale? — along the keel.

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Lessons Learned

How To Plan For The Unexpected

  • In preparation for cruising, we had both read an article on a boat that was struck by a whale and went down in less than 45 minutes. We then sat down and mapped out a plan of what we'd do in the event of an emergency. I believe that helped us to react swiftly.
  • Anything can happen, at any time, even a mile-and-a-half from anchorage. When sailing at night or in rough weather, or with any unexpected emergency, put your life jacket on without delay.
  • All crew should know how to work the manual bilge pump. We had just pulled both out and gone through the dirty job of cleaning the filters, installing a high-water alarm, and testing the system a week before.
  • Make sure your VHF/SSB radios work. Without these, our encounter could havebeen dire. Your VHF should be DSC-enabled and hooked up to your GPS so that, should you need to set off a mayday, rescuers will continue to automatically get your latitude and longitude. This is a simple connection available on newer VHF models.
  • Carry a GPIRB (GPS-enabled EPIRB). It's easy and inexpensive to rent one from the BoatUS Foundation.
  • Attempt to contain/slow down any water entering your boat. At the time of the encounter, our automatic bilge pump kicked on. But before even knowing that, Donna started pumping the manual bilge.
  • Organize communications. Assign one person at a time on the boat to monitor Channels 16 and 22, and communicate on a third specific channel for discussing and monitoring the situation. This person should keep clear notes of any cruisers calling in, help offered, and people to call back later.

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