Technology saved our lives, says captain after whale sinks boat

Four people have been plucked from a liferaft in the Pacific Ocean – after a ‘huge whale’ crashed into their 1976 Kelly Peterson 44, Raindancer. The incident occurred on 13 March 2023.

The boat, on its way to the Marquesas of French Polynesia (from the Galapagos), sunk in a matter of minutes, but captain Rick Rodriguez says it was Starlink that saved their lives.

“Without Starlink our rescue wouldn’t have gone so swiftly and smoothly. Technology saved our lives,” he says.

Rodriguez describes the incident in detail. While enjoying vegetarian pizza dipped in ranch dressing, with a second one just out the oven, he and the three other people onboard “heard a loud crashing noise, simultaneous with a metal clanking. I looked to port and saw a huge whale, and blood gushing out of its as it began swimming down.”

The incident was later described lifting the back half of the boat lifted violently upward and to starboard.

Rodriguez says that after just five seconds the high water bilge alarm went off.

“I could see water rushing in from the stern of the boat. At that point I knew the damage was very significant and that most likely we were going to lose the boat.”

The crew began gathering safety equipment, supplies, emergency gear, electronics and more while Rodriguez went searching for the source of the water. He says after just 30 seconds, it’d already filled up above the floor.

“It was difficult to locate the source from the inside with the water level so high.

“I helped bring out the liferaft and grabbed and set off one of our EPIRBs and made a vhf mayday call. I deployed the life raft and it inflated as advertised.”

The distress signal was picked up by officials in Peru, who alerted the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I then realised that the sails were still up and the boat was still moving forward and it put a lot of tension on the painter line of the Winslow Liferaft, which had automatically deployed a sea anchor.”

“[Crew members] Simon and Alana launched our 10.5ft Apex dinghy that was sitting upright and inflated on the foredeck.

“I put on my mask and fins on and jumped overboard with a tarp. I saw the damage instantly.

“There were multiple holes or ‘cracks’. The biggest one being around the prop shaft. It seems part of the whale must have hit the shaft with a strong force and busted open the fibreglass around the shaft. It was a very awkward hole to try and plug with rags and a tarp. It had a stainless steel shaft in the middle and the holes around it were more like caves with broken pieces of fibreglass all around and inside it.

“In addition to this I also noticed 2-3 full length cracks maybe an inch in diameter along the base of the skeg where it meets the hull, and about halfway down the skeg. I made attempts to shove a tarp in the hole (s) 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 open ocean waves and swell made that difficult and with a boat that 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.”

At this point, the three crew had loaded the dinghy with as much supplies and emergency gear as possible. They couldn’t fill up and more water jugs as the water level was above the sink. Later it was calculated they’d escaped with enough water for about a week, roughly three weeks worth of food, a fishing pole and a device for catching rain.

Rodriguez joined them in abandoning ship and says that the the last 10ft of the mast sank down at “unbelievable speed”.

“Our painter line which is designed to break before being pulled under with the boat was still attached to the boat. Luckily I had a leatherman knife in my pocket and cut the painter as it was coming under tension.”

Then with one couple in the dinghy, and the other in the liferaft (secured to with three lines, one of which was a shock cord they’d tied together from tethers on their life vests), the wait began.

The Washington Post reports in his first text messages from the life raft, Rodriguez said he was in serious trouble.

“Tommy this is no joke,” he typed to his friend and fellow sailor Tommy Joyce. “We hit a whale and the ship went down.

“Tell as many boats as you can. Battery is dangerously low.”

According to Loose Cannon Joyce was over a hundred miles behind on the same track and the area was full of boats participating in the World ARC, a round-the-world rally for recreational sailboats.

Joyce spread the mayday message on Facebook, and was able to communicate with the ARC fleet, some of whose participants also have Starlink terminals. Soon the vessel nearest the liferaft, Rolling Stones, was heading their way. Rolling Stones, captained by Geoff Stone, was not on the ARC roster, but he was being followed by the SV FAR and as many as nine other ARC participants.

Technology saves lives

“Starlink was a gamechanger allowing us all to coordinate response over long distances,” Joyce wrote afterwards. What Joyce did not say was that most, if not all the Starlink terminals involved in the rescue were RV models (now called Starlink Roam) not authorised for use at sea.

(The approved Starlink yacht package costs $10,000 for hardware and $5,000 per month for service. Most recreational mariners can’t or won’t pay that much, says Loose Cannon. Instead, they mount a standard Starlink antenna and sign up for Starlink RV service; one-time hardware costs: $599 for the hardware and $135 per month for unlimited-data service. But there’s a looming issue. Using Starlink offshore goes against its terms of service contract. Without warning, Starlink could institute geo-fencing that would render all those terminals useless anywhere offshore.)

Adrift overnight

“Flying fish kept jumping in the dinghy thought the night and the wind speed increased. We were making a mayday call from out handheld radio every hour,” Rodriguez says. “At about 0500 March 14, we spotted the first lights of the sailing vessel Rolling Stones.

“Once they approached we all got into the dinghy as we felt it would be easier to make the transfer. We came alongside Rolling Stones and threw over two lines. They brought us in and one by one we all dove forward into their sugar scoop transom, timing the waves with every jump.”

“There was never really much fear that we were in danger,” Rodriguez later told the Washington Post. “Everything was in control as much as it could be for a boat sinking.”

“There was no emotion. While we were getting things done, we all had that feeling, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ but it didn’t keep us from doing what we needed to do and prepare ourselves to abandon ship.”

Rick Rodriguez and Simon Fischer in the life raft. (Alana Litz)

Raindancer “was well-equipped with safety equipment and multiple communication devices and had a trained crew to handle this open-ocean emergency until a rescue vessel arrived,” says Douglas Samp, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific area search and rescue program manager. He cautions that new technology should not replace the use of an EPIRB, which has its own batteries.

Rolling Stones is expected to arrive in French Polynesia today (22 March).

“I’ve worked so hard to be here, and have been dreaming of making landfall at the Bay of Virgins in the Marquesas on my own boat for about 10 years. And 1,000 nautical miles short my boat sinks,” says Rodriguez.

“I feel very lucky, and grateful, that we were rescued so quickly. We were in the right place at the right time to go down.”

According to one Washington Post commentator, being rammed by whales happens. “I’m 82 and have sailed my entire life, including several Atlantic and Pacific crossings. The captain was experienced and exceptionally well prepared. The crew were also well prepared, mostly experienced, and did they their jobs quickly and calmly. I’ve been deliberately rammed by whales twice, once off the coast of Maine and once in the South Atlantic. It happens. On several other occasions I’ve had whales pass by on the surface, just a few feet away (they stink), and had large whales dive under the boat, a couple of times hitting the keel a glancing blow with their tails. Was lucky that the boat wasn’t holed in the two actual attacks. When a whale hits a relatively small boat hard, it feels like you’ve run aground in the middle of the ocean.”

MIN recently reported that black antifoul is being investigated as the cause of a worrying increase in Orca attacks off the Iberian coastline.

Images courtesy of Rick Rodriguez unless otherwise stated.

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One response to “Technology saved our lives, says captain after whale sinks boat”

  1. Cranky Yankee says:

    That’s what you get for making vegetarian pizza, mate.