STRUCK BY A WHALE OFF GRAND BANKS
Dod A. Fraser '72
On July 1st while sailing from Newport, Rhode Island to Falmouth, England aboard our yacht "Peningo", we were struck by a whale and incurred significant damage to our rudder and hull. Collisions with whales are not common; indeed, the Canadian Coast Guard Captain that came to our assistance commented that this was only the third time in twenty-five years of service that he had assisted a yacht struck by a whale. He remarked, "It is like winning the lottery." My partner, Sandy Vietor, commented before our departure that the two risks of the transatlantic crossing that most concerned him were striking a whale or a container that had fallen off a ship. Both events are outside the control of the crew and both can have catastrophic consequences. Our collision was not catastrophic, thankfully, but provides some useful lessons on preparations and response.
Our voyage began on Sunday, June 24th from Newport. On board were six crew: my partner, Sandy Vietor; my sons Dod and Duncan; friends John Fullerton and John Cunningham; and, myself. Our vessel, "Peningo" is a 49' sloop, designed by Ed duBois specifically for offshore sailing and built in 1996 by the Pendennis yard in Falmouth England. She is a modern design with a canoe shaped hull, deep fin keel, and large, balanced spade rudder. She was built for speed, strength and safety. The large forepeak and lazarette are separated from the main cabin by watertight bulkheads. The bow is reinforced with kevlar, and the rudder is fabricated from carbon fiber. Each electronic communication system has a backup. The first owner planned to sail her around the world and appeared to leave little to chance. Sandy and I purchased her in December after a long search for a yacht suitable for offshore passage making and ocean racing.
We left the New York Yacht Club station in Newport at 1100 with four other yachts, all bound for England in a "Cruise in Company" to participate in the Americas Cup Jubilee in August. It was a festive start. A race committee boat fired a cannonade as we rounded Fort Adams behind NYYC Vice Commodore Huntington's "Snow Lion". We had 5-10 kts of wind from the South, a sloppy Newport swell and one to two miles visibility in light fog. As one crewmember had only arrived the day before, we had not had a chance to complete our safety drills. Given the visibility, we motored out away from the harbor traffic before commencing man-over-board and abandon ship drills and reviewing procedures regarding safety equipment and ship's rules.
We had equipped "Peningo" with a full complement of safety gear that met all ORC regulations for a Category 1 event and almost all Category 0 requirements. This included two four man life rafts, two abandon ship bags packed with water, emergency rations, medical kits, a thermal space suit, flares, hand-held VHF radios, and handheld GPS units. In addition each crewmember was issued a SOS inflatable suspender, retrofitted with a crotch strap and an attached safety harness with a positive locking clip. Attached to the waistband of the suspender was a pouch, in which was packed two individual flares, whistle, personal strobe light and Mini-B 121.5 Mhz EPIRB. The latter was part of a set of equipment that included a directional antenna that could home in on the personal EPIRB signal. While practicing our man-over-board drill, we set the test unit afloat on a cushion so we take turns using the directional antenna. The fog filled in and we lost sight of the cushion; quickly we became disoriented. The antenna pointed us to port, we thought the cushion was to starboard. Trusting technology, we steered port, recovered the unit, and gained confidence in the equipment that we had purchased.
For the first three days we had light winds from the south that gradually veered to the WNW. We passed south of Nantucket in light to heavy fog. South of Martha's Vineyard, Noman's Land loomed in the fog to port; it was our last sight of land. While "Peningo" sailed well, progress was slow in the light, down-wind conditions. At 1200 EDT on Wednesday the 27th, we were only 195 miles east of Nantucket at about 42 degrees north. Our plan was to stay well south of the great circle course until 45 degrees west. Commander's Weather provided a briefing before departure. They told us to expect light winds for the first three days followed by a cold front, which would usher in stronger winds from the north. Soon thereafter, Commander's expected a series of reasonably deep low-pressure systems to track to the north providing strong southwesterly breezes for those to the south. A southerly track kept us out of the worst of the lows and added a degree of protection from ice. The ice pack broke up late this year and only in the prior couple weeks had the "limit of known ice" line been moved north of 45 degrees.
The wind filled in from the west at 1600 on Wednesday and over the next 24 hours veered to the north and the skies cleared.
"Peningo" took off. We averaged over nine knots; our "furrow followed free" under sunny skies and starlit nights. We sailed the boat conservatively, reefing early. Over the next 48 hours the highest sustained winds were 25 to 28 knots, seas rose to ten feet, and we sailed with a double reefed main and staysail. On Saturday morning the winds began backing to the southwest and the skies clouded over as the first predicted low began to track north of us. We adjusted our course to the south to avoid predicted 30+ knot winds at the center of the low. By Sunday morning July 1st we were slightly south of 42 degrees north and east of 50 degrees west. It appeared the worst of the low was past us and we headed off on the great circle course at nine knots, wing on wing, with a double reef in the main and a partially furled jib. Seas were moderate and the wind was 18-20 knots from the southwest. The sky was partially overcast with 5 miles visibility.
I was on watch with my 15-year-old son, Duncan at 1000 Atlantic Daylight Time when the boat suddenly shuddered, rose and there was a tremendous report like a cannon being shot. Two days earlier a line on our quick vang had parted making a large boom; I therefore instinctively looked forward to the rig but found everything fine. At that moment Duncan shouted, "A whale!" Directly astern I saw a huge swirl in the water as the massive animal sounded. Duncan later reported that he saw the whale's head emerge to starboard. It turned on its side, showed it's side fin, as large as a small car, and it's blood pooled to the surface in massive amounts from a deep wound.
"Peningo" was also deeply wounded. I looked down to the cockpit floor where the rudderpost sits under the emergency tiller access hatch. The hatch had been blown away, the teak decking splintered, and the fiberglass core was fractured. The carbon fiber rudderpost was showing, bent askew to port and working back and forth as the boat moved. I quickly opened the lazarette and found a scene of wreckage. The quadrants had been destroyed; they lay in pieces over the floor of the lazarette. The flying debris had severed hoses and a frame on the port side of the boat was clearly cracked. The watertight bulkhead appeared intact although fiberglass tabbing around various fittings was pulled away. Of greatest concern was the rudderpost. It emerges from the hull through a watertight sleeve. The sleeve was intact but the rudderpost was working back and forth in the waves against the sleeve. How long would it hold? If the sleeve parted, the lazarette would quickly flood and test the watertight bulkhead. Further, should the loose rudderpost work against the bulkhead, it could be holed. At the moment, we were not taking on any water.
I reported to Sandy the rudder was "gone" and we should commence our emergency procedures. By prior agreement these called for Sandy to be on deck and for me to be on the radios. I went below to broadcast a PAN-PAN until we had a better assessment of the stability of the rudder and sleeve. Sandy and the crew reported on deck with their SOS suspenders on (ship's rules required wearing the suspenders and using the harnesses in all conditions, day and night). Remarkably, it was at this moment that one of the crewmembers awoke from a deep sleep. His bunk was in the starboard quarter, directly above where the whale had hit us. He slept through. Only upon awakening did he notice his mates on deck in their boxers and suspenders and realize something must be wrong. This speaks volumes to the ability of a college student to sleep through anything.
The boat was out of control in a following sea, by-the-lee and the main was aback against the preventer. Sandy organized acontrolled gybe. As the quick vang had broken earlier in the voyage, a line jury rigged to the rail was acting as a vang. Upon release of the preventer and jury-rigged vang, the double-reefed main lifted the boom and pulled apart the two pieces of the quick vang. The upper half, while attached to the boom, came across the cabin top, slammed into the deckhouse, imbedding itself four inches in the fiberglass core and broke away from the boom. The boat then involuntarily gybed back. Sandy called for the sail to be lowered. With the sail halfway down the boat gybed a third time. Without the support of the quick vang or the leech of the main, the boom fell, swept the decks and carried away the instrument pod on the binnacle. The crew had the presence of mind to duck. The main then came down and the jib was furled.
Meanwhile, I was below broadcasting a PAN-PAN. I did not raise anyone on the SSB on 2182. From the start, we had trouble transmitting on the radio while it received just fine. I then pushed the distress buttons on the Inmarsat C. As this service requires about five minutes for an authority to respond, I turned next to our Inmarsat M satellite phone. This had been working perfectly from the start but unfortunately I could not find the telephone number for the US Coast Guard in any guides aboard the boat. With some hesitation, I called my wife, Susan. When she answered, I replied as nonchalantly as possible, "Hi Susan. We have a little problem here and could use some help." I gave her our position, told her the authorities might be contacted separately via the Inmarsat C distress signal. She agreed to contact the Coast Guard. At that moment the Inmarsat C signaled it was receiving a reply to our distress signal. It came from the Netherlands Coast Guard and required a response. Listed, as means of response were 2182, a fax number, telex number and phone number. No e-mail address was given so no response could be sent with the Inmarsat C. I resorted to the Inmarsat M once again, called the number and within ten minutes of transmitting the first distress message was in phone contact with the Canadian Coast Guard. They advised the fisheries patrol vessel, "Leonard J. Cowley", could be on site to assist within seven hours. I gratefully accepted the offer for assistance and made arrangements to stay in contact should the rudder sleeve fail.
On deck, Sandy had by now arranged to have the sails lowered. He then called for the crew to prepare to abandon ship in the event the rudder sleeve ruptured and the bulkhead gave way so that the boat quickly flooded. Within a minute all necessary gear was assembled in the cockpit, each crewmember efficiently completing his assigned task. Our next concern was the heating system. The heater was installed in the lazarette and a single duct penetrated the watertight bulkhead. While the duct had been run to the top of the bulkhead, just under the deck, it was a possible source of a leak into the main compartment should the lazarette flood, albeit the decks would practically have to be awash for water to reach the duct. As insurance, the duct was plugged from both ends. We then carefully secured the rudderpost with lines to try to keep it stable and awaited the arrival of the Cowley.
The Cowley, a 240' cutter, arrived on time. She launched her 22' FRC (Fast Rescue Craft), a rigid bottom inflatable. The FRC is powered by a 240-horse power Volvo outdrive with duo-prop and is equipped with radar, GPS and ommunication radios. The boys have suggested we get one as a dinghy for "Peningo". Her crew advised us the rudder was still intact albeit in two pieces with a crack across its width about one-third of the way down from the hull. With the FRC standing by, we went to work on the rudder more aggressively by cutting away portions of the cockpit floor, fitting the emergency tiller and secured it to help dampen the motion of the rudderpost in the sleeve. At the request of the Captain, we all boarded the Cowley. We were transported aboard the FRC. Upon returning to the Cowley, a platform was lowered on the lee side; the FRC floated in above it, hooked up and were lifted topside with an electric winch. Two easy steps and we were aboard. "Peningo" was put under tow attached to a line two cables long. A bridle around her mast, amply protected with a hemp chafe guard, was attached to the towing cable. At five knots we headed for St. John's, Newfoundland and arrived July 4th.
Upon reflection, Sandy and I are very thankful we found such a well-built yacht. The hull survived a severe impact with out eing ruptured and the rudder and sleeve assembly held up remarkably well. (By the time we reached St. John’s a small leak had developed, small enough to be taken care of by the electric bilge pump.) For this we must thank duBois and Pendennis for the design and construction and for their patience in responding to our inquires as we inspected the boat for purchase. We also must thank our patient broker, Hank Halstead of Northrop and Johnson, who suffered through a nine-month search and numerous rejections of many name-brand boats by picky prospective owners. We found very helpful guidance in our search in Desirable and Undesirable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts, published by the Cruising Club of America.
Our safety drills and ship's rules helped us respond to the emergency. Every crewmember knew what to do and all actions were completed in a calm and quiet manner. A most relevant part of the safety briefing by the captains was the lecture on injuries by the boom. All crewmembers were warned that head injuries from the boom are the most common serious injuryon racing boats. Forewarned, they were prepared--thank goodness for the third gybe of "Peningo's" boom had the potential to seriously injure someone standing in its path. It was also comforting to know in the confusion that all crewmembers were wearing their SOS suspenders and harnesses, even if their only other clothing were a Patagonia silkweight boxer.
The performance of the SSB was a disappointment. The boat came equipped with an ICOM 706 ham radio. It was fiendishly difficult for an amateur to operate and after many attempts to make it work reliably, the decision was made to replace it with a standard ICOM 710 marine SSB. Unfortunately, it was installed only two week before departure. Although the contractor confirmed it was working properly, it never transmitted correctly, either in the emergency or for the daily radio checks for the Cruise in Company. In the rush to fit the boat for departure, I did not personally check the transmission with the technician by my side. This was my mistake. Thankfully the back-up means of communication all worked. However, I have also learned to carry a full list of emergency phone numbers for use with the Inmarsat M and omise never to put Susan through such anxious hours again.
We have speculated on the course of events that would have occurred had the Cowley not been available to assist us. The Azores were 760 miles downwind and we carried sufficient fuel to motor the whole distance. The problem was steerage and the loose rudderpost in its watertight sleeve. Our emergency rudder connects to the emergency tiller, which connects with the rudderpost. The rig would not have worked as designed. It would have been possible to jury rig the emergency rudder but we would still have had the loose rudderpost working in its sleeve. As a last resort it is conceivable that we could have dropped the rudder (a full set of plans are carried on the boat and with some study the correct bolts to remove could have been identified). Using a spare sail as a crash mat and relying on the watertight bulkhead, we should have been able to limp to port.
Of course, none of this was necessary given the prompt and able assistance of the Canadian Coast Guard. The crew of eningo" is exceedingly grateful to Captain Perry Stares and Chief Officer Jim Chmiel and their crew for their seaman like assistance and hospitality while on board the Leonard J. Cowley. We are also exceedingly grateful for the hospitality of the Newfoundlanders. No sooner had we tied up to the wharf in St. John’s than Geoff Peters, former Commodore of the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club, appeared at our side. He said he had heard from Richard Nye that a CCA member had a problem with his boat. Geoff took charge of arranging everything for us over the next two days. I had only learned of my election to the Club while speaking to Susan in a follow-up call after the accident on Sunday. Who would have expected the benefits of membership to be so evident so soon?
No doubt "Peningo" has proven herself in adversity. Sandy and I are looking forward to setting a new schedule for offshore passages once repairs have been completed.
--Dod A. Fraser '72
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