If there was ever any doubt that sailing the oceans in small boats is jeopardous at the very least and perilous at its worst, a talk with the highly experienced sailor and long-distance ocean racer Nick Barran would be in order.
Barran recently returned from a harrowing experience where a sperm whale rammed his 40-foot Joubert-Jivelt-designed racer, breaking a hole in the boat and causing it to sink 415 miles off the coast of Kaneohe, Oahu, which left Barran and his three- person crew to bob helplessly in a life raft hoping for help to arrive.
On July 25th, Barran and crew had just finished the Pacific Cup, a race from San Francisco to Hawaii, and were delivering the boat back when they happened upon a pod of sperm whales floating on the surface of the water at about 7:30 in the morning.
Crewman and Barran’s old friend David Smith was at the helm when he saw splashing about one mile ahead. As he drew closer he saw spouts and knew he was approaching whales.
“They looked as though they were moving right to left, so David went behind them,” said Barran, a calm and metered middle-aged Englishman. “There was a group of three or four of them just lying side by side, not moving, which is what they do — it’s called logging.”
As the crew passed the pod, they shot photos and looked at the unique sight, then continued on their path to California.
A few moments later, the peaceful, sunny day was disrupted by a loud crash that sounded like the boat had collided with something, but there was nothing in the water.
Directly after the sound was heard, a crew member had seen a whale’s fin dip below the surface, indicating the whale had most likely rammed the side of the vessel.
“There was suddenly water rushing in on the port side — just in front of the mast,” Barran said. “We started trying to stuff the hole with soft sails [e.g. spinnakers, windseekers] and we tacked over to lift the hull up out of the water, but it was coming in pretty fast. The bilge pumps weren’t doing very much.”
For 30 minutes, the crew desperately tried to keep up with the rushing water, but couldn’t, for all their trying.
“We weren’t winning,” Barran said in a dejected tone. “Pretty soon it was ankle- and then knee-deep, at which time I decided that it was time to change our focus.
“There are three things really — you have to try and stop the water coming in; secondly you try to get the water that’s in out; and when that isn’t successful it’s time to make an orderly evacuation.”
The methodical captain began to organize his ditch plan, which involved gathering water first, and all of the other supplies that he and the crew would need for open-ocean survival in a small life raft.
He had charged the satellite phone, packed food, clothing, flares, radios and a first aid kit, and when the deck became level with the ocean they boarded the raft.
Prior to the boarding, Barran fired off an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), which automatically notifies the Coast Guard that there is a serious emergency at hand and lets them know your position so they can dispatch help if possible.
“We figured that there were a bunch of other boats returning, we had the satellite phone and we had fired the EPIRB,” he said. “So we thought that the combination of all those things would get someone to us. I thought we would probably spend two or three days in the raft.”
Miraculously, the crew spotted a C-130 flying overhead just two and a half hours after the sinking that tipped its wings to indicate that they were aware of their situation and fortunately for Barran and his crew, the weather was ideal and the seas were calm for their 11-hour wait for rescue, which came in the form of a nearby 85-foot fishing boat that the Coast Guard had asked to aid the forsaken crew.
With some difficulty, the crew boarded the fishing boat that was headed back to Hawaii and was soon back in the bosom of civilization.
With the knowledge that — although this was a random and unfortunate happening — the circumstances surrounding the accident could have been far worse. Barran has clearly taken it all in stride.
“It’s like falling off a horse,” said Barran of the ordeal and his sailing future. “You don’t enjoy it when it’s happening, but you really want to get back on again. I love sailing and it’s not going to alter my sailing plans, but I will probably give whales a wider berth in the future.”