This is my first hand account of the incident that occurred with orcas sailing through the strait of Gibtaltar from the Azores. The media have very much sensationalised the event without speaking to me so here are the full details of the interaction. I would also like to add, the ocean can be unforgiving but these are beautiful creatures and demonising them is not the answer there is clearly a wider issue here that needs extensive research.
As a crew of four we were all experienced sailors coming through the Straits when at around 21:30pm we saw a pod of Orcas hoping they would investigate and swim away. We turned off our engine and waited, it didn't take long for them to start hitting our rudder and the force of this would spin the helm violently and you could feel the vibration through the deck. We tried to distract them with non harmful deterrents such as ropes in the water which they pulled away and they kept ramming the rudder throughout our efforts. We were advised grains or sand could deter them so we tried that but the whales were very much honing in on our rudder. After around 30 minutes the rudder was now broken, but some of the orcas swam away. At around 22:20 we prepared an emergency rudder so we had a method to steer but the orcas came back and it became impossible to install.
As soon as we lost steerage we made a PAN PAN call on channel 16 requesting a tow and to alert the coastguard of our situation. During this time we prepared the tender on deck attached it to a halyard on the mast and had it ready to launch on a winch, we also had lifejackets and grab bags and a life raft on board. After an hour of the Orcas continuing to hit the rudder it was evidently now completely destroyed and water started to flow into the boat.
There was a gaping hole now visible with seawater flushing in. As a crew, we were professional and calm in the situation, given the circumstances. We started remedial action straight way with the bilge pump, and we used the storm sail around and under the boat to try and stem the flow of water. at the time we were unaware but the hull had cracked through the fibreglass so we also had water ingress in the engine room and the pump was not sufficient. At this point we made a DSC Mayday call for immediate assistance and a tug boat and helicopter were now on their way to assist with an industrial pump.
The rescue boat came alongside we rigged the tow lines and the sail repair tore off under the water pressure, as we started the tow. We were still waiting for the helicopter pump so during this time we took it in turns to bail out water by hand with a bucket which was tiring work, the water was mid calf at this point. Once the pump was finally on board we could resume the tow to Barbate. The Orcas continued to follow the boat until we got inshore.
When the boat was hoisted the real damage was evident, as you can see in my picture below. These Orca interactions need to be researched extensively. That same week, four other vessels had their rudders broken and the week before a vessel was sunk off Barbate.
I am not a scientist, but Orcas have a migration pattern and there are huge tuna fishing nets at Barbate, I do wonder whether they associate vessels with fishing and taking their Tuna. Is it overfished? I think scaremongering is damaging for the planet and our biodiverse oceans.
Ultimately we can only wonder but as the behaviour becomes more learned, this kind of incident is more likely to happen again and again. Could safe routes be marked on a chart? Perhaps a convoy or recommended sailing hours through the strait of Gibraltar.
The media will always sensationalise news, but as a crew we are not traumatised and everyone acted in a professional manner and we were all safe. I am sailing again today and whilst it was a challenging experience we have all taken something away from it and it's added to our experience.
Thanks for reading my short account of events