Ship sank in just 15 minutes
After a serious collision with a whale: How modern technology saved the life of a sailing crew
Again and again there are collisions between whales and ships on the open sea (symbol image).
© Source: imago/robertharding
In mid-March, Rick Rodriguez was keeping watch on his boat, the Raindancer. The rest of the crew of four ate lunch around 1:30 p.m. Vegetarian pizza was on the menu. The wind was favourable, the boat was sailing at about six knots. There was nothing to indicate that tragedy would follow minutes later. But all of a sudden there was a loud bang, as Rodriguez told the US newspaper “Washington Postreported. The boat had collided with a whale.
“The rear half of the boat rose violently and pitched to starboard,” the sailor recalled. A crew member, Alana Litz, was the first to spot the whale. He was as long as the boat, she later described the marine mammal. Rodriguez also caught a glimpse. He saw the animal bleeding from the upper third of its body as it dove back down to the ocean depths after the collision. A few seconds later the alarm went off, indicating that the boat had leaked and was beginning to fill with water.
At the time of the accident in mid-March, Rodriguez was sailing from the Galápagos Islands to French Polynesia with three other sailors. They were supposed to be on the road for a total of three weeks, but the collision put an end to the crossing after just 13 days.
Boat sank within a quarter of an hour
In the end, the crew had just 15 minutes before the boat was completely filled with water and sank. Within a few minutes, the four sailors had to lower the inflatable life raft and a dinghy into the water. They packed food, water and, most importantly, the technology that could save their lives in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the nearest human island. The four also managed to get a device for catching rain and a fishing rod into the lifeboats at the last second.
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Basically, collisions with whales are rare – but they happen again and again. Since the launch of a global database in 2007, there have been about 1,200 reports of clashes between whales and boats, Kate Wilson, a spokeswoman for the International Whaling Commission, told the Washington Post. The last major rescue operation following a whale accident was the sinking of a 40-foot boat off the coast of Mexico in 2009. In this case, the crew was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. The historical incident that once inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby-Dick” also took place in the Pacific. The ship Essex was also en route west from the Galápagos Islands when it was rammed by a sperm whale in 1820. The captain and some crew members had to endure around three months, eventually resorting to cannibalism, before being rescued.
Everything “well under control” thanks to technology
Thanks to the modern technology on board, the crew did not have such worries. “There was never really a big fear that we were in mortal danger,” Rodriguez told US media. “Everything was as well under control as could be for a sinking boat.” Rodriguez made a Mayday call on the VHF radio and triggered the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). The distress signal was received by officials in Peru who alerted the US Coast Guard’s District 11 in Alameda, California, which oversees US ships in the Pacific.
Rodriguez also managed to send a message to a fellow sailor asking for his help. But the battery performance of his Iridium Go, a satellite Wi-Fi hotspot, was not optimal. According to the Washington Post, it was charged to just 32 percent at the time of the accident. The phone paired with it also only had 40 percent battery power and that of an external power bank was 25 percent.
rescue within hours
But the communications were sufficient – Rodriguez was able to transmit detailed information about their location and also activate a Globalstar spot tracker, which transmitted the position of the liferaft every few minutes. He also used his VHF radio to broadcast a mayday call every hour. With so much modern technology, the rescue went faster than expected, despite the vastness of the Pacific. A little bit of luck also played a role: The “Raindancer” happened to be on the same route as about two dozen boats taking part in a sailing rally around the world. A merchant ship was also only 90 miles south of the capsized and changed course. Ultimately, several boats were on their way to the unfortunate crew.
Nevertheless, everyone expected that it would take about a day until the actual rescue. In fact, it was less than ten hours. The crew was finally rescued by another sailboat from the USA, whose skipper was surprised at how quickly he found the life raft. But the unfortunate crew had already spotted his boat’s lights from several miles away, made contact on the VHF radio, and launched a flare. In addition, Rodriguez activated a beacon, a small electronic device that transmits both the GPS position and AIS, the so-called Automatic Identification System, and thus exchanges position, course and speed. In addition to the quick rescue, modern technology also made the interview with the Washington Post possible. Thanks to a satellite phone, Rodriguez was already on board the boat that rescued him and his crew.