January 4, 2011

Right Whale Collision Story from 2009

With the recent sightings of whales off our shore, it reminded me of a story last year about a SC boater who struck a right whale while 12 miles out at sea. Mike Price had posted his account on a message board (I was unable to find the original source) and it served as a friendly reminder to all boaters that they always needed to be prepared for any possible emergencies. As you will see from his harrowing story, he was well prepared and was able to handle the situation quite well. Of course the Coast Guard, as always, was well deserving of accolades. So with whale migration season upon us, be as mindful as possible and always follow safe boating practices.

Our boat, the Glory Days, is a 30’ Pursuit Express, my wife Carol and I were traveling north from Hilton Head SC back to Seabrook in the ocean about 12 miles east of Port Royal Sound. I was cruising at 23 knots and the ocean was very calm, maybe one foot chop with the wind out of the SE. All of a sudden it felt like we had run aground but we were in 50 feet of water. There was a loud bang and the boat shuttered violently, Carol was thrown through the air and landed in the cockpit. I throttled back immediately and looked back to see what we hit but I couldn’t see anything.

I opened the engine day hatch and it looked like water was shooting in from a fire hose. I immediately called in a mayday on channel 16 and raised the coast guard station on Tybee Island . I relayed my lat/lon position and they dispatched a helo. I couldn’t hear them too well but apparently they had good reception from me. At this point I still had forward steerage way and I pointed the boat toward shore.

I went into the cabin to get the life raft and EPIRB and brought them both out on deck. As I looked up I saw a whale surface about 50 yards from the boat. The whale was at least as big as the boat, the fluke seemed over 8 feet in diameter and I saw blood coming out of the top of the whale. Carol was getting the life jackets and I called her to the cockpit and she saw it too. The coast guard helo later identified it as a right whale and it was swimming when they saw it so I hope it survived the collision.

We put on life jackets and attached the tether from the life raft to the stern cleat and got it ready to deploy. It took about 10 minutes for the coast guard helo to reach us. I asked the coast guard if we should deploy the raft or wait and they suggested waiting because they were directing a fishing boat that was in the area to assist us. About 10 minutes later a 25 foot center console arrived on seen, it was a fishing charter called Big Time and Carol moved to this boat. Many thanks to Captain Jason Dubose for staying with us.

By this time water had risen to about two feet in the engine room, the battery was submerged and the port engine had quit. The water was about one foot in the cabin. The starboard engine was still running and I shut it down because the high water alarm was sounding and it looked like it would be submerged soon. At this point I transferred some gear to the Big Time because I expected the Glory Days would sink soon.

The coast guard helo indicated that they had a boat in route coming out of Port Royal sound, we were lucky that they happened to be on patrol in that area. They arrived on site about 20 minutes after the Big Time got there. Three coastguards’ men transferred to Glory Days, one was an engineer named Ryan. He lifted the hatches and looked around for the leak. After a few minutes he noted that the port shaft was no longer connected to the transmission and the water was coming in fast from the hole in the hull. He then went to work plugging the hole. I had several wooden bungs and we cut one down to fit the hole (I had a saw on board).

At this point both bilge pumps were still running and we had two hand pumps but we were not keeping up with the flow of water which was about 2 feet in the engine room and cabin. Ryan was having a hard time fixing the leak because he was half in the water in the bilge and was getting zapped by the current running through everything he touched.

The helo had gone back to base to pick up a portable pump and air dropped it to another coast guard vessel that arrived on scene, this was a 41 footer out of Tybee station. This vessel transferred the pump to the Glory Days and once they got it working it evacuated the water quickly. At the same time Ryan was able to slow the leak by shoving rags and the bung into the hole. He was amazing and stuck with it. Once the leak stopped and the water was pumped out we checked the fluids in the starboard engine and restarted it. We were able to come in on one engine but Ryan and Jon both stayed with me (and the pump) in case plug in the shaft hole didn’t hold.

The coast guard 25 footer now had Carol aboard and escorted us for about a 21/2 hour ride to Skull Creek Marina. When we got there they were ready to pull the boat and immediately got it into the lift. When it came out the port shaft and prop were missing, the strut was bent at a 90 degree angle to the right, and the port rudder was bent at a 45 degree angle back. There are deep gauges in the keel where the prop spun through the fiberglass and deep cuts in the port rudder. The violence of the impact was amazing. We estimate that the whale was heading for us and surfaced head first into the port running gear since everything seemed pushed back and to the side.

Quite a day! It is certainly a wake up call that anything can happen at any time in the ocean.

I was well equipped with safety gear. Although a life raft, epirb, off shore jackets, hand held vhf and gps adds up in cost – it seemed really cheap last Tuesday when we were taking water and 10 minutes from sinking. If this had happened in the Gulf Stream chances are not as good that the Coast Guard would be on station as quickly and we would have ended up in the raft. “Don’t leave home without one!”

The Glory Days is severely damaged and may be a total loss but that is in the hands of the insurance company. Carol and I are fine and I hope the whale is too!

Mike Price

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