Growing up on and around boats, I have seen and felt the ocean’s power. I know the stories of the sailors that drifted at sea for weeks, even months, before rescue. I know the stories of the sailors that did not return. They are plentiful. The sea is not selective, it does not take only the novice, inexperienced, or underprepared. I have always had a healthy respect for the ocean, but I have never feared it. Until now.
On May 9 we loaded the boat up with fuel and headed out of the marina in Monterey. Favorable winds allowed us to raise the main and headsail as we tacked our way through the bay. Almost immediately we came upon crab pots and spent most of the next two days trying to avoid running over their buoys and lines, which was no easy feat. We also saw a couple of sharks in the bay. By far, though, our biggest challenge was with whales.
There was an abundance of whales during whale migration this year. All along the Pacific Coast, bays reported more whales than in recent memory and more rare whale sightings than ever before. We had seen a couple of them on our way into Monterey, but it was nothing like what we saw when leaving. They were everywhere. In the days around our departure there were sightings of hundreds of humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales, fin whales, killer whales, and thousands of dolphins within Monterey Bay. There were whales in every direction. It was a spectacular sight, and then in an instant it was terrifying.
We were nearing the edge of the bay and had seen a few whales at a considerable distance on both sides of the boat that we had passed by, and so we thought we were nearing the edge of where they were feeding. I just happened to glance ahead to the bow of the boat when I saw a whale surfaced, right on the bow of the boat. “WHALE! BOW! What do we do? …Turn to starboard…” KA-THUD!
The boat lurched.
There is no mistaking the sound that a boat makes when it hits something. It is loud, like in your soul loud, it is unmistakable, and it is something that no boat owner ever wants to hear. I ran forward but could not identify any damage to the boat. Dad checked the bilge and there was no water entering the boat. We all sat in shock and disbelief.
We believe it was a fin whale, the second largest animal on Earth, and endangered.
Dolphins play alongside boats all the time, but they are small and fast and seem knowledgeable about the movement of a boat and their proximity to it. I had not anticipated that a whale would venture near the boat. Certainly none of us expected a whale to surface on our bow.
This story is one we’ve debated whether or not to tell, and whether or not to be more vague in the details (we hit “something” rather than we hit a whale). It’s not because we necessarily feel that we did anything wrong. We’ve discussed what other actions we could have taken. Turning the boat sometime before this incident occurred would have put us on course with other whales in either direction. I was the only person who could have seen the whale surface because of where I was located and it was pure coincidence that I even saw the whale at all. We had no reaction time between when I first spotted the whale and we hit it. We could have slowed or stopped the boat, but likely not in time to have changed the outcome, and we weren’t going that fast either. So why the debate over whether or not to tell it? Perhaps it is pride or someone else having a different opinion than we had in the moment or that we do with hindsight. Who wants to admit they hit a whale?
We have chosen to tell the story as it was because it is what happened. Sometimes in the world of boating we gloss over the nitty gritty, the tough and rough and impossible, the terrifying and embarrassing (e.g., rail rot). We paint the picture of glassy seas and cocktails in bikinis. Sometimes we hyperbolize – 50 foot seas and 75 knots of wind! Ultimately this is life on the sea, as it is.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening painstakingly watching the ocean for more whales. As they would surface we would track them, how far out and where are they going? “WHALE, starboard bow,” we’d point at it, follow its unpredictable movements, slow down, wait. Every blowhole and breach, every strange looking wave was scrutinized. I waited for retaliation. I waited for our Essex moment. Thankfully that did not happen. But it was a very long, anxiety-filled night. More crab pots, more whales, more ships, and rolling seas.Our bobstay stem, now needing replacement for the second time.
For weeks we would Google “whale, Monterey Bay,” to ensure that we had not killed the whale. So far as we can tell, we hadn’t. Two weeks after our encounter, a fishing boat sank in Monterey Bay and the man aboard drowned, there has been speculation that he hit a whale. We would see whales nearly every day for the next two weeks. Each time we’d track their movements and do everything we could to avoid them, sometimes going miles out of the way.
When we arrived in Half Moon Bay, our scheduled stop, we found the damage that the whale did to the boat. The bobstay we had just replaced in San Diego before leaving on our trip was bent. It will need to be replaced…again. We were faced with a decision: Stop for repairs and risk having to truck the boat home because of time, or keep going and risk damage to the boat? We kept going.