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Whales a bigger collision threat than ships?

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #93 November/December 1998

From Ocean Navigator #93 November/December 1998

A major concern of blue-water cruising sailors is the specter of a large ship coming over the horizon, or out of a fog bank, on a collision course. The modern containership cruises at speeds in excess of 20 knots, which means that in a heavy fog with one-quarter-mile visibility, they can run you down in less than one minute.

A very sobering thought. Needless to say, the person on watch at the helm of a voyaging sailboat spends an inordinate amount of time scanning the horizon.

On a recent voyage in our yawl Empiricus out and back from the Puget Sound to Hawaii, my wife and I logged about 6,000 miles. During the passage we sighted some 15 large ships. While three of them actually altered course to avoid collision, none of them presented us with a hazardous situation.

Our most hair-raising near collisions were with two different whales. On separate occasions we had whales surfacing immediately alongside the boat. Strangely enough, the incidents were almost identical. They both came up under the port quarter so close that one could have reached out from the cockpit and easily rubbed their sides. After having surfaced, they promptly blew, then dived, never to be seen again.

It is possible that both sightings were of the same whale. However, the two events were separated by several hundred miles, which makes the one-whale theory a pretty thin conjecture. Our most memorable near collision occurred on a warm sunny day about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii, on our return trip. I was at the wheel on watch, on a northeasterly course, in a light breeze, with the boat moving at about four to five knots. On one of my horizon scans, I saw the fan spray of mist from a blowing whale just as he came over the horizon.

I got the binoculars to see if I could see further signs of him along the horizon. The next spout was nearer to me on a direct line with the previous one, with quite a distance between them. As I continued to watch, he spouted again, this time even closer and still on a direct line with my bow.

That baby is traveling, I said to myself, and we're on a collision course. He's got a load of fat and a belly full of Alaskan krill, and he's heading toward his winter home in Hawaii. Do I want to play chicken with him?

I watched with mounting apprehension as he continued to spout directly down my course line. I noticed that I could see more and more of his hump as he came closer, and assumed he was surfacing so he could better see the strange object that was blocking his path.

When he was about 100 yards ahead of me, and I was on the verge of a panic course change, I saw his whole back come up out of the water in a great arc. His head went down and his tail section came up out of the water in a vertical position, with the huge fan of his great forked tail dozens of feet in the air. Then he slowly slid below the surface in a perfect vertical dive, leaving not a ripple on the surface of the ocean.

I stood open-mouthed and in wonder as I watched the perfect demonstration of collision avoidance by one of Mother Nature's more intelligent and magnificent creatures.

I watched and waited for him to come up on either side of the boat, but nothing happened. I turned and looked aft and there he was, swimming right down my wake, undeterred, still on his way to his winter home.