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Four rescued after whale holes sailboat

The ILC 40 was returning to California after racing in the West Marine Pacific Cup

The ILC 40 was returning to California after racing in the West Marine Pacific Cup

Nick Barran had been looking forward to sailing his ILC 40, Mureadritta’s XL, back to San Francisco from Kaneohe, Hawaii. He and his three-person crew had competed in the West Marine Pacific Cup, placing fourth in their division and 14th overall in a fleet of more than 40 boats.

The team’s return passage to the Golden State, however, wasn’t nearly as successful. On July 25, 415 miles out of Hawaii, the boat was struck and sunk by what the skipper and crew believe was a sperm whale.

“We were about 2-1/2 days out, dawn had just broken, and we had changed watch,” says Barran in an interview with Soundings. “Our watch captain spotted a big splash about a mile ahead.”

Barran pushed Mureadritta’s XL for about a half-mile and saw the spouts of whales. The skipper says he altered course to port to keep clear. “I thought we passed them, but then there was this sudden, almighty crash, and we began taking on water — a lot of water,” says Barran, 64, of Northridge, Calif.

At the moment of impact, Barran says, the sail trimmer saw a whale’s dorsal fin on the boat’s port side, where the hull was holed. Barran activated the electric and manual bilge pumps and attempted to plug the breach with a sail. “I tried to stem the inflow of water so we could concentrate on bailing, but clearly that was not working,” he says. “We did that for about 10 minutes, then I activated the EPIRB. I knew we were in some serious trouble.”

Barran placed several mayday calls over the VHF and satellite phone but received no response. After about 30 minutes the skipper ordered the crew to bring the eight-person life raft on deck and load it with supplies. “The bow was beginning to settle down into the water, and the water in the boat was about knee deep,” Barran says. “As quickly as we could we stocked the life raft with 15 gallons of water, [rations packs], warm clothing, hand-held VHF and GPS, satellite phones, flares and a first-aid kit. Even with only four people on board we were packed in pretty tight. We were fortunate the weather was nice and the waves were only about 3 to 5 feet. If it was worse we would have been thrown around.”

Once everyone was in the life raft Barran used his old Boy Scout knife to cut the line tethering the raft to the sinking boat. The raft drifted about 100 yards but within minutes was drifting back toward Mureadritta’s XL. “It must have been a combination of the waves, wind and current,” Barran says. “We were pushed back and then up and over the lifelines. I was afraid the stanchions would puncture the raft. It was a very worrying moment. The raft drifted away from the boat again after a number of minutes, thank goodness.” Not long after, Mureadritta’s XL — which was insured — slipped below the surface.

At about 11 a.m. a Coast Guard Hercules C-130 aircraft spotted the drifting sailors and sent out a call for good Samaritans in the area. The Maersk Darwin, a cargo ship bound for China, was about 90 miles away and agreed to rescue Barran and crew.

Around two hours after being taken aboard the Maersk Darwin the sailors were transferred to the 85-foot fishing trawler Kami M. “There was a bit of a collision when we were getting aboard the Kami M,” Barran says. “The trawler and the cargo vessel bumped, and the Kami M suffered some damage. So the cargo vessel crew launched a lifeboat with us on board. We struggled some getting alongside the Kami M, but we made a jump up to the top rail, and all was well.”

On July 28 the sailors disembarked at Honolulu Harbor. No one was injured in the ordeal, and Barran says he is glad that everyone involved is well, and that they were well-prepared for an emergency.

“I’ve sailed with whales all over the world,” he says. “You always try to stay away from them, but if they come up to you, there’s not much you can do. I think this all goes to show that anything can happen at sea and that preparedness is absolutely crucial.”