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Whale vs. sailboat ‘an awesome experience’

Sailors who survived the collision and the photographer who captured it talk of scary moment off Cape Town

It's not unusual for whales to breach, like the humpback above. It is rare, however, for a whale to land on a boat.

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Talk about a Kodak moment. James Dagmore was clicking off shots of a southern right whale while on a sightseeing cruise off Cape Town, South Africa. The whale was breaching and diving - and heading toward a 32-foot sailboat.

Dagmore captured the whale in midbreach a few feet off the port side of the sailboat an instant before the 40-ton mammal landed on the boat, bringing down the rigging and nearly crushing the two sailors on board. The photograph made its way around the world, and now onto the cover of Soundings.

"I can't really explain how I got the shot," says Dagmore, a 35-year-old computer network administrator from Gaborone, Botswana, in an e-mail to Soundings. "But maybe if people saw the other images, which I took before the accident, then maybe they'd think it wasn't just by luck. I managed to get some nice pictures of the flipping tail."

There may be no tail in the famous photo, which was such a great image that media reports questioned its authenticity, but Dagmore managed to perfectly frame the whale, the sailboat and its skipper at the wheel. Dagmore also photographed the aftermath - the damaged sailboat with the mast and rigging piled on the coach roof. This photo also got its share of media play.

The mast and rigging were left a crumpled mess.

The sailors - Ralph Mothes and his partner, Paloma Werner - were uninjured, and the sailboat's steel hull remained intact, allowing the couple to motor back to Cape Town Harbour.

"It's definitely legitimate," Werner said on "The Today Show" while discussing the photo. "We were on the boat, and we saw the whale coming out. We saw it. It's legitimate. It hasn't been 'Photoshopped.' "

Southern right whales are often seen in the waters off Cape Town in the summer, but a breaching is unusual, says Mothes, who was at the helm when the whale struck his boat. "The first time it breached, it was about 300 [or] 400 yards away," says Mothes, 59, who has owned the 1984 Barens Seatrader sloop, named Intrepid, for about six years. "The second time it breached, that distance had halved, and I had the strange feeling, God, this thing could be on a collision course with us. But I never in my wildest dreams thought that the whale would land on top of the boat. If anything, I thought, It's going to go under the boat and it'll come up on the other side."

The whale came down on Intrepid only a few feet away from Mothes and Werner, who were out for a day sail on July 18, a Sunday. "If it had [breached] a second later, it would have squashed both Paloma and myself because we were in the cockpit. That's the miraculous thing," says Mothes, a sailor since the early 1970s who runs the Cape Town Sailing Academy with Werner ( "The fact that it came up and struck the mast was actually what saved us."

And without the steel hull, the accident could have been worse, he says. "You can imagine if [the hull] were fiberglass," Mothes says. "We probably would have sunk, and severe structural damage would have occurred."

The whale left bits of krill and barnacles all over Mothes, and some pieces of its skin on the deck. "Fortunately there was no blood or blubber, so I think it was just bruised," Mothes says.

"It was an awesome experience, but I would never want to repeat it," Werner, 50, said in a published report.

The scene also was scary for Dagmore and the roughly 15 others on the sightseeing boat, the amateur photographer says. "The boat driver just reminded us that this is the reason why he told us we cannot go any nearer [to the whale]," Dagmore says.

The couple has had to endure accusations in the press that they were harassing the whale. "It's upsetting," Mothes says. "I don't know of any sailor that would deliberately harass whales. We were sailing. We had watched this whale for a while, and it just started breaching, just out of the blue. We were at right angles to it, and before you know, it was on top of the boat."

Intrepid was cruising at about 3-1/2 knots when the whale struck, he says. "We didn't know that [southern right whales] have poor eyesight," Mothes says. "I was under the impression that you shouldn't have an engine on because it irritates them, but it seems you do need the engine on for them to be aware of you."

The 32-footer was repaired quickly and was back in service Aug. 8 as the academy's sail training vessel. Mothes paid for the repairs himself. To date, they have cost about $5,500, and he anticipates spending another $1,370 for a new spray dodger.

"We had to have the genoa and the mainsail recut because the mast was about a foot shorter after they repaired it," Mothes says. "The No. 3 jib and No. 4 jib were just fine."

Mothes has periodically worked on the boat during his ownership. "She looked like a dog's breakfast when I first bought her about six years ago, but she's a brilliant boat as far as sail training in really strong winds," Mothes says. "We get winds between 30 to 40 knots. I go out in it. It's a great training for students. She handles it."

The accident and photo have been - and will be - good for the academy's business, Mothes says.

Dagmore says some friends have suggested he take up photography full time, but for now he'll stick with it as a hobby. "I was joking with my friends that I'm just waiting for Kodak to contact me so I can [promote] their products," he says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.