In April last year, as 15 boats set sail from New Plymouth (New Zealand) to Mooloolaba (Queensland, Australia), for the 2007 Solo Transtasman race, there was one sailor missing, Lindsay Wright, whose trimaran had been holed by a whale in January.
Encountering whales -both thrilling and alarming for a sailor
Here he tells the story of how his 31ft Newark Val trimaran Loose Goose, came to a sticky end while en route from Auckland to New Plymouth:
Lindsay, tell us about the loss of Loose Goose in January. How did it happen?
Loose Goose was a Newark Val 31 trimaran which I was bringing from Auckland to New Plymouth. I was going to use her to enter the Solo Tasman yacht race, New Plymouth to Mooloolaba … and part of the requirement is to do 400 miles qualifying, which is why I was bringing her round.
I was 22 hours south of Cape Reinga and just 100 or so nautical miles off the Waikato River. I’d been pretty hard all night under a double-reef main and a storm jib; the auto pilot couldn’t handle it, so I hand-steered it and just had a great night doing 12-15 knots.
Anyway, I dropped the main in the morning, lashed that down, then I went down below, cooked myself some bacon and eggs, then lay down in my wet weather gear to have a bit of a nap.
I had been napping for about an hour when there was a loud crack noise and the rigging went biiiinnng. My immediate thought was, oh, the wind’s changed and I’ve gybed the storm jib.
So I jumped out of bed straight into knee-deep water and jumped up on deck and at right angles to the starboard side there was a big bull humpback with his head maybe, I don’t know, 20 centimetres, maybe 30 centimetres from the side of the boat.
When I jumped up on deck and first saw him, I thought shit, he’s come back for the coup de grace, he’s come back to finish me off. I sort of walked a few steps and grabbed hold of the starboard outer shroud and just stood there, and he sat there and we just stayed there for, I don’t know, maybe half a minute or a minute or a minute and a half. And then he just sank in situ, rolled over onto his starboard side and just swam really close under the bow, maybe 10 or 20 centimetres away from the bow. I later found there was a big hole in the port bow.
So what do you reckon happened? Do you think you startled him and that’s what did it?
I suspect he was making way as well because I was only doing 5 or 6 knots and it was blowing 25-30 knots of wind, with a 3 to 4 metre sea running. When I hit him - his instinct would have been to sound, and when he sounded he would have flipped his tail up and knocked a hole in the hull.
There was a hole about a metre square about a metre and a half aft of the port bow and just below the waterline. The top of it was just right on the waterline.
So what happened after that?
For a start he was making these loud clicking noises. Then he sank and swam under the bow and then these five other whales turned up, in various stages of maturity and they were just inseparable, they swam together. But they all turned up from downwind of me and they all just swam right under the bow like the big old male had. Then they came back under the stern and they just swam really closely round me for about quarter of an hour.
I remember standing on the wing deck and looking down, seeing this big male coming up and as he swam under the wing deck he started and I could feel the vibration up through my feet, up through my sea boots.
Had you set your EPIRB off by then?
No I hadn’t, no, I was still sort of gobsmacked by the whole thing.
But you didn’t feel threatened or anything like that?
No, I didn’t, no. There was an initial, 'Oh, shit, he’s come back to finish me off.' Then I realized he wasn’t and there was no malice in it. And I just had the feeling from the whole lot of them, that somehow there was a general sort of ambience or general feeling that they were just as bewildered and worried about it as I was.
Were they just curious about it?
Just curious about it maybe, yeah, with the swimming around. They swam round me for maybe 15 minutes, and then they moved off about 30 metres and they all swam round together there for a while.
Once they moved off, I tried to fother the hole with a tarpaulin in the forepeak which I could see was sort of half out of the hole. I grabbed that and I tried to lash it over the hole so I could attempt to bail her out. But it was just a waste of time. There was too much wave movement and it kept on blowing it off and I couldn’t get ropes round it, so I gave up.
By that time the water inside was about chest deep, so I reached inside the main hatch, grabbed the 406 EPIRB, set that off and stuck it up in the furled main on the boom. And then went inside and waded right through to the forward bulkhead where the 121.5 EPIRB was and did the same with that.
So how long after the collision was this?
That I set the EPIRBs off? About 30 minutes I’d say, 30 minutes to 45. I took some time trying to fother her and get that sorted out. I believe the wait for the rescue chopper took a few hours. Yeah, apparently I set the alarm off at 10 to one. They picked it up at one o’clock, that’s 1300 hours, and they called my wife Sarah at 10 past. And she told me they were saying things like, are you sure he’s not just seasick and wants to be taken off, and things like that. And she put them right on that score.
Their official excuse is that they were just making sure it wasn’t a hoax call or a mistake call. But yeah, it took them five hours. I suspect there was also some politicking going on with the choppers. Cause I finally got taken off by a helicopter from Whangarei in the north, it had flown from Whangarei to Auckland, and then out to me.
So did you think that they might have thought an EPIRB alarm from 100 nautical miles out to sea was a hoax?
That does seem a bit strange, and particularly with a 406 EPIRB. And they had made contact with my wife.
They knew exactly who you were.
They should have figured out by then it was a bona fide call. I was actually finally taken off after six. So it was a good five hours from the time I set the 406 off.
And you were getting a bit worried by then?
I was starting to get a bit worried, yeah. The weather was deteriorating a wee bit, it was starting to get a bit dark and the odd wave was coming across the boat. The odd big wave would come through, she was settling by the stern quite fast. The outboard motor was underwater on the stern and the odd wave was coming over the deck at sixty centimetres high.
Did you have a life raft on board?
I had an inflatable dinghy, all blown up and ready to go when the chopper arrived.
And I hear you’ve had a bit of news about Loose Goose
Yeah, she was towed into Raglan, just a small port near the city of Hamilton.
So how long since you’d been lifted off was she retreived?
Two and half weeks. So she’d been floating round all that time. Actually, I had another report from a boat called Cruise Away; she was on her way from Nelson to Auckland, and they saw her and they gave me a position which I plotted and it didn’t seem right… it was 85 miles northwest of New Plymouth, about a week before she was actually found, a long way east of the position they’d given me.
Mast still up and everything?
Mast still up and everything. And it’s one of the things that sold my wife Sarah on me doing the race – the trimarans, they don’t sink – and she didn’t, she floated around. She was awash, she was just awash, but the mast stayed up and everything looked pretty good.
And then a recreational fisherman picked her up. Towed her to Raglan, and the NZ Coastguard took her over the bar in Raglan. Unfortunately, they just dragged her up on the beach, which smashed her rudder and ripped a couple of holes in the stern. And she’s also got a lot of damage to