July 22, 2010

A whale of a tale

(Check in every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

TOO MANY PEOPLE talk too much rubbish about sailing. Columnist Jean Howard recently commented on that extraordinary incident off Cape Town, when a young Southern Right Whale leaped out of the water and crashed into a 33-foot steel yacht under sail, bringing down its mast.

Howard said: “When you are around a whale or shark, you have to realize the immediate danger and potential risk you are taking, whether you are a trained professional or not.”

Well duh! And how does Ms Howard think a sailboat can keep out of the way of a whale? It’s all very well to say that you have to keep at least 1,000 yards away from whales, but how the heck do you know if you’re 1,000 yards away from a whale? I wonder if Ms Howard has ever considered that whales under water are invisible to humans on the surface.

If I see a whale blowing, I do my best to determine which way it is traveling, and maneuver to keep well away, because I am dead scared of whales and have no wish to see one close-up. But it’s not often easy to estimate a whale’s track from the low vantage point of a sailboat, especially if there’s any kind of swell running.

Just last year, in my 27-foot Cape Dory, I found myself running into a pod of killer whales on a reciprocal course. They were slightly off to starboard, so I cut the engine and steered to port – only to find two more ahead, coming my way, on the port side. I held my breath while they flashed by on either side. What would an expert like Ms Howard have done, I wonder? Maybe, with the help of her angel wings, she would have levitated.

It was this sort of whale that knocked the fin keel off a 30-foot boat in the first Cape to Rio Race in 1971 and sank it a thousand miles from land. I didn’t need to be reminded by a landlubber how dangerous they are.

When I first saw the picture of the Cape Town whale, I was skeptical. I thought the major miracle was the fact that someone somehow managed to get a picture of the action. I naturally thought the photo was falsified. Photoshop has a lot to answer for. There’s no knowing these days if a picture is genuine or not. But it turned out that several boats were out whale-watching, and the tourists had their cameras to their eyes.

Luckily, no one was hurt and the damage to that tough steel boat was less than you might expect. The couple on board managed to motor home, badly shaken but with one humdinger of a story to tell — and pictures to prove it.

Today’s Thought
If the danger seems slight, then truly it is not slight.
— Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientarium: Principiis Obstare

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #73
Height of fiddles. All seagoing yachts need fiddles. The old rule of thumb was that a yacht’s saloon table should be fitted with fiddles 1 1/2 inches high. Such fiddles, correctly spaced according to the size of plates, will keep a meal securely in place at quite steep angle of heel. They should fold down or be removable to allow other work, especially in port.

“Your car holds the road very firmly. Special suspension?”
“Nah, it’s the heavy installments.”


Andrew Haliburton said...

Skeptical; I don't believe it. Too many details don't add up to convince me that this story is real. Even National Geographic has been duped many times recently, by readers submitting fabricated images. If I had only one comment, I would have to ask: is the helmsman blind drunk, or just asleep at the wheel? There isn't even a flinch of a reaction there...

John Vigor said...

Andrew, have you seen the CBS video of this incident, and the interview with the skipper? Very convincing. It was front-page in the Cape Argus, which had the facilities to check the story and the picture, taken by a Botswana tourist in a nearby whale-watch boat.

John V.

Lily Rose said...

“somehow managed to get a picture of the action. I naturally thought the photo was falsified. Photoshop has a lot to answer for….”
it’s really unexpected….see here safe whale watching photos…

Dennis said...

A tourist visiting Cape Town from Botswana apparently took a video of the incident. This time of the year whales migrate from the Antartic to mate in our warmer waters. It is a great time to watch whales- known as Cape Town's "secret season" because rates for accommodation, restaurants and hire cars are at their lowest in winter.