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Sunk by a whale in the middle of the Pacific ocean

Nov 13, 2023Nov 13, 2023

Rick Rodriguez and crew were 1,200 miles from the Marquesas in the pacific when their yacht sank within minutes. He shares their tale

"Tommy, this is no joke," Rick Rodriguez messaged to his friend and fellow skipper Tommy Joyce. "We hit a whale and the ship went down. We are in the liferaft."

In March this year American sailor Rodriguez and three friends – his girlfriend Alana Litz, together with Bianca Brateanu and Simon Fischer – were in the midst of the voyage of a lifetime, cruising the Pacific on Rodriguez's lovingly restored 1976 Kelly Peterson 44, Raindancer. The crew had enjoyed exploring the Galapagos, and were heading to the Marquesas in French Polynesia – something Rodriguez had been dreaming of for decades.

The SV Raindancer crew ran a small YouTube channel. Shortly before setting off on their long Pacific passage, Fischer posted a video titled The Purpose of Life musing on their forthcoming adventure. It ended with a quote from James Thurber: "To see the world, things dangerous to come to…. That is the purpose of life."

It proved unknowingly apt. Raindancer never made it to the Marquesas: 1,200 miles from French Polynesia the yacht suddenly hit a whale, and within minutes began taking on water. The crew hurriedly abandoned ship in the middle of the world's biggest ocean. Their story became a news sensation, and before they’d even made

it safely ashore the foursome were featured on news channels around the world. But while their situation was dramatic, it was the crew's quick thinking, and a combination of traditional seamanship in an emergency, together with the smart use of latest technology, that led to their swift rescue. Rodriguez picks up the story of what happened on 13 March, 2023:

Raindancer's Winslow liferaft was well equipped, but as backup the crew also launched the yacht's inflatable dinghy. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

"We were 13 days into the trip, just two days after we’d reached our halfway mark, and our total mileage was about 3,100 miles. That included dipping south from the Galapagos to pick up the tradewinds and then heading west. The winds had been pretty light most of the time, and that morning they picked up just enough to where we were able to put out the headsail and the full main. We were sailing at a broad reach, around 120° apparent wind angle, and making anywhere between 5-6.5 knots. It was pretty light winds, but Raindancer was always a pretty quick boat for an old heavy one, a beautiful balance of strength and construction and speed. I’ll miss it a lot.

"We had beautiful weather, maybe 1m of seas max.

We were late for lunch but we wanted to splurge a little bit, and Bianca was making some pizza. We have a small oven on the boat, so one pizza at a time. The second had just come out, and that's when we felt a massive impact.

"Initially, my first reaction was ‘What the hell did we just hit’? We didn't hit a reef. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere.

"Seconds afterwards, Alana was first to see the whale. As I looked over to port, I saw the whale too, and saw the blood gushing out, a lot of blood. Almost immediately, the high water bilge alarm came on, as water rushed in."

Rodriguez says they initially assumed they’d collided with the whale head-on, but it soon became evident the whale had somehow hit the boat further aft, around the propeller area.

"My initial thought was that, if anything, the water's got to be coming from the bow. But we checked the bilges and saw that it was coming from the stern. By that time the water was literally over the floor.

"It wasn't as if the whale was on the surface and we ran into it, because I think the boat is strong enough and we would have been fine to survive that. But we got hit from the bottom, like the whale was swimming up, and so it was more of a lifting and to the side motion.

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"There was a loud crash and the whole rig shook violently. You could hear some type of metal breakage from the impact. And that was because we got hit directly on the propeller, which transferred the load to the prop shaft and busted open the whole shaft log. We were hit at our most vulnerable point."

Nobody knows why or how the whale and yacht collided. "Whether it was a freak accident, whether the whale came up at the wrong time to breach, which some scientists seem to think may be the case," says Rodriguez. "But I just think the odds are so slim, that maybe the whale was protecting its calf and it decided to go after us."

Rational thinking by skipper Rodriguez and his crew led to a text book rescue. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

Whatever the cause, the damage was severe. "There was so much water coming in that I already knew…" Rodriguez recalls. "I told everybody to start prepping to abandon ship and get the ditch bag, liferaft, and all the supplies ready. On my way outside I pulled an EPIRB. I set it off because at that point I was very confident we were going down."

The crew immediately switched into emergency mode. "On my way back out, I helped carry the liferaft out. I made my first Mayday call and deployed the raft. And then I realised the sails were still up and there was a lot of tension on the raft, so we put the sails away. I also saw Simon and Alana trying to launch the dinghy off the bow, which was a great idea of theirs."

While the crew loaded supplies into the raft and tender, Rodriguez went to inspect the damage and see if he could stem the flood. "I got my mask and fins and jumped overboard with a tarp as that was the first thing I could find that was laying around on deck for plugging the hole. I immediately saw the damage. The first and biggest hole was that the whole area had opened up around the prop shaft. And then there were big cracks at the base of the skeg, full length and full depth. Water was coming in through them also, but my main focus initially was on the hole around the prop shaft, but I couldn't get anything to stick.

"I probably spent a good two to three minutes underwater in between breaths, trying to tie the tarp or shove it in some way that would work.

"And then I just realised it was a lost cause. The boat was already halfway full or more with water."

There was a brief surreal moment when Rodriguez realised Raindancer also still had a trolling line out.

The Raindancer crew. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

"We were scared that the fishing lines would pop the liferaft so I had Simon reel it in. It turns out there was actually a tuna on the other end of the line, so we literally threw it directly into the dinghy. Okay, I thought, I guess we’re having fresh skipjack tuna tonight for dinner!"

Rodriguez made a final walk around the deck of his yacht. "At this point, the girls were on the dinghy, which was attached to the liferaft, and the raft was still attached to the boat. The toerail was less than a foot away from going under at that point. And I told everybody, once that rail goes under, she's going down very fast.

"I paused on the aft deck with Simon for a few seconds, and took a moment to say goodbye to Raindancer. It was just such a crazy scene, like something out of a movie with the floorboards floating, and people walking through the boat in chest high water trying to gather things. Then I stepped right off the boat as the rail went under and swam maybe 15ft to the liferaft.

"Conditions were calm and I’m a very good swimmer, but by the time I got into the liferaft and turned around, the final thing I could see was the last 8ft of the mast sinking very fast. And the liferaft painter was still attached to the boat.

"Alana noticed we were still attached, and it was quite a scary moment. She was saying, ‘Cut the line, we’re going to get pulled under!’ I had a Leatherman knife – the first thing I did was put it in my pocket – so I pulled it out and cut the line. And all of a sudden, we were just sitting there and the boat was gone." Rodriguez estimates the total time from impact to sinking was no more than 15 minutes.

Raindancer and her crew were heading across the Pacific for the Marquesas when the whale strike occurred. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

With only disturbed water and detritus where minutes before Raindancer had been, Rodriguez and crew turned their attention to rescue and utilising all the tools they had at their disposal.

"I have two EPIRBs – the one I set off five minutes after we got hit, which we kept in the cockpit and made sure it made it to the liferaft as well – and another already in the ditch bag.

"We also had a Globalstar SPOT tracker that has an SOS function on it. We had our IridiumGO! and three personal AIS beacons, which are obviously mostly for man overboard situations, but in our case in the liferaft were good to have if somebody was nearby, as they can show up on any AIS-capable chartplotter. We also had our handheld VHF radio, which I’ve always thought was one of the most critical pieces of equipment in a ditch bag, to be able to actually call any boats that you may see."

hale heading for the surface may have been the cause of Raindancer's sudden sinking. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

Once in the raft, they hit the SOS function on all devices, but there was one problem: the IridiumGO!, which many boats use for general communication, was low on battery. "Just before we got hit, we’d been using the Iridium in the cockpit to send messages. We’d put it to charge at 10%, then by the time we had it in the raft, it was around 32%." They sent messages to Tommy Joyce, who was making the same passage aboard his Moody 47 Southern Cross and was some 200 miles behind, Rodriguez's brother ashore, and another yacht they knew. "I told them our co-ordinates. I told them what had happened," explained Rodriguez. Then they turned off the IridiumGO! to preserve battery, and waited.

Two hours later, when they turned the device back on, it was flooded with messages. "The main ones were from Tommy. He said: ‘Hey, we got you, man. We’re sharing your co-ordinates with everybody. The whole World ARC knows, the US Coast Guard knows. Don't worry, we’re going to get you.’ That made us feel very comfortable at that point."

In fact Rodriguez's first action, setting off the EPIRB before abandoning ship, had alerted the Peruvian Coast Guard. The US Coast Guard was also quickly made aware, and a ship was diverted towards their position.

Meanwhile, after receiving Rodriguez's message, Joyce, who was running RV Starlink aboard Southern Cross, shared a post about the Raindancer crew's predicament on Facebook. That was picked up by multiple other boats which also had Starlink internet connection, including several from the World ARC rally on their Pacific leg. These boats connected via instant message on a ‘Pacific Rescue Raindancer’ Whatsapp group.

The closest yacht to Raindancer's position was the Leopard 45 catamaran, Rolling Stones, skippered by Geoff Stone. Stone's brother spotted the post on social media, and the crew diverted to assist. They arrived nine hours after the sinking. As Rolling Stones approached, Rodriguez let off one rocket flare and activated his personal AIS beacon to help them locate their exact position, and prepared for a mid-Pacific transfer in the dark.

"I was telling everyone, guys, this may be the most dangerous part of it all, because I’ve had to rescue dinghies in the middle of the night before and I know that it can be quite dangerous in a seaway. So the first thing we did was consolidate our things into bags of essential stuff that we wanted to bring onto Rolling Stones. Then the plan was to get into the dinghy and detach ourselves from the liferaft, because the raft had a sea anchor attached to it and we wanted to put Geoff in a situation where he could approach us and not have to worry about obstacles in the water. I suggested that plan to Geoff on the radio, and once they got close enough, we put all our stuff in the dinghy, untied ourselves from the raft, and drifted back.

"As Rolling Stones approached us, we had two lines ready to throw to them from the dinghy, because one of the things we did was grab a couple of extra very long lines when we were abandoning ship. So we had a bow and a stern line set up, chucked them over to two of their crewmembers, and they brought us alongside. And then we naturally drifted into their sugar scoop, and one by one we timed the waves and just jumped into their cockpit.

I was the last one off the dinghy. And the next thing you know, we’re sitting in the cockpit with four strangers."

odriguez and Litz in the dinghy safely tethered to the liferaft with Fischer and Brateanu. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

On the face of it, Raindancer's remarkable story is the first Starlink-enabled mid-ocean rescue. Just as high speed onboard internet helped Vendée Globe sailors use Whatsapp and Skype to co-ordinate the successful rescue of Kevin Escoffier in 2021, so Starlink's instant connectivity and the ability to post on social media meant more boats were quickly aware of Raindancer's plight. But Rodriguez is keen to emphasise that the conventional rescue protocols worked smoothly, and rapidly. Having redundancy of communication systems is more important than having the latest innovation.

"I think it's really important to have multiple different devices that can all save you and it's actually quite comforting to know that if you have all this equipment it works as it's supposed to. But even though Starlink made things much easier, there was also a container ship there that was ready to pick us up at basically the same time. That was all driven by the Coast Guard, which was alerted by our EPRIB. I just want to make sure that everybody still has confidence in the rescue system and all the marine devices," he explains.

The Raindancer crew make it safely aboard the Leopard 45 Rolling Stones. Photo: Rick Rodriguez

While Rodriguez praises his liferaft, a Winslow model, for working "exactly how it's supposed to" and being well-equipped, he says also having the dinghy made a huge psychological difference. "Honestly, our whole perception changed because we had the dinghy tied to the raft. It just made it feel that much safer that we had two floating things that all four of us could be in at once."

The crew secured the raft and tender dinghy together using shock cord tethers from their Type V lifejackets to reduce the jerking motion between the two.

Other safety routines proved irrelevant. For example the crew didn't don inflatable lifejackets before abandoning ship, because the seas were calm and they’d have hindered their ability to move through the rapidly flooding boat grabbing supplies. Much of the kit they did take – long lines, ample food and water, multiple communication devices and head torches, proved invaluable in their rescue transfer. Initial attempts to pump out the yacht also proved fruitless.

"I think about it a lot and whether I could have done things differently. If the water was coming in slower, we would have done more. But it was just one of those decisions I made: to put the safety of everyone else first and not spend so much time trying to save my boat. To me, it was about getting everything ready to survive first."

Rick Rodriguez and crew were 1,200 miles from the Marquesas in the pacific when their yacht sank within minutes. He shares their tale