Theo Wakefield’s boat was significantly damaged and his nerves shaken after an encounter with orcas off Portugal

Departing Nazaré, Portugal at around 0900, we headed south. The day started with no wind and a sizeable swell. The flogging of the sails was incessant but we – my reliable crewman Pál and I – were well rested and were very accustomed to this coast’s flaky morning winds.

Around midday the wind picked up and backed 90° to our starboard side. We enthusiastically engaged Wendy the windvane and set about what we do best: staring at the sea and meandering through conversations, keeping a keen eye on those troublesome and very often barely visible fishing pots, the biggest concern for most sailors along this coast until recently…

We passed Peniche around 1600, our alternative destination had the wind not picked up. We continued south, made a curry, drank a beer, and immersed ourselves in Pearl Jam while the sky turned pink as the sun faded. The conditions were perfect, and the mood was very relaxed.

Orca first contact

I took the first watch between 2200 to 0100. It was a dark, moonless night and the stars were out in abundance. Fishing pots were invisible now and we passed one within inches of the boat. The wind was steady Force 4 and once more from astern. There were 40 minutes where the wind picked up to Force 5-6, but it eased towards the end of the watch.

That’s when it began.

At 0030 there was a great blow, a bang, which jolted Periwinkle with disconcerting force. My mind, like a pinball, reeled through the options of what could have happened. Had we hit driftwood, fishing pots, or a container?

Turbulence astern excited phosphorescence. A melee of green bubbling water moved along with Periwinkle on her starboard quarter as I tried to decipher the situation. Were we dragging something? Periwinkle’s wheel then rotated violently from lock to lock with incredible force and speed. ‘Orcas! Orcas!’ I shouted.

Periwinkle in a calmer moment.

Time seemingly froze as I waited for the first to surface. A huge black body I guessed to be 30ft long, its famous white patch visible in the sheath of phosphorescence broke the surface, followed by a loud screech – a hostile exhale from its blowhole, a noise that has stayed with me, along with the sight of its dark, towering dorsal fin.

We immediately enacted the deterrent measures discussed in many a marina hitherto; the consensus being that going astern under power and making noise has had effective results.

My heart pounded and skipped as I went to start the engine. The steering chain snapped within minutes, making progress astern hopeless, but none the less the jockey pole was dipped and continuously whacked with a club hammer, but it was ineffective.

We then tried a passive approach, not being seen or heard. Also, ineffective.

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Habitually we revved the inboard two-stroke engine every time they approached hoping the noise and vibrations would deter them just enough. A bull stopped the engine dead at full revs with a single, effortless knock. Was this a warning to stop hindering their attack? Or was this an accident that injured one of the pod? Who knows, but it seemed to further galvanise them.

There are several other deterrent measures, some of which are dangerous and un-environmental, and, of course, none of these are wholly reliable.

The research shows that there is no correlation to the effectiveness of deterrent measures. And the reason for this is that not every pod is currently hostile to yachts. If making noise worked for one crew, it’s likely those orcas were just being inquisitive and didn’t like the hostility they were met with. Whereas the overriding feeling for us, and many others, was one of being under attack; intimidated, circled and watched. They were training, and were not easily perturbed, and we were cautious not to turn their focused rudder attack into something broader and more destructive.

When motoring, a bull stopped the engine dead with a single powerful knock

Their power was incredible. Periwinkle is a slender 32ft GRP sloop weighing 4.2 tonnes, perhaps 5 tonnes fully loaded. A fully grown orca grows to 32ft long and weighs up to 6 tonnes. Periwinkle’s rudder was rammed and bitten with tremendous force, the hull was shaken like a toy and spun in circles until we were dizzy. We clipped in on our short tethers. We were under attack until 0400. This consisted of three hour-long attacks with short 10-minute intervals. This was aptly described to me by someone who had a similar experience as feeling like a mouse being taunted by a cat.

Organised orca attacks

We counted four orcas in total, presumably two bulls due to their size and power, a cow with a calf, as this orca was smaller, and the much smaller calf stayed by its side throughout. We thought there may have been as many as six with activity around the rudder seemingly commencing too soon after counting four surfacing. We watched as the cow and calf followed on from the fierce attack of the bulls with small butts, and nibbles on the rudder. Apparently, the orcas were training their young.

Their behaviour was fascinating to witness. Every single time the bulls surfaced they were parallel with the boat, and as their eye broke the surface of the water, they stopped, watched us for a couple of seconds, then continued below. Every single time.

The only time this wasn’t the case, a bull surfaced facing away from us to slap the water with its fluke and splashed us. The cow and calf followed suit. The feeling that the orcas were training their young was set in stone in that moment.

It was only once Periwinkle was lifted that the damage inflicted by the orcas became evident

The most amazing and equally scary moment was prior to the second attack. At that point we were motor-sailing upwind toward the shore and steering with a sizeable emergency tiller. This tiller spells a broken rib to anyone in the vicinity if an orca gets to the rudder, so looking astern was vital. I intermittently looked forward a few times, aiming for the lights of Cascais.

Then, as I returned my gaze astern, I saw a 30ft orca, 2m off the starboard quarter, the whole body seemingly floating in black air, lit up by a pale stream of phosphorescence once again. I blinked; I thought I was hallucinating. In my life I don’t think I’ve seen anything equally so wonderful and so ominous. I removed the emergency tiller just in time. And the second attack commenced. I began to consider what treasures I’d ship to the liferaft.

Assessing the damage

The attack finally stopped at 0400 and we arrived in Cascais marina at 0700 in a howling wind. This part is not worth dwelling on, none the less, at 0900, after the marina attempted to charge us for a night’s stay, we were kindly towed by SY Auriga to the Latestore boatyard in Seixal, south of Lisbon. Soon after, Pál left to find another crew position, and I stayed with Periwinkle for seven weeks to complete the repairs.

I surveyed the damage. Two thirds of the rudder was missing and the remaining tangs had mostly parted and were joined only by mechanical fastenings. The bronze rudder stops on the upper bearing plate were destroyed, and the associated three M6 fastenings were mangled. There was also a small crack in the hull forward of the rudder stock aperture. Thankfully no other laminate or structural damage was present.

Three young orca with their fins on the surface of the water

I could write pages on the repairs. In summary, the highest priority was to increase design strength lest we met the same fate once again. Inboard, laminates of marine ply were joined and bonded to the hull with thickened epoxy, then over-laminated countless times. The yard welded a large tang on the rudder stock and fabricated a new rudder bearing. I couldn’t entertain the yard’s €6,000 quote for a new rudder, so I set about an in-situ repair.

Pavana Services who operate out of Vigo, Spain, were professional in their response and deserving of a mention.

With the rudder I prepped and extensively over- laminated all internal damage, bonded the tangs with epoxy and mechanical fastenings, welded a stainless plate to the lower tang and applied expanding foam to the structure, which was then cut to shape to fit a basic template. I then over-laminated the foam. Finally, I wrapped the upper 2/3 of the rudder in a carbon-Kevlar weave cloth, leaving the bottom 1/3 as the ‘fuse’, a part which is purposefully weaker, because it seems that once the orcas are aware of some damage, they tend to lose interest.

In an odd turn of events, Pál’s second ever sailing trip also ended with him fearing for his life, as the skipper had a violent mental breakdown. Silver linings being what they are, he wasn’t far from us and was able to jump aboard to finish the trip to the Mediterranean.

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