Heath Samples was sailing the yacht Lady L about 15 miles west of the Strait of Gibraltar when “all of a sudden the wheel just came out of my hand and I looked behind me and there were four killer whales there,” he said.
The encounter with the jet-black marine mammals, also called orcas, happened last Wednesday on what Heath said was a lovely, sunny afternoon.
“We stopped the engine, took the sail down and for the next 45 minutes they attacked the keel and the rudder and snapped half the rudder off. We had to do a Mayday call to the coastguard,” Heath said.
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“They just came out of nowhere. It was pretty hair-raising for a moment because they’re throwing you around like a rag doll.
“We knew before that boats had been attacked north of where we were. None have been sunk but we don’t want to be the first one!”
There are no known fatal killer whale attacks on people in the wild.
Heath said the whales bit off half the rudder, leaving teeth marks, and the other half was jammed into the boat’s hull. In total, he said, the whales have caused between £7-10,000 worth of damage to the £130,000 yacht.
Marine biologists have recorded 40 such incidents off the coast of Spain and Portugal between July and October 2020 with killer whales always going for a boat’s rudder, and a few interacting with the hull.
The heaviest males can weigh up to five-and-a-half tonnes and be up to eight metres in length.
Heath said when they were towed by the coastguard they were the second job that day and when they arrived at the marina they were one of seven boats that had been pulled in in the last week.
“It was pretty surreal for the first 10 minutes. There’s four of them around you bashing into the boat, it got a bit nerve-wracking,” he said.
Marine biologists have said the new behaviour of nudging, biting and ramming of boats is potentially dangerous – both for people and for the killer whales. The reason why has left experts puzzled, with some suggesting that the highly intelligent animals are “playing”.
Heath has registered to take part in the World Cruising Club Atlantic Rally Crossing in November. With a crew of three others, he will sail from Gran Canaria across the Atlantic to Grenada.