Ocean Sailor Magazine

Sailors Stories

ORCA ATTACKS

Mystery of Killer Wale ‘attacks’ on yachts

Dick Durham talks to three yachtsmen who survived horrific Orca attacks on their vessels. A coastguard exclusion zone was imposed following reports of 40 similar incidents in just one season.

BANG, the wheel is torn from your hands and spun violently against the starboard stop. BANG, before you can regain control, it’s spun back the other way and slammed against the port stop. The boat is sheering from side to side while the wheel continues to whirr as though at the hands of a marine poltergeist.

This is what it’s like when a five-tonne mammal, the size of a small bus decides to ram your hull at a speed of 30 knots. At least 40 skippers of yachts, fishing boats and other craft have experienced this or other frightening assaults from Orca pods along the Atlantic seaboard of Spain and Portugal in 2020. 

As marine biologists inspect yacht hulls and record accounts to try and fathom what has turned these intelligent and sociable mammals into a major hazard for small craft sailors, Ocean Sailor spoke to three yachtsmen who have endured attacks.

These all happened within the vicinity of Cape Finisterre, Spain during September and October this year, and are the culmination of attacks which started in July.


The most sustained attack happened to skipper Justin Crowther, a 54-year-old Englishman from west London and his two Finnish crew, Michael Rosenback and Johannes Brandt. All three were delivering a Hallberg Rassy 36 from Tenerife to the UK, for the respected yacht-delivery company, Halcyon.

They had experienced problems with the autopilot and after pulling into Vigo for fuel, later found themselves 30 miles seaward of Cape Finisterre, punching into a Force 7 headwind under power and heavily-reefed mainsail. They were obliged to hand-steer as the autopilot was again playing up.

‘Suddenly I had the wheel ripped out of my hands,’ Justin told Ocean Sailor, ‘and I thought the autopilot, even though it was switched off, was still affecting the steering. Eight times the wheel was ripped from my grasp, so I went below to isolate the batteries.’

While he was below, he heard Michael yell: ‘ORCA,’ and Justin rushed back up on deck and managed to capture one of the mammals on his video camera.

Then the boat was spun in a complete circle, four times, by the force of the pod of killer whales assault.

By now the wind had increased to a gale.

As a result of the attack, the boat’s steering quadrant was cracked in half. When they shipped the emergency tiller to their dismay they discovered it had to be operated by a crew sitting in the stern cabin with another crew member shouting instructions through an open hatch telling the emergency helmsman where to steer!

Justin decided that in such rough weather this was too dangerous and radioed the La Coruna coast guard who sent out a rescue vessel to tow them in.

A salvage tug came to their assistance and two steel hawsers covered in protective nylon were secured to the yacht. 

‘We were surfing down waves, which I expected, but we kept going sideways, which I did not,’ said Justin. Then to his horror he realised it was not the rough towing conditions that were throwing the Hallberg Rassy about. ‘The Orcas were attacking the boat again. They were

trying to flick the boat over. One of the larger mammals even breached in front of the tug.’

So much confusion was caused to the handling of the tow that one steel strop parted. Justin knew he had to let the remaining one slip for fear of the tow sheering off to one side. ‘As I went forward to drop the line an Orca came abeam, on its side and was staring me straight in the eye. It was very eerie.’

The tug dropped fresh lines to them and after two nerve-wracking hours, they arrived in La Coruna.

When the boat was slipped the crew were astonished to find bite marks on the hull, swirling teeth marks on the bow and damage to the rudder blade.

‘The Hallberg Rassy we were sailing was an old-style boat built in 1991,’ he said, ‘had we been in a more lightly-built boat I think it would have been even more frightening. These creatures were not messing about.’

Scientists arrived to examine the hull and take measurements. They told Justin they were working on the theory that a matriarch Orca was teaching the art of killing to her calves. ‘I was told they ram whales, big sharks or seals in the liver area, then bite their fins off and then bite out their tongues letting them bleed to death.’

Another Halcyon delivery skipper, David Smith, was sailing a Lagoon 45 from Les Sables d’Olonne from the Vendee in western France to Gibraltar, with three others.

Because of an exclusion zone for boats under 15m off La Coruna, put in place by the Spanish Coastguard who were increasingly concerned the Orca’s behaviour could lead to injury or death, David, a 59-year-old businessman from Edinburgh, was 20 miles offshore when a pod attacked an hour before sunset.

In the video footage David shot during the attack, the listener can hear very loud thumps as the 25ft mammals ram the hulls. ‘There was a terrible banging noise which was relentless,’ David told Ocean Sailor, ‘they were like the wolves of the sea.’

‘I was very concerned about the rudder stocks being dislodged,’ he added, ‘leaving a sizable hole in the hulls. It would overwhelm the bilge pumps: a scary prospect.’

David ordered all on board not to go outside on deck, ‘the thought of someone losing their footing, was playing on my mind.’ As darkness fell the Orcas kept ramming the hulls: In all, it was a two-hour attack.

David realised if the catamaran sunk, getting into a life-raft would not be a viable option, and because of the exclusion zone, they were not within VHF range to request a helicopter rescue. David activated his satellite phone and called Falmouth Coastguard who gave him the number for the Portuguese Coastguard.   

They advised staying close to any vessel which could help. David had seen a fishing boat which normally, like all yachtsmen, he would give a wide berth to.

‘We set the genoa and moved closer to it,’ he said, but eventually, the attack ceased.

Graeme Walker, his wife Moira and crew member Stephen Robinson were sailing Graeme’s Beneteau 47.7, Promise III, from the Mediterranean back to the Clyde, when they too, were attacked off Finisterre, but only about five miles offshore.

Graeme, 60, from Helensburgh, Scotland, told Ocean Sailor, his boat’s helm was also smashed from side to side, in a 45-minute attack by three Orcas: one an adult, the other two, calves.

Luckily Graeme had recently had his spade rudder rebuilt using Kevlar reinforcement after a survey had identified the rudder stock had suffered metal fatigue. Even so, once they had the boat slipped in La Coruna he discovered the Orcas had bitten off 1.5 square feet of the blade’s foot, leaving the assembly splintered. 

Then the boat was spun in a complete circle, four times, by the force of the pod of killer whales assault.

By now the wind had increased to a gale.

As a result of the attack, the boat’s steering quadrant was cracked in half. When they shipped the emergency tiller to their dismay they discovered it had to be operated by a crew sitting in the stern cabin with another crew member shouting instructions through an open hatch telling the emergency helmsman where to steer!

Justin decided that in such rough weather this was too dangerous and radioed the La Coruna coast guard who sent out a rescue vessel to tow them in.

A salvage tug came to their assistance and two steel hawsers covered in protective nylon were secured to the yacht. 

‘We were surfing down waves, which I expected, but we kept going sideways, which I did not,’ said Justin. Then to his horror he realised it was not the rough towing conditions that were throwing the Hallberg Rassy about. ‘The Orcas were attacking the boat again. They were

trying to flick the boat over. One of the larger mammals even breached in front of the tug.’

So much confusion was caused to the handling of the tow that one steel strop parted. Justin knew he had to let the remaining one slip for fear of the tow sheering off to one side. ‘As I went forward to drop the line an Orca came abeam, on its side and was staring me straight in the eye. It was very eerie.’

The tug dropped fresh lines to them and after two nerve-wracking hours, they arrived in La Coruna.

When the boat was slipped the crew were astonished to find bite marks on the hull, swirling teeth marks on the bow and damage to the rudder blade.

‘The Hallberg Rassy we were sailing was an old-style boat built in 1991,’ he said, ‘had we been in a more lightly-built boat I think it would have been even more frightening. These creatures were not messing about.’

Scientists arrived to examine the hull and take measurements. They told Justin they were working on the theory that a matriarch Orca was teaching the art of killing to her calves. ‘I was told they ram whales, big sharks or seals in the liver area, then bite their fins off and then bite out their tongues letting them bleed to death.’

Another Halcyon delivery skipper, David Smith, was sailing a Lagoon 45 from Les Sables d’Olonne from the Vendee in western France to Gibraltar, with three others.

Because of an exclusion zone for boats under 15m off La Coruna, put in place by the Spanish Coastguard who were increasingly concerned the Orca’s behaviour could lead to injury or death, David, a 59-year-old businessman from Edinburgh, was 20 miles offshore when a pod attacked an hour before sunset.

In the video footage David shot during the attack, the listener can hear very loud thumps as the 25ft mammals ram the hulls. ‘There was a terrible banging noise which was relentless,’ David told Ocean Sailor, ‘they were like the wolves of the sea.’

‘I was very concerned about the rudder stocks being dislodged,’ he added, ‘leaving a sizable hole in the hulls. It would overwhelm the bilge pumps: a scary prospect.’

David ordered all on board not to go outside on deck, ‘the thought of someone losing their footing, was playing on my mind.’ As darkness fell the Orcas kept ramming the hulls: In all, it was a two-hour attack.

David realised if the catamaran sunk, getting into a life-raft would not be a viable option, and because of the exclusion zone, they were not within VHF range to request a helicopter rescue. David activated his satellite phone and called Falmouth Coastguard who gave him the number for the Portuguese Coastguard.   

They advised staying close to any vessel which could help. David had seen a fishing boat which normally, like all yachtsmen, he would give a wide berth to.

‘We set the genoa and moved closer to it,’ he said, but eventually, the attack ceased.

Graeme Walker, his wife Moira and crew member Stephen Robinson were sailing Graeme’s Beneteau 47.7, Promise III, from the Mediterranean back to the Clyde,

when they too, were attacked off Finisterre, but only about five miles offshore.

Graeme, 60, from Helensburgh, Scotland, told Ocean Sailor, his boat’s helm was also smashed from side to side, in a 45-minute attack by three Orcas: one an adult, the other two, calves.

Luckily Graeme had recently had his spade rudder rebuilt using Kevlar reinforcement after a survey had identified the rudder stock had suffered metal fatigue. Even so, once they had the boat slipped in La Coruna he discovered the Orcas had bitten off 1.5 square feet of the blade’s foot, leaving the assembly splintered. 

‘We prepared the life-raft as the boat was rocked and spun around,’ he said.

‘I noticed that the bigger of the Orcas would surface just before diving beneath us, take a breath, and then use its back to swing us about violently.’

Ashore in La Coruna, Graeme examined two other yachts which had been attacked by Orcas. One was a 52ft catamaran, which appeared to have suffered no damage, the other a Warrior 40, which had it’s wind-vane ‘chewed’ by the four-inch teeth of an adult Orca.

Solo Atlantic sailor, Max Liberson, offered another theory that Orcas might be attacking yachts thinking they are

food rivals. 

Rob Lott, Policy Manager, at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Organisation, told Ocean Sailor:

 ‘This is baffling behaviour. For many years, Orcas have been closely associated with the tuna fishing fleet in the Strait of Gibraltar and have been observed taking fish off the long-lines. We can only speculate that the alarming behaviour of Orcas striking sailing boats may be related to stress, as this small critically endangered population struggles to adjust to the overfishing of its preferred prey, Atlantic bluefin tuna.’

And yet other reports show that since the 2010 cutback on annual bluefin tuna catch, the local Orca population has risen from

39 to 60.

Marine Biologist, Dr Naomi Rose, said the Orcas could be reacting to increased noise or pollution, as well as dwindling food sources. Dr Rose explains that when food runs low the Orcas metabolise their blubber, blubber into which toxins have been stored from pollutants. These toxins would then dissolve in their bloodstream, possibly affecting their behaviour and also being fed to calves from female milk.

“We have to stop living the way we are living, polluting the seas.”

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