Zoe Barlow describes the moment she lost her rudder when three large orcas targeted her 40ft yacht whilst on passage from Spain to Morocco

Fitfully sleeping in the forward cabin as we headed down the Spanish coast, a loud bang had me scrabbling to the cockpit.

“Is it them?“ I asked my husband, Martyn, who was on watch. I was answered by another bang.

Orcas were attacking the rudder of our Sun Odyssey 40, and the wheel was spinning madly. It was pitch black and we couldn’t see anything but occasionally could hear a blow and a swish. It was terrifying.

Encounter with orcas off the Spanish coast, video footage from aboard Zoe Barlow's Sun Odyssey 40

We had been aware of orca encounters all the way down the Atlantic Portuguese coast as we headed down last September. The orca reporting group on Facebook was full of encounters – from Porto to Cascais to Sines.

Many reports of broken rudders and boats needing to be towed in. We had felt lucky to have avoided them so far and although there had been a few instances this year when we set off from Spain to Morocco at the end of April we weren’t overly concerned.

This time we weren’t so fortunate.

What to do?

We had heard that by going astern this can deter the orcas as they are not able to reach the rudder as easily.

We did this and were making circles in the same spot – our AIS track must have looked crazy.

It seemed to work but as soon as we tried to go forwards they started again. I decided to call for help on CH 16.

Our position at this point was 36deg 02”.902N 006deg 10”.590W – about 9 miles off Barbate in Spain.

I couldn’t get a response from the Spanish, Gibraltar or Moroccan coastguard despite calling several times. As we weren’t in immediate danger I didn’t want to issue a mayday, but I did want someone to know what was happening to us.

I managed to find a telephone number and luckily my phone had some signal. A Spanish voice responded and I felt giddy with relief.

He took details and said he would get someone to call us back. Meanwhile we were going astern slowly not knowing what to do for the best.

I got a phone call from Tarifa traffic who manage the traffic separation zone for westwards shipping through the Gibraltar Straits, although she explained they also co-ordinate search and rescue in the area.

She was not surprised to hear of our situation and advised we should turn off the engine and all instruments, except AIS and the radio.

I tested our VHF radio and was able to maintain contact on CH 10. She assured me she could see us on AIS. It was such a relief to know we were being monitored.

 

Tell-tale bang

We did as instructed and it appeared they had gone – there were at least three, maybe four.

We waited for awhile and debated what to do. It looked like we still had steerage and it was nearly as far to mainland Spain as to Tangier – our original destination.

It was beginning to get light so after a strong cup of coffee for Martyn and a very sweet tea for me we shakily continued. After a while we had a call from Tarifa Traffic again to ask if all was well.

After another two hours we had just managed to get through the TSS which was also quite unnerving with huge tankers travelling at 18 knots in close succession.

We were about seven miles off Tangier and I was desperate to get in when we felt a tell-tale bang.

Encounter with orcas off the Spanish coast, video footage from aboard Zoe Barlow's Sun Odyssey 40

“Oh no” I cried, surely not.

But yes we had three huge black and white orcas surrounding us and battering the rudder ferociously – with each bang the wheels on our helm span manically and with such force I dread to think what would happen if your hand had been holding either of them.

We turned the engine off and Tarifa traffic contacted us again as they could see we had stopped. We advised we were again being attacked by orcas. They explained we were now in the Tanger Traffic zone and advised us to call them on CH69.

This I did and explained the situation – we were pretty close to the eastern flow of traffic and the current was taking us that way.

They assured us they would warn shipping which we could hear on the radio they were doing.

 

360º spins

The orcas repeatedly hammered the rudder but also the bow of the boat, spinning us round in 360 degree circles.

Some made noises and slapped their flippers as they went down again. Our dog was terrified and sat at our feet trembling.

Suddenly Martyn said “Look at this”. An orca had surfaced holding the bottom part of our rudder in its jaw. It proceeded to nose and play with it for some time.

This second encounter was sustained over a period of three hours – at one point they seemed to have gone so we waited before we set off – only for them to return with more determination.

We felt utterly powerless and despite calling Tanger traffic several times we were told there was nothing to do but wait.

Eventually they left and we decided to try and get in to Tangier Marina. Amazingly we had steerage but it was a very fraught last five miles with us looking over our shoulders every few minutes.

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On reaching the port we felt concerned that we hadn’t enough manoeuvrability to safely dock on a pontoon so advised the port as much and they sent out the pilot boat to assist us. I have never been so glad to see dry land.

The damaged rudder following a sustained attack by orcas - video screengrab

The damaged rudder

Shredded nerves

There is still no consensus on why these attacks are happening.

They only started three years ago but it is an increasing worry for anyone sailing down the Atlantic coast and into the Mediterranean during the summer months.

The Spanish government have recently issued warnings for sailors to do nothing to harm the orca’s which include the use of pingers, a solution many believe may work.

I am writing this the day afterwards as we await instructions from our insurers. I have no idea how long we may be here for but at the moment I don’t really feel like being out on the ocean so close to where we had our second encounter.

There has been advice to stay in shallower water so we will factor this in when it is time to leave.

I also think we will be avoiding night sails until we are safely in the Med as orcas are rarely seen there. They are beautiful creatures, but I don’t want to see them up close again.

About the author

Zoe Barlow

Keen sailors Zoe Barlow, 52, and husband Martyn, gave up their jobs – as a charity helpline manager and building firm owner respectively – in April 2021 to cruise full time on their Sun Odyssey 40. They are currently in the Moroccan port of Tangier after being towed in.

Royal Yachting Association (RYA) guidance

Orca, also known as killer whales, are a protected species. Credit: Brandon Cole Marine Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

As part of normal passage route planning, the RYA recommends that boat crews consult information provided by the Atlantic Orca Working Group at www.orcaiberica.org

Maps showing areas where incidents have occurred, or navigation restrictions can be found at: www.orcaiberica.org/last-interactions

For guidance on what to do during interactions with orcas visit: www.orcaiberica.org/safety-protocol

Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are a protected species, and sailors shouldn’t take any action that could cause them harm.

What to do?

If whales are spotted within 500m or approach the craft:

If your vessel is struck by a whale:

  • Keep noise and light to a minimum
  • Sit down to avoid being knocked from your feet and injuring yourself
  • Notify maritime authorities (see Local Safety Protocol), and
  • Remain calm and sit tight

The RYA notes that damage to steering gear reinforces the need to carry an emergency tiller.