On our way to Horta, we passed a sleeping sperm whale. This whale was massive and laying just at the waters surface. The trouble is, a sleeping whale is akin to a floating island, and they do this at night when visibility is reduced even further.
We encountered a sleeping sperm whale one morning, the sun had just risen, and the whale was still sound asleep.
The only clue to the presence of this massive whale is the puff of mist emerging from the blow hole. At night, when the seas are dark, the dark skin of this whale sitting right at the surface will blend in. Imagine being on watch out in the middle of the ocean, far from anything when all of a sudden you bump into something!
If you are in an old heavy boat moving slowly, you will simply bump into the whale. In the most idealic of situations, the whale will be unharmed and leave you alone, but we have heard stories, particularly with sperm whales, where they get angered and then strike back!
If you have a light weight modern yacht, your encounter with a whale might be much less than startling to both parties. We met a sailor who ran into a sleeping whale with his modern fin keel yacht; and the damage was extensive! The whale damaged his keel, causing it to begin leaking (but the keel remained attached), though it ripped off his starboard rudder and crippled his saildrive.
Now the sailor found himself with the inability to propel himself via mechanical means and only able to steer when on starboard tack. The entire return voyage to port is fraught with fear that at any moment his keel might fall off, leading to his immediate capsize. He was also relying on the speed of his bilge pumps to expel the water that was seeping in around his damaged keel bolts ever quicker.
Older yatchs with full keels and attached rudders offer a little more resilience to this kind of collision. The keel is integral to the hull, so the force of the collision is dissipated over more surface. The hull/keel junction is also sloped, promoting the occurrence of a glancing blow rather than catching on the perpendicular leading edge of a thin fin keel. Lastly, the rudder is firmly attached to the trailing edge of the keel, and therefore riding in the protection of such a strong member of the yachts underwater form.
Whales are massive creatures who can easily go unnoticed in the expansive seas. These behemoths also position themselves in a precarious location at a time when visibility is further reduced and await the inevitable. They are sleeping, and you simply can't see them while on night watch. The only comfort we have found is the fact that whales are still a very tiny fraction of the surface of the ocean, and statistically the chances of being in the same place and same time as a whale are minuscule. That simple thought helps us sleep while off watch, knowing that the person on watch can't see them but is likely not going to hit them either.