”We hit a whale and lost everything tail”


We are the Small family, and this is our story…

The story began in Portimao, Portugal 24th August 2022, where after years of planning and preparation I was finally able to sell my little house in France and buy my dream boat. It was a Wadvogel38 and had taken two German guys around 10 years to build. My intention was to have a catamaran that was totally autonomous. I’ve had extensive experience working on and sailing boats and my partner Kim, a talented artist and woodworker, is also a seasoned sailor. At the end of June we finally set sail from Portimao and enjoyed a brief cruise along the Algarve coast to Culatra were we stayed for a few weeks before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean for our first 5 day sail to Porto Santo, Madiera. We then sailed to Funchal, Madiera to make the necessary reparations before continuing to the Canary Islands. As the money pot became increasingly empty it became clear that it would be necessary to return to the UK to work for the winter. Instead of heading South, we waited for a break in the weather that would allow us to head NW to the Azores and one step closer to the UK. On our 4th night at sea after leaving the Azores I took first watch whilst Kim slept. It was a relatively calm night although there had been a few squalls around before sunset, so I had kept the sails well reefed. Its was around 22:00 when there was a loud bang, different from the usual bashes and bangs a catamaran makes as it moves through water.
Kim shouted up to me after having been catapulted out of bed by the impact of the bang. I could tell from her tone that something was seriously wrong. I raced down the hatch and water was already gushing over my ankles. She told me she heard the water coming in from under the bed. I moved the mattress and hatch covers to find that the bilge was already full. I closed the seacocks as I assumed that was the way the water was entering the boat, but to my horror, it was making no difference. My hand fell upon a jagged piece of wood, which I pulled out to inspect, (around 50cm by 30cm). I turned it over to see a large chunk of dark grey skin with a thick layer of pink blubbery flesh (I assumed it to be a whale, and if I had to guess which one, a sperm whale, but that is purely based on intuition).
Water was now waist high, and although Kim was bailing furiously I could see it was hopeless - the water was pouring in much faster than we could get it out. I urged her to wake Willow (our 5 year old) who was sleeping and move her into the port hull.
At this point it was clear the boat was sinking. I hurriedly activated the EPIRB and DSC distress call using the VHF. The DSC uses the VHF to send an automated message every 3mins which any ship within VHF range (around 6-10miles) would be able to pick up, and the EPIRB uses satellite to alert the nearest coastguard of your GPS position.
After 20minutes since impact the starboard hull was completely flooded and water had started to fill the centre cabin. Despite furiously bailing, the boat was sinking lower into the water and wash from the waves started to enter the centre cabin. I tore off the doors and fixed them horizontally across the opening with silicone to try to seal off the water. We made further desperate MAYDAY calls on the VHF despite realising we were in serious danger due to our location (300miles north of the Azores and 600miles off the Portuguese coast). We were alone and water was rising fast. I grabbed the batteries out of the water so that the VHF would work for as long as possible to keep the maydays going.
At this point the horror of our situation and what might happen to us ataterwd to hit hard. We grabbed Anua (our 8 year old daughter) out of bed and out her with her 5 year old sister Willow in the aft port cabin which would stay dry for the longest period of time. We hurriedly prepared a container of food and water to last us a few days and pumped up the dinghy, with the intention of staying on the boat as long as possible as you have a much better chance of being seen by plane or passing ship if you can stay on the boat. We also began to empty the port hull to decrease the weight including all the building materials we were carrying and all of my valuable tools for my livelihood heartbreakingly thrown into the sea.
At around 01:00 I suddenly saw the lights of a low flying plane illuminating the clouds. As I scrutinised the plane I realised it was indeed heading towards us! I scrambled around for a torch and as the plane passed multiple times overhead, waved the torch in the air so they would see we were still alive. Unfortunately by this time the water level had risen well above the master switch for the batteries causing it to short-circuit, so suddenly we had no means of communication. I woke Kim to tell her the good news and watched anxiously as the plane headed back and out of sight. I calculated we were around 300miles from the Azores, so if a boat was to leave port and travel at 10knots we would have 30hours to wait to be rescued. We had to find a way of surviving until then. The dinghy was too small to accommodate our beautiful dog Nala in rough seas so the realisation was hitting hard that I was soon going to have to make some heart wrenching difficult and painful decisions.
As the sky once again became dark, we knew that we had to do everything we could to stay afloat and alive for as long as possible. We continued to throw all our worldly possessions overboard.
During this we spoke of many things as we worked and waited and now as I type I realise how fortunate we were to have been able to explore those thoughts. Death so often comes as a surprise and in our case we had time to reflect deeply on life and on what truly gives it meaning.
At around 04:30 I suddenly spotted a light on the horizon. At first I wasn't sure if it was a star or planet as the clouds had begun to clear. By 05:00 the light had definitely become stronger and to my huge relief, saw it was a ship! I had read enough shipwrecked accounts to not get too excited as there is always a chance that we had not been seen but decided to raise the EPIRB up the mast on the halyard to that the ship would be able to see the flashing strobe. 05:30 more lights had become visible and we could finally relax knowing that it was heading directly towards us!

We all gathered on deck to watch the ship approach. By 06:30 the sun had begun to rise and the ship had stopped around 100m leeward of us. We could just make out the crew on deck but with no VHF we were unsure how to proceed. After a short stand-off we decided to disembark into the dinghy and paddle towards the large tanker as it became clear that they weren't going to come any closer. We said our goodbyes to our beautiful home Satori and all of our precious belongings and paddled toward Golar Seal.
As we approached Golar Seal we could see the crew calling us around and they threw us a line and hauled us along to midships where we were relieved to see a gangway (the boat was 280m long, 40m wide and the decks at least 10m from sea level)! The crew lowered the gangway and we all climbed aboard, including our precious dog Nala. We were warmly welcomed by the Croatian and Georgian crew and Ivan their captain, who were relieved to see us alive and well. (The last time they had performed a recovery they found a lone dead man aboard his ship! )
Kim and I were dressed only in underpants and a raincoat, so when the crew donated much needed clothing for us we felt overwhelmingly grateful.
Suzanna, the only female aboard, was called the ‘Queen of cake’ by our girls for the delicious treat that she made them. Nala (the dog) was fed all the steak leftovers and had never eaten so well! The ship was a Golar LNG gas tanker bringing gas from the US back to Poland, and when we expressed that we were intending to head back to the UK, they said they would be passing through the English Channel. Both the professionalism and kindness expressed by captain and crew was heart-warming to say the least and for all the efforts made by the employees of Golar LNG, Graypen Plymouth office and Falmouth Marina who coordinated our smooth rescue, we owe our lives.

It took 4 days and 3 nights to get back into English waters (it would have taken us 8-10 days on our sailboat). Once again we were met with a warm welcome and Cornish smile from Alan and Daryl aboard the tender ‘Charlie Boy‘ who brought us into Falmouth marina where we were all relieved to set foot back on British soil and reunited with my family. Alan treated us to delicious fish and chips, and a proper pint of ale! (it had been a while since I'd been in the UK and a good pint I had missed).
The enormity of surviving this experience has only just started to sink in and we have been very grateful to our families for all their support.
There are many things that sank with our ship that unfortunately can never be replaced including my late wife’s ashes. 3 years ago I lost Rosie, wife and mother to the girls, to breast cancer. Part of the purpose of the voyage was to honour her last wishes to scatter her ashes in Moorea, Society Islands in the Pacific Ocean where she loved and held special memories for us.
Unfortunately we didn't have insurance cover for a collision with a sleeping whale, so we have lost our home and the means to re-start our lives and business.
As a builder/carpenter who was halfway through retraining as a marine electrician, I was carrying a lot of tools onboard. As a homeschooling family we carried a lot of resources for the kids to make their days as interesting and stimulating as possible. Kim is an artist, woodworker and kite surfing teacher and carried everything she needed to also work on board. We had many plans to create marine based businesses that would allow us to fund our lifestyle.
Now we will be land-based for way longer than our original plan. We would like to use our experience of designing and building off grid systems to build eco houses (so if anybody is looking for someone to build them a custom house don't hesitate to get in touch –[email redacted]). Also, after being on the receiving end of the marine emergency services, I'm also considering to retrain as a coastguard.

We wish to continue along the same path as we believed in everything that we were doing, and although on the surface it seems that fate dealt us a cruel hand.. We're hopeful that with some help we will be able to recover and rebuild our dream.

We truly appreciate the desperately hard times we are living in.. Any donation at all will mean so much to us.

Thank you!

  • Anonymous
    • £10 
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  • Fiona Underhill
    • £50 
    • 7 d
  • Anonymous
    • £10 
    • 14 d
  • Anonymous
    • £10 
    • 15 d
  • Anonymous
    • £30 
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Fundraising team (3)

Zachary Small
Raised £1,435 from 29 donations
Malvern, West Midlands, United Kingdom
Lois Friedlander
Team member
Raised £1,710 from 19 donations
Andrea Ratcliffe
Team member

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