In little over a week, Mia and I head to Falken, 59° North’s Farr 65, for the last passage of 2023. The boat is docked in Lagos, on the sunny Algarve coast of Portugal, just around the bend from Cabo São Vincente—and smack in the middle between the two hotspots for orca “encounters” over the past couple of years.
The south coast of Portugal, and in particular Lagos, has become a hub for us since Mia and I first sailed there back in 2012. It’s a beautiful, charming coastal town with a world-class marina and boatyard, south of the gnarly weather in the Bay of Biscay, and a place you can sail from year-round or get some real work done while staging for a winter transatlantic. Lots of offshore sailors pass through the area each year for these reasons.
Lately, though, the area is fraught with tension from the orca situation. In case you missed it, since 2020 a pod of between 30 and 40 orcas has been wreaking various amounts of havoc on passing sailboats. Most encounters remain passive. Some are playful. Fewer still cause real damage. Rarely are boats sunk, although just two days before writing this, a 40-foot Polish sailing yacht sank off the Atlantic coast of Morocco when orcas ripped the rudder clear off the boat, leaving a gaping hole in the stern. Even Sir Robin Knox-Johnston isn’t immune—his Farr 56 was knocked around off northwest Spain in early 2023, damaging the boat’s rudder.
We build our schedules usually years in advance, and back in 2021 when I was planning our 2023/2024 season, the orca thing was a new curiosity and hopefully a passing phenomenon. Since then, it’s only gotten worse and may be spreading to other orca populations including, worryingly, North Sea orcas around Shetland, only 150 miles from where our other boat, Isbjørn, has her home port in Bergen, Norway.
“I actually kind of love this situation,” Isbjørn’s skipper, August Sandberg, said during a staff meeting on what to do about the problem from a risk management standpoint. “I love it like I love hurricanes, in the sense that it’s just a fascinating display of nature, something wholly out of our control but which we must plan for.”
Like watching a lightning storm through plate-glass windows from the safety of your living room, I could relate. But as a real threat to the security of our business—like hurricanes—I in fact hate this situation. However, it does provide an excellent, real-time example of how to deal with risk when going to sea.
“In the case of the boats that actually sink,” said Nikki Henderson, one of Falken’s regular skippers who is now leading 59º North’s offshore racing program, “it really just highlights a gap in their own risk management plan for ocean sailing.”
There are any number of risks that can damage or destroy a rudder offshore, she said, and anyone who ventures out to sea needs a way to mitigate that risk. In that sense, the orca situation isn’t special at all, just one more threat to manage.
What does, however, make the orca situation particularly unique—and unlike the hurricane threat—is that it’s so unpredictable. Hurricane season, while changing in odd ways due to climate change, is still pretty reliable and easy to plan around. We have advance warning of tropical storms and hurricanes well before they form and pretty good forecasting tools for where they’re going to go. Hurricanes are “living” in the sense that they’re a part of nature, but orcas are actually living, breathing creatures, mammals with high intelligence that are, in turn, much harder to predict.
As we bantered about how to handle this situation, a handful of options emerged, summarized by Adam Browne, 59º North’s full-time bosun, and ultimately the person whose problem it’s going to be to fix any potential damage caused by an aggressive orca encounter.
“We have basically three options,” Adam said. “One, don’t go. Two, run. Three, drop the sails, stop the boat, and leave the helm.”
Like hurricane avoidance, simply avoiding the areas where the threat exists is the simplest, safest option, but we’re beyond that because the boat’s already there. Running has proven unsatisfactory, as it seems the orcas tend to act like dogs playing tug with a rope—the harder you pull, the more excited they get. The only real accepted solution among sailors transiting the affected areas (which is from Cape Finnesterre in northwest Spain to the Strait of Gibraltar, shifting as the same pod of orcas migrates along the coast) is number three—dropping the sails, stopping the boat. Like a dog with a rope but nobody to play tug with, the orcas seem to get bored after a while and swim away.
And then there is a fourth option, the “fisherman solution,” which I’m not even going to describe here because it’s blatantly illegal and ethically questionable. We decided a long time ago that anything we do at 59º North has to be justifiable, both morally and practically.
As of this writing, we don’t have an answer that removes the risk entirely. We can’t avoid the area, at least not this year since the boat is already there, and next year we’re planning to come back again for fall maintenance. I did decide to buy a Fiorentino Shark drogue for each boat to use as emergency steering should the orcas disable the rudder (to be fair, we should have had this all along, as per Nikki’s comments above).
The point of this story is that, as Nikki said, there are always unavoidable risks when we go to sea. It’s our job to identify and mitigate those risks. That’s just plain old seamanship. And when it comes to risks from the natural world, it’s our responsibility to find solutions that work with nature, not against it. Wish us luck!
Andy Schell is the co-founder of 59° North Sailing, which takes people from all backgrounds ocean sailing on the Swan 48 Isbjørn and the Farr 65 Falken. 59-north.com.