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June 12, 2024

Experts: “Orcas ‘Attacking’ Boats Are Actually Just Bored Teenagers”

In news that might sound encouraging but is probably of comfort to absolutely no one, the recent spate of orcas attacking boats does not appear to be driven by malice, but rather, by mischief — and teenage apathy.

“Hundreds of dangerous boat-ramming incidents over the past five years have cast orcas as deep-sea villains plotting to take back the ocean,” the Washington Post reported a few weeks ago. “But the killer whales causing mayhem off Europe’s Iberian Peninsula might actually just be a playful fad among bored teen orcas. That’s the leading theory among a group of more than a dozen orca experts who have spent years studying the incidents.”

The experts, including biologists, government officials and marine industry representatives, released a report outlining their hypothesis: “The orcas just want to have fun, and in the vast — and rather empty — open waters, the boats’ rudders are a prime toy.”

Orcas at play
Commentary: Will sailors take any kind of comfort in the knowledge that orcas, also literally known as killer whales, aren’t trying to kill boaters, but are instead just killing time?
© 2024 Wikipedia

“There’s nothing in the behavior of the animals that suggests that they’re being aggressive,” another member of the working group said. “As they play with the rudder, they don’t understand that they can damage the rudder. It’s more playful than intentional.”

Orcas are famously fun-loving, which likely/ironically made them desirable attractions for theme parks. The research group said that the rebound in the bluefin tuna population, meaning plentiful food for killer whales, has effectively given orca populations off the Iberian Peninsula more free time for play — though it’s still not clear why orcas are attracted to rudders.“Maybe [an] individual touched a rudder and felt that it was something fun to play with, and it began propagating the behavior among the group until it became as widespread as it is now,” said one researcher.

“In other words, it became a ridiculous fad — not unlike, say, the viral Tide pod or cinnamon challenges,” the Post wrote. “It wouldn’t be the first time that killer whales mimicked a particular craze. In the past, some populations have taken to wearing dead salmon as hats or playing games of chicken. And, just like human fads, the trends have a tendency to make comebacks years later,” a researcher said.

The research group recognized the peril that orca playtime poses to boats. The Post said that since 2020, members of a small group of killer whales have rammed into at least 673 vessels off the coasts of Portugal, Spain and Morocco, causing some boats to sink. The researchers worry that frustrated mariners might “launch flares or other devices to deter whales. Not only could those measures deafen or harm whales, they might backfire by ‘making the game even more fun for them,'” a researcher said, adding: “The more dangerous it is for the orcas, the more thrill they seem to get out of it.”

Good Jibes #146: Erica Mattson on Doublehanding the Pacific Cup

This week’s host, Moe Roddy, is joined by Erica Mattson to chat about crossing the Pacific with a crew of two on a small boat. Erica and her father Robin Jeffers will set sail on her Moore 24 Accelerando for the Pacific Cup (Pac Cup) on July 15.

Erica aboard her Moore 24 Accelerando.
© 2024 Erica Mattson

Hear how Erica qualified for the US Sailing Team in the ‘90s, how she committed to sailing to Hawaii, about their sleeping and eating schedule during the race, how to decompress once you’re back on land, and what they’ll do differently than in their 2022 Pacific Cup race.

This episode covers everything from the Pac Cup to the Olympics. Here’s a small sample of what you will hear:

  • When was the first time Erica was on a boat?
  • What was her favorite boat growing up?
  • Where did she qualify for the US Sailing Team?
  • How did she decide to race to Hawaii?
  • Why did she get a Moore 24?
  • What kind of watch system did she keep?
  • Was she ever scared during the race?
  • Short Tacks: Whom would she have coffee with?

Follow Erica during the race at

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast spots — follow and leave a 5-star review if you’re feeling the Good Jibes!

Keep up with the West Coast race schedule in our monthly online calendar.

On Rule 9 and Large Ships

Everyone boating on San Francisco Bay must obey the US Inland Waterway Rules under federal law (33 CFR §83). As the Coast Guard says, “The Rules are legally binding and application of them makes the waterways safer for everyone.” Some important ones are:

  • Rule 9(b): A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.
  • Rule 9(d): A vessel shall not cross a narrow channel or fairway if such crossing impedes the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within that channel or fairway. The latter vessel shall use the signal prescribed in Rule 34(d) [at least five short and rapid blasts] if in doubt as to the intention of the crossing vessel.

One challenge on San Francisco Bay is the prevalence of large ships that have limited maneuverability and must stay in restricted channels. Look at a chart and you’ll see those traffic separation lanes and channels cover a good part of the Bay.

Big ships have a lot of windage above the waterline and a lot of current-catching hull below it, so they need speed to steer with their rudder. Ships come through the Bay at 10-15 knots. That’s 0.25 nautical miles per minute.

Container ship with Bay Bridge
Ships also have a visibility problem. Here’s a photo of a 1,076-ft container ship that is not fully loaded, but still cannot see anything closer than roughly 0.3 miles from her bow.
© 2024 Gerard Sheridan
Container ship passing Aquatic Park.
Here’s a slightly smaller 1,000-ft container ship that is also not fully loaded, yet cannot see what is on the horizon closer than 0.3 miles.
© 2024 Gerard Sheridan

Putting that together, if you are 0.6 miles from the bow of a container ship, the pilot has one minute to confirm you’ve gotten out of the way safely before they can no longer see you. That can make them understandably edgy around sailboats, and they may start blasting five sounds sooner rather than later.

With an emergency reverse — which is a last-resort maneuver — the S.F. Bay Bar Pilots Association says a big ship can still take 2 miles to stop. This further extends the distance ahead the container ship pilot wants to know you’ll be out of the way.

Much as a close crossing in sailboat racing feels much safer if you know the other boat sees you, the pilot can find it reassuring to know that you’ve seen the ship and you are working to immediately get out of the channel they have to stay in. In the case of a ship, that means radio contact. If you think a ship pilot could be at all concerned about you, be ready to respond promptly to a hail on VHF 16.

If you’ve raced enough, you’ve heard about or seen plenty of collisions between highly maneuverable sailboats when someone did not see the other boat or misjudged a duck. Between sailboats, a collision usually results in a protest and repairable damage. But when a ship is involved, it’ll be a fatality.

So if you hear a ship blowing five blasts and you think, “That cannot be me; I’m at least a half mile away,” it might well be you. Please sail responsibly, and reduce stress on ship pilots.

What in the America’s Cup World?

What used to be an America’s Cup “wingding,” with a focus on winged keels and bulb shapes, has turned into new AC75 boat launches that range from “that looks odd” to a “where did that come from?” bizarre hull shape from Mars, as six new designs have come our way over the last few weeks.

America’s Cup 37 had some surprises in store when CEO Grant Dalton from Emirates Team New Zealand and the AC Event Authority packed their bags from Auckland and left for Barcelona, Spain, for bags full of money that weren’t coming from the New Zealand government.

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli
Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli just looks fast, even if their AC75 is standing still!
© 2024 Ivo Rovira/ Americas Cup

Designers are trying to keep pace with the Kiwis, with radical attempts to not only keep their boats afloat, but hopefully make them fly at a moment’s notice. Last time around, in 2021, there were races when the boats were stuck in displacement mode and couldn’t get up and foil if their lives depended on it. It was a sad sight watching these high-tech wonders helplessly waddle around in the water like a wingless duck.

Not this time. Though the new class of AC75s don’t fly high, they are foiling at low altitude, just inches above the water, approaching 50 knots over the choppy, lumpy-gravy seas on the Spanish Mediterranean coast.

Samo Vidic / Alinghi Red Bull Racing
No, it’s not Shamrock IV. It’s the radical Red Bull Alinghi AC75!
© 2024 Samo Vidic / Alinghi Red Bull Racing

Who knows what September and October will bring? As the Louis Vuitton Selection Series gets started in earnest just before Labor Day weekend, one team will be gone quicker than a cat’s kazoo!* [polite slang] (Notice that the British are missing from my photos. Just saying ….)

It was assumed that the French, who were late to the event, would be the first to go. Not anymore! Their purchased Kiwi design package is a game changer. Not only did ETNZ leave them with a nearly identical copy of their own new AC75, but in many ways team Orient Express has become a defense surrogate for New Zealand by allowing the Kiwis, who have to sit out the Louis Vuitton races, to gather data on the performance of the French team against the other challengers.

Orient Express Team
The French Orient Express ETNZ “Defense” team and design is rolled out for the first time. It is a game changer.
© 2024 Alexander Champy-McLean / Orient Express Racing Team

But it is a two-edged sword. The challengers can do the same! Anyway, let’s take a quick look at what we know so far.

There were two christenings of consequence, beginning with the Americans and ending with the Kiwis.

The New York Yacht Club’s American Magic, in sleek gray and white colors with navy blue trim and the bright-red Mahou logo painted on its foil arms, made a splash and a sail with their Scott Ferguson-designed AC75, revealing several interesting features.

NYYC Vice Commodore Clare Harrington paid a surprise visit to Barcelona to christen the AC75 and reveal the somewhat revolutionary new boat with an old name, Patriot. Yes, that is correct. It is Patriot 2.0, though one could really say it is 4.0 after the initial design, then the crash and burn, then the AC37’s new rules modification, and now spanking-new and recently arrived from Green International Airport in Rhode Island. Patriot 2.0 was fitted with a new pair of “boots” [new lighter foils with an increase in span to 4.5m] on the set of slightly asymmetric race foils. The deck layout is rather unique, putting the helms and trimmers side by side and well forward, with the cyclors [replacing grinders] facing aft.

New York Yacht Club AC boat Patriot
Patriot 2.0 hits the water off Barcelona.
© 2024 Alex Carabi / America's Cup

American Magic has gone for very sculpted, almost harlequin-style foils blended into a sharp, stubby bulb with an aggressive point. The endplates are a work of art, curving upward and squared at the top, while the aero package in the foil arms to meet minimum weight requirements is sculpted asymmetrically. Clearly there’s further thought and evaluation that the team will need to complete before making any final decisions on race foil setup.

“The NYYC has never wavered from its core purpose of ensuring international competition at the highest level of skill and performance. That is our tradition,” said Harrington. “However, the launch of Patriot also signifies innovation, blending two distinct elements: tradition and innovation. And so, I bring to American Magic the heartfelt wishes of all 3,400-plus members of the NYYC for your success in the upcoming competition, maintaining the club’s tradition through your inspired innovation.”

“We followed our own design path with Patriot as we pushed the limits of the AC75 rule while tailoring for the Barcelona venue,” said chief designer Scott Ferguson. “Our overall philosophy is minimalistic, as we’ve tried to squeeze down our volumes to the base minimum while still fitting the crew and systems into the boat. There are tradeoffs for every decision regarding performance, weight and energy.”

Patriot 2.0 took an unexpected nosedive at speed today, sustaining damage and requiring pumps to be put aboard. It served as a sad reminder of what happened three years ago when Patriot 1.0 capsized and almost sank.

“The water inflow was due to the jib track, which runs athwartships under the foredeck, not yet being fully sealed. When the fairings that cover the track opening were torn away, water was able to pour through the jib track opening,” said team president Terry Hutchinson.

There was no visible damage when Patriot 2.0 was hauled from the water and there were no injuries to the crew. However, it is believed that co-helmsman Tom Slingsby was struck on the helmet by a piece of fairing during the nosedive, “but he’s good, talking and smiling and making jokes,” commented Hutchinson. “The water level inside the yacht was not able to get to the lithium batteries, which have caught fire on other competitors who have suffered water ingress.”

Emirates Team New Zealand
Emirates Team New Zealand sail their new AC75 Taihoro on the golden waters of the Hauraki Gulf.
© 2024 Emirates Team New Zealand

The Kiwis’ new boat was christened in Maori tradition, save the driving rainstorm, as Dalton invited past Prime Minister Helen Clark to do the honors. Iwi manaaki Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei blessed the boat and gifted her the name Taihoro at the team’s base in Auckland’s Wynyard Point.

New Zealand Christening
New Zealand christens their new AC75. The champagne wasn’t the only thing that was pouring!
© 2024 America's Cup / AC37 Event Limited

Taihoro in Maori means “to move swiftly as the sea between both sky and earth. Taihoro-Nukurangi captures the dynamic essence of the sea (Tai), the concept of speed (Horo), the Earth’s movement (Nuku), and the expanse of the sky (Rangi).

Taihoro symbolizes the boat’s evolutionary journey, which started with Te Rhutai as it represents a transcendence of traditional boundaries, creating a connection between the sea and sky. This vessel is more than a mere craft; it harnesses the power of nature, seamlessly transitioning between realms. Taihoro is not just traversing the ocean; it bridges the gap between sea and sky in its quest for victory.”

So, stay tuned. The best is yet to come!

*Kazoo is a polite form of a common slang word used in some English-speaking countries.