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What Really Happened to J/World

With the conclusion of the Baja Ha-Ha on Saturday night, the Grand Poobah/Publisher of Latitude 38 finally got some time to review the coverage of the loss of J/World and the Coast Guard’s helicopter rescue of her crew — skipper Eugenie Russell, instructor Barry Demak, and students Raymond Quinn, Mark McKinnon, and Judy Land — 200 miles southwest of San Diego. There was a significant amount of misinformation in the initial Latitude report and the mainstream press, but the ignorance and groundless speculation that appeared on some sailing bulletin boards was nothing short of world class.

There are often errors in breaking news stories when the newmakers themselves can’t be contacted directly. It’s like the game of Telephone, where the information becomes more inaccurate with every person who passes it along. In the case of the loss of J/World, captain Eugenie Russell called owner Wayne Zittel to explain what happened. There was some kind of misunderstanding between the two, because Zittel then told Latitude‘s LaDonna Bubak — and others — that the J/120 had sunk in about seven minutes. But as Russell told Latitude in a three-hour first-person interview in Cabo San Lucas on Saturday, she knows for certain that 45 minutes passed between the time the boat and the whale collided, and the time J/World‘s masthead Windex passed 18 inches in front of her face on its way to the bottom.

It was also widely but mistakenly reported that a whale or whales repeatedly attacked J/World. Russell and crewmember Judy Land say they have no idea how this completely inaccurate information got passed along. In reality, J/World had been sailing comfortably at about nine knots under a small jib and reefed main when, at the top of swells, the crew began to notice some whales in the area. Suddenly, they found themselves heading down a wave on a nearly head-on course with a humpback whale. Russell says J/World first hit the whale with her keel, and it felt as though they had run aground. Almost immediately afterward, she felt contact between the boat’s shaft and prop and the whale, resulting in blood in the water. Russell believes the whale then made a reactive flick of its mighty tail, jamming the rudder post up and aft, creating a roughly 8-inch by 14-inch hole in the transom area.

Russell is convinced the whale did not intententionally hit her boat, and there was only the initial brief contact with the huge mammal.

When the Coast Guard reported the incident, they stuck to the basic facts, making it seem like a fairly uneventful rescue of five sailors from a holed vessel. Having heard the entire tale from the skipper, we can assure you that it was so much more than that. Indeed, the story is so fascinating and educational that it will be the basis of a December issue Latitude interview with Russell, who had been doing her fourth Ha-Ha with J/World students. In the case of this interview, the text alone just doesn’t do it justice, so we’ll try to present the entire interview as a podcast shortly after the text version is published. Although it’s a long interview, we think that once you start, you won’t be able to stop listening.

When you read/hear Russell’s account, you’ll know why NBC in San Diego was wrong to report that J/World had "capsized."  And that the fellow who posted to the Wooden Boat Forum was wrong when he suggested — for reasons known only to him — that J/World had actually been hit by a submarine. There was another Wooden Boat Forum contributor who, after making the preposterous claim that container ship traffic in and out of Ensenada is among the busiest in the world, wildly speculated that J/World had probably hit a container. The problem with both of those theories is that whales bleed but subs and containers don’t. In some other forum, somebody claimed that "the same thing had happened in the Ha-Ha in ’02." We’re not sure whether the poster meant a Ha-Ha boat had sunk in ’02 or that a Ha-Ha crew had taken to a liferaft in ’02. In either case, they were completely wrong.

Fortunately, there was lots of terrific advice in the forums to help boatowners lessen the chance that their boats would be hit by whales in the future. One contributor recommended that boatowners — we’re not making this up — paint "I am not a whale" on the bottom of their boats. Then there is a SailNet contributor from "beautiful coastal Alabama" who suggested music as a solution. "I almost always play music as I cruise along," he wrote. "Maybe some Mozart or Schubert to alert any sleeping leviathons. I’m careful not to play any of that so-called contemporary music, because whales are very sensitive, and I don’t want to piss them off. I wonder what tape was being played on J/World, because cetaceans don’t accidently whack things with their tails." Nothing was being played on J/World. And for what it’s worth, how is the poster to know that whales don’t prefer Tupac and 50 Cent, and aren’t enraged by classical music? Then there was another SailNet guy who wrote that he ". . . might have to carry some BIG! cherry bombs to toss in the water . . . which might alter the whales and send them on their way." In the case of J/World, there just wouldn’t have been time to pull out the cherry bomb supply and start lighting them up before being hit.

Another licensed chaptain said there were sure ways of keeping whales away. First, you are to paint your boat to look like an orca. Second, you are supposed to record the sound of a pod of orcas feeding, then play it through a transducer. Presumably you’re supposed to drill a hole in your depthsounder and glue in a little Radio Shack speaker with some 5200. Or maybe just mount a big Best Buy speaker on the bottom of your boat next to the knotmeter sender.

There was also an amusing discription of the Ha-Ha itself. One poster called it an ". . . innocuous party fest." When it comes to being a party fest, we’ve always thought the Ha-Ha was pretty nocuous. Anyway, somehow, this fellow managed to segue from whales sinking sailboats into jibberish about relationships. "Relationships are everything to me," he wrote, "as everything else in life is just tools to enhance them." Then this philospher noted, "The purchase price of a boat is just the admittance fee to the dance. You still have to spend money on the girl. Court one with something going for her, with pleasing and desirable character traits others desire as well. Or you could find yourself in a disillusioned relationship contemplating an expensive divorce." We kept waiting for his thoughts on relationships with whales, but that ship never came in. Get him a booking on Oprah.

Finally, there was a rip-snorting mischaracterization of the Ha-Ha course — by someone who had actually sailed the waters some time ago. This poster expressed sympahty for the Ha-Ha fleet because ". . . there is virtually no place to hide for 800 miles on the Baja coast, as there are few easy harbors — Turtle Bay and Mag Bay can be iffy in some conditions — and few islands to get behind for relief, and everything is a lee shore. Frankly, it was the one of the most rugged passages in my 35 years of sailing. Although I have bashed north over the same route on deliveries in my younger days, I do not believe any sane person would do it in those conditions."

Whaaaaaaaa?!!!!!!!! Not only did a Catalina 27 in the Ha-Ha have no trouble with the conditions, but one of the beauties of the Ha-Ha course is that there are so many places to sit out northwesterly weather. Indeed, with winds over 20 knots and seas of 15 feet or more forecast for the second and third days, the Grand Poobah suggested that those Ha-Ha folks with less sailing experience, or those with young kids, might want to take shelter at one of the many spots not far off the rhumbline. Specifically, Ensenada, 60 miles down the coast from the start, Cabo Colnett, 125 miles from the start, Isla San Martin, 140 miles from the start, Cabo San Quintin, 175 miles from the start, or Punta Baja, 190 from the start. Indeed, there is an embarassment of riches when it comes to places to sit out strong winds and big seas. Ha-Ha boats found wonderful shelter in all the places mentioned. Indeed, we on Profligate spent an extremely comfortable night on the hook with about 70 other Ha-Ha boats at San Quintin. Try telling any one of them there wasn’t room for 250 more boats in that completely protected anchorage.

Turtle Bay "iffy"?!!!! We’ve dropped the hook for 16 of the last 17 years at both Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria — which is right next to Mag Bay — and never had anything but superb shelter. Indeed, one of the benefits of the Ha-Ha is that — unlike the races to Hawaii, the Caribbean 1500 or the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers — there are so very many places to hide out from prevailing winds.

People have asked why we at Latitude have never had a readers forum. The reason is because, after reading others, we’ve often felt our intelligence draining away as we read. This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t some great info on some of them, but rather that the filtering process is so poor that there is often the chance of more harm than good being done. Tellingly, one contributor mentioned above included the following quote: “Who is staring at the sea is already sailing a little.” It seems to us if the posters did more actual sailing than staring at the sea, we’d all be better off.

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“That wasn’t so hard after all!” For many in the fleet, completing the Ha-Ha is the inaugural step in a new life of cruising.