Experience: we were shipwrecked after our boat hit a whale | Life and style

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I was 20 when, having grown up in Birmingham and dropped out of university, I wanted an adventure. I bought a plane ticket to the Canary Islands and, with no sailing experience, hitched boat rides across the Atlantic, making it to New Zealand.

I settled there, working as a carpenter and builder, and met my wife, Rosie, in 2012. Rosie was English, too, and when she was pregnant with our daughter Anua in 2014, we returned to the UK. But by the time Anua’s sister Willow arrived in 2017, we’d decamped again, to France.

The grand plan was a life on the ocean. We loved the water and wanted to share that with the girls. But when they were aged four and one, Rosie died from breast cancer. We were devastated.

Three years passed until, in December 2021, I saw a 38ft catamaran for sale in Portimão, Portugal. I sold our little house and bought it. I wanted to find someone to live onboard and help with the girls while I worked, and Kim, an artist and seasoned sailor, answered. Kim and I soon fell in love and in June 2022, the four of us set sail.

We cruised along Portugal’s Algarve coast to the Canaries then the Azores, and planned to return to England during winter. It was late August and, on our fourth night at sea, I took first watch while Kim and the girls slept. It was calm. Then at about 10pm, there was a loud bang.

Kim was catapulted from bed. I raced down the hatch. Water was gushing over my ankles. As I searched for damage, my hand touched a jagged piece of wood. Attached to it was a large chunk of grey skin with a thick layer of pink, blubbery flesh that could only belong to a whale.

The wooden plank left a hole in the boat. I didn’t want to know if the whale was still out there. We were sinking fast. Water was waist-high. Kim was scooping out as much water as she could. Willow was moved to the port hull with Anua, where the cabin was watertight. We were 600 miles off Portugal, all alone.

I activated distress calls to alert passing ships and the coastguard; to keep the boat afloat for as long as possible, we threw our worldly possessions overboard. If we weren’t rescued before it went down, we’d have to flee in a dinghy, so we pumped it up and Kim prepared food and water for three days. There would be no space on the dinghy for our dog, Nala. The horror of our situation hit hard. Kim stayed with the girls while I sat on the roof, chain-smoking, watching for help and preparing for death.

At about 1am, I saw a low-flying plane. I scrambled for a torch and waved frantically. I was sure it had seen us and calculated it would take 30 hours for a boat to leave port and reach us. We had to find a way to survive.

Kim and I spoke of many end-of-the-world things as we waited and the girls slept. About 4.30am, I spotted a light on the horizon. To my relief, it was a ship. We raised the emergency beacon. By 5.30am more lights were visible – heading directly for us.

I woke the girls. As the sun rose, we said goodbye to our beautiful home, disembarked into the dinghy – with Nala – and paddled towards the tanker. The crew – Croatian and Georgian workers bringing gas from the US to Poland – were relieved to see us alive. The last time they had performed a recovery, they’d found a dead man.

Their route passed through the Channel, where we were transferred to a fishing boat that took us to Falmouth, where my family was waiting. The captain, Alan, treated us to fish and chips and a pint.

Many of our things sank with our boat, including Rosie’s ashes. We weren’t insured for a collision with a whale, and are now staying at my mum’s, in Malvern, Worcestershire.

I’ve started a crowdfunder, to rebuild. I’m bricklaying but want to build tiny, off-grid homes. When we make enough money, we’ll return to sea and continue our dream.

What happened to us was a valuable lesson in the frailty of human existence. It was almost biblical. It seems fate dealt us a cruel hand but we’re hopeful that everything happens for a reason – it just doesn’t become clear until you’re farther down the road.

As told to Deborah Linton

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