Capetonians Ralph Mothes and Paloma Werner made international headlines a couple of weeks ago when a breaching Southern Wright whale crashed onto their 32-foot yacht Intrepid during a balmy Sunday afternoon sail. The ensuing publicity and controversy shook their world. Here Ralph and Paloma talk exclusively to sapeople about their whirlwind experience with a whale and the world.
The couple run the Cape Town Sailing Academy which was started in August 2009. Ralph (59) is the Principal and Chief Instructor. He’s a passionate sailor and qualified Yachtmaster who has cruised around the world, and whose enthusiasm for sailing rubbed off on his Spanish-born partner Paloma (50) who settled in South Africa 29 years ago. Ralph is also a yoga coach and has taught yoga in Germany, South Africa and Canada.
1. Wow! How are you feeling after your near-escape with the whale?
P: Lucky to be alive!
R: It was one of those incredible, miraculous escapes, a freak accident as it were.
2. So were you out on the water for work (academy training) or pleasure when the whale ran into you?
P: As it was a stunning Sunday in Cape Town, 18th July (Madiba’s birthday), we just went for a sail. It was just Ralph and myself.
3. Was there a moment when you were terrified? Or did it all pass very quickly? Did you actually see the whale hit the boat or was your back turned?
P: There was not time to be terrified because it all happened so quickly. We did see the whale hit the mast and ducked once the mast with rigging started coming towards us. Ralph behind the steering wheel and myself behind the dog house.
R: When the whale started breaching for the first time it was very far away and when it breached the second time closer to the boat I had a feeling that it might be on a collision course with us, and then suddenly it dived and the rest is history. The famous pic shows me at the helm and I saw this enormous black shape come out of the deep. According to Paloma, I said: ‘oh shit’!
4. Was the Intrepid okay to get you back to shore? If not – how did you get back?
P: As Intrepid is a steel boat the hull was not damaged. “Only” the mast, rigging and dog house. We were able to motor back into the Cape Town Harbour.
R: This was one of the main reasons I decided on a steel boat 6 years ago because boats and sailors have been lost at sea after being struck by whales and underwater floating containers etc. WIth a fibre glass boat the chances of sinking are much higher and this would probably have occurred if Intrepid was not built of steel. After the collision we both surfaced from the debris of the mast and chaos arround us, I asked Paloma to go down below to switch on the engine, she took over the helm and I radioed CT Port Control telling them of the incident, that we were OK and that we could make our way under our own steam back to the Royal Cape Yacht Club emergency jetty at the entrance.
5. Your story has been splashed around the world. Which experience has been more nerve-wracking – the confrontation with the whale, or being interviewed by the international press?
P: To be honest the most nerve-wracking experience has been the false accusations and nasty comments from people that do not know the whole story.
R: The unprecedented ‘media frenzy’ around the event has surprised me as well as the many ill informed and misguided allegations of ‘harassement’ etc. I must state quite categorically that sailors do not ‘harass whales’. We see lots of them regularly up and down the coast during the season. The subsequent video footage as well as the picture clearly shows that we we sailing and when the whale first started breaching we were very far away from it, the video footage only captures the second and third breach onto the boat. It would really be more helpful to all if reporters got their facts straight and desist from making false accusations etc. We certainly did not harass the whale, in fact we have the utmost admiration for these magnificent mammals and are always left in awe whenever we see them, which at this time of the year is frequent.
6. There have been a couple of conspiracy theorists who say the pics have been photoshopped. Who took the pics, and how did you get them?
P: The 2 main pictures were taken by a tourist from Botswana, James Dagmore. He gave them to the tour guide on the catamaran who in turn gave them to the Cape Argus. They were sent to us by the Cape Argus for verification that they had not been photoshopped. The subsequent video footage also confirms this.
7. What made you each pursue a career in sailing? Is this your dream?
P: I started sailing because Ralph got the boat and taught me to sail. The more comfortable I got the more I have started to love it.
R: I have always been passionate about water and the sea and first started sailing in the early 1970’s and have always dreamed of doing what I am doing now. I love teaching – both yoga and sailing; and feel that people should do what they are passionate about.
8. Has the whale experience made you a little nervous to go out again when there are whales breaching?
P: Not at all, we went sailing the following Sunday. However in future we will switch the engine on if we get approached by a whale and take evasive action.
R: I tend to agree with Paloma’s comments but it must be stated that juvenile whales are unpredictable and one never knows when they might breach. I guess like young children that suddenly go a little wild, this one without warning started breaching and the rest is history. We have subsequently been told by whale experts that the whales have poor eyesight and had we put our engines on it probably would not have happened. Then again most serious sailors will tell you that they loath engines and only use them when necessary, preferring to sail and not motor etc. No, the experience still leaves me in awe of these amazing creatures and we will continue to treat them with the respect they deserve.
9. There’s that saying about turning lemons into lemonade – it seems you guys are doing that. Have any exciting opportunities arisen from this experience?
R: Both Paloma and I have enjoyed chatting to numerous international and local media, giving our version of the actual events, and we trust that the Cape Town Sailing Academy will continue to go from strength to strength. It certainly has been somewhat of a worldwide media frenzy, and the pictures James Dagmore took have captured the imagination of millions of people worldwide. Naturally we have suffered quite a lot of damage to the Intrepid and welcome any financial or marketing support for the school, should it be forthcoming.
10. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt from this experience?
P: That having a steel boat saved our life and to know that I can trust Ralph to be in 100% control of any situation at sea.
R: Yes, thank God for a steel boat, the fact that the whale hit the mast and not us in the cockpit and that the engine should be on when we see whales etc., regardless of whether we are sailing or not.
11. Please finish the sentence:
I love being South African because…we have a passion for life, are innovative and live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world…