Whale of a tow

The juvenile humpback whale which stranded recently on a Gold Coast beach sparked a marathon 38-hour rescue effort, captivating locals and generating media interest from across Australia and world-wide. College Director’s Jeff and Sue were there, joined by many concerned spectator’s to watch the rescue unfold.

Stranded whale being cared for by Seaworld Crew
Stranded whale being cared for by Seaworld Crew

Seaworld’s experienced Research and Rescue Crew were quick to respond with their research vessel Seaworld One to attempt towing the whale off the beach at high tide. It quickly became obvious this was not going to be an easy rescue with an ebbing tide leaving the whale stranded firmly on the sandbar, waiting for the next high tide when Seaworld could attempt to tow the whale out to deeper water.

Seaworld Crew get manouvering to get the harness under the whale ready for the tow
Seaworld Crew manouvering to get the harness under the whale ready for the tow
Failed whale tow attempt whale rolls in the surf
Failed whale tow attempt whale rolls in the surf

Towing the whale was  a complex operation involving the setting up of a towing bridle from the stern of Seaworld One with a running pulley block attached to the end of a 100 metre towline. Surf lifesaving jetski crew ran the tow line into the surf break where the Seaworld crew waited to attach the towline to Seaworld’s whale harness for placing under the whale’s petrel fins. The harness is specially designed to minimise injury to the whale. Getting the harness and whale prepared for the tow was a delicate operation of keeping rescuers safe whilst protecting the whale from further stress and injury. Imagine, the strain on the tow line created by the weight of whale (roughly 15 tonne) plus its dead weight on the sand, combined with the movement against the wave break.

Seaworld One and jetski getting reading to attempt to tow the stranded whale to deeper water
Seaworld One and jetski getting reading to attempt to tow the stranded whale to deeper water

After several towing attempts the juvenile whale broke free and was able to swim out to deeper water under the watchful eye of the crew aboard Seaworld One. The whale was last seen swimming strongly heading North, hopefully to catch up with other whales.

The key message in this story is to remind boat operators that before taking on towing another stranded vessel follow good seamanship practice:

  1. Ask the stranded boat owner if they require towing assistance. This is a legal requirement. Don’t take on the tow without permission from the stranded vessel owner.
  2. Be sure your vessel has the capacity to undertake the tow. If not, call your local volunteer coast guard or Marine Rescue unit who will have a vessel equipped to undertake the tow.
  3. Do you have a suitable towline and bridle aboard? A long line is required for towing at least 200m. Share the load between the rear corners of your vessel by running a line (bridle) from each corner and passing it through the eye of the end of the line. The rougher the weather the stronger and longer the tow line should be to give elasticity and strength to withstand the strain of the tow. In heavy weather and large seas a tow line maybe 100 to 250 metres long for an under 6 metre vessel in tow. The length of the rope enables both the towing and towed vessel to rise up on a wave at the same time.
  4. Ask the other Skipper to secure the line to the eye on the bow that the trailer wire usually normally hooks onto, or a cleat or bollard on larger vessels.
  5. Make sure the other stranded vessels motor leg is in the water. This will make the other vessel trail better.
  6. Ask the crew (in the vessel being towed) to move most of their weight aft.
  7. Set your vessel’s tow speed sensibly.
  8. When approaching the wharf, anchorage or marina the tow-rope can be shortened. The tow-rope should not be slipped until the vessel being towed is attached to the wharf or anchored safely. The towed vessel can be ‘shoved off’ onto the wharf from the towing vessel with tow-rope remaining attached.

You can learn how to successfully conduct towing operations and set up towing lines correctly by the contacting the College.

Written by NATIONAL MARITIME COLLEGE

The National Maritime College (NMC) is a Registered Training Organisation providing competency-based boat training and education. The College offers boat licence and jet ski (PWC) licence courses and tests designed to improve boating skills and awareness. You can expect friendly and professional training from from us. It is the "personal touch" and dedication to improving safety on the water whilst instilling - confidence, knowledge and good boat handling skills that sets us apart.

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