Graham Holley and Georgina Asumae have a whale of a tale to tell.

In fact, 70-year-old Holley has been sailing since he was a boy and reckons he's never experienced anything like he did heading from Napier to Opua.

First a rogue wave struck his 38ft (11.6m) ketch, causing it to roll on its side. Five minutes later an eight or nine-metre whale burst two metres above deck and collided with the bow of the ship, leaving a huge dent.

"I said what's next, what could be next?" Holley said.


The drama unfolded on April 16, the day after they left Napier for Opua on their boat Supermolli.

The couple, who are almost 18 months into a sailing adventure, were about 80km off East Cape.

It was about 11am and the winds were around 30 to 35 knots.

Holley was in the cockpit and Asumae asleep in the cabin.

Graham Holley and Georgina Asumae were heading from Napier to Opua when their 38ft ketch was tipped by a wave and then collided with a whale.

From nowhere, a rogue wave struck the port side, tipping the boat on its right side. It righted itself, but not before the impact woke Asumae, lifted floorboards and sent items in the cabin flying.

"I looked around and everything was starboard. I went upstairs to check Graham and I asked what happened," said Asumae.

Holley said the bulk of the wave came across the cabin top.

"The cutlery drawer jumped out of its lock and the contents shot across to the starboard side of the vessel, along with tea bags and onion peels which shot out of the sink," he said.

The couple checked for leaks but the only water that entered the vessel came through the vents and the breather, an outlet pipe.

Just as they were processing the shock, five minutes later the whale came.

"We'd got our act back together and back on course," said Holley. "I saw a grey whale — I believe it was a humpback whale — rise off our starboard bow and probably to a height of two metres."

At the time, Asumae was in the cabin putting back the floorboards. She stood up and heard a loud bang.

"I said 'what was that?' and Graham was opening the companionway [the passage down from the deck] and said 'check if there are any leaks'."

Couple survived their boat being flipped only to then be hit by a whale. Photo / John Stone
Couple survived their boat being flipped only to then be hit by a whale. Photo / John Stone

With the hull intact, instead of heading to Opua the couple made their way to Marsden Cove, just outside Whangarei. They arrived on Good Friday and because water had damaged the motor, had to call Coastguard to tow them to shore.

Supermolli was designed by Colin Archer, a Norwegian naval architect whose most famous ship was used in polar expeditions.

Holley said the large dent caused by the whale had to be repaired along with the dodger, which protects the companionway, the solar panel and engine. He expected work to take another six weeks.

"It's made me realise how good the boat is. I think the joy of coming out of it and being able to say 'what's next?' means we're still okay."

Whale expert Dr Ingrid Visser said New Zealand had one of the highest incidence of boats striking whales in the Southern Hemisphere.

"We always encourage people to be vigilant around marine mammals. Given the stormy conditions a whale could easily make a mistake so it's important to remember that in New Zealand boats should not approach closer than 50 metres to any whale.

"It must have been frightening for both the whale and the people," she said.

Anyone who spots a whale can call The Orca Research Trust on 0800 SEE ORCA (0800 733 6722).