Squid attacks and a mast failure: a Jules Verne saga

Professor Pierre Aronnax, the fictional scientist in Jules Verne’s epic fantasy 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, described an encounter with a group of terrifying beasts with wriggling masses of tentacles that grappled with Nautilus and carried off several of his shipmates. Architeuthis dux, also known as the giant squid, wreaked havoc on the terrified crew of Verne’s submarine before they were able to hack the squids to bits with axes in a bloody, inky massacre. “Before my eyes there wriggled a terrible monster … It was a squid of colossal dimensions, about 25 feet long,” Aronnax related. “I counted seven of them wriggling around the Nautilus, and I could hear them grinding their beaks against the iron hull.”

Participants in an attempt to break the round-the-world speed record — in pursuit, appropriately enough, of the Jules Verne Trophy — reported a similar encounter while sailing their trimaran past the island of Madeira. “I saw a tentacle through a porthole,” said Olivier de Kersauson, skipper of the 34-meter (112-foot) tri Geronimo, via email from his boat a day after the incident. “It was thicker than my leg and it was really pulling the boat hard.” The squid locked onto one of the tri’s hulls and rudder, slowing the boat down and making steering all but impossible, according to the speed-crazed Frenchmen onboard. After rounding the boat into the wind, the squid apparently dropped off and swam away, no doubt casting a look askance at the crew with one of its dinner-plate eyes. “We didn’t have anything to scare off this beast, so I don’t know what we would have done if it hadn’t let go,” de Kersauson said. “We weren’t going to attack it with our penknives.”

Didier Ragot, a crewmember who witnessed the attack, reported how the squid glommed on: “The tentacles were as thick as my arms plus the waterproofs. Amazing! To begin with it was jammed between the top of the rudder blade and the hull and then it sent two of its tentacles down to the base of the rudder blade and grasped it right the way around at fence level. I saw it astern after it had let go, and I reckon it was about 10 metres long: absolutely enormous. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one so big: it shook the whole boat and it was rather worrying at the time.”

The encounter rattled squid scientists around the world, who hungrily feast over architeuthis encounters, since one has never been captured alive for research, sparking lively online debates. Because scientists believe that squid don’t attack sperm whales — that it’s the other way round, the whales attacking the squid for food — the Frenchmen were accused of fabricating the story as a prank. “I am afraid I simply do not believe this story,” squid expert Steve O’Shea told the Discovery Channel news site. “The animal resides at great depth. Something latched onto their boat, or got lodged against the rudder perhaps. Whatever it was, it was not a live giant squid.”

Despite the squid encounter, Geronimo managed numerous 500-mile days and was storming up the Atlantic at press time, the crew doing its best to battle another age-old sailor’s foe, the Doldrums, to claim the record. At press time, the vessel was crossing the equator before the final push to France.

The French were not the only ones to have an exciting race around the world. English wunderkind Ellen MacArthur was forced to retire from a Jules Verne attempt in February after her vessel, the 110-foot catamaran Kingfisher 2, suffered a complete dismasting. (Kingfisher 2 is the former Orange, which Frenchman Bruno Peyron used to set the Jules Verne record of 64 days in May 2002.) MacArthur and her crew were sailing in 25- to 30-knot winds about 100 miles southeast of the Kerguélen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, when the rig snapped into pieces and toppled without warning, falling forward and off to the port side, and missing the three crewmembers who were on deck at the time. After cutting the rig away and jury-rigging a replacement with the remaining 30-foot stub, the crew redirected their vessel to Fremantle in western Australia, where they arrived at sunset March 10, towed the final stretch by a commercial tug.

“I’m sitting here at my chart table feeling quite sick inside,” MacArthur wrote in an email to her sponsor shortly after the dismasting. “I can feel the water running by the hull, and feel the waves take Kingfisher 2 along — but not at the 20 knot average of earlier. For now our trip as we knew it is over. At 2222 on the 23rd of Feb I was jolted forward on the chart table seat whilst discussing weather with our router Meeno Schrader. Jolts forward happen quite often in these boats as we fire down waves — but this was different, this was a gut wrenching ear piercing crunching and snapping sound. I dropped the phone and hurled myself towards the companionway — looking round my feet as I went to check water coming onboard from anywhere — nothing. As I reached the hatch all became clear in a flash of nausea ... the 39.5 metre mast which has powered us ahead of the record over the past 24 days was no longer.”

By Ocean Navigator