What started as a sailing adventure for one man and three of his friends ended in a dramatic rescue after a giant whale sank his boat, leaving the group stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for hours and with a tale that might just be stranger than fiction.
Rick Rodriguez and his friends had been on what was meant to be a weekslong crossing to French Polynesia on his sailboat, Raindancer, when the crisis unfolded just over a week ago.
They had been enjoying some pizza for lunch when they heard a loud bang.
"It just happened in an instant. It was just a very violent impact with some crazy-sounding noises and the whole boat shook," Rodriguez told NBC's "TODAY" show in an interview that aired Wednesday.
"It sounded like something broke and we immediately looked to the side and we saw a really big whale bleeding,” he said.
The impact was so severe that the boat's propeller was ruptured and the fiberglass around it shattered, sending the vessel into the ocean.
As water began to rush into the boat, the group snapped into survival mode.
"There was just an incredible amount of water coming in, very fast," Rodriguez said.
Alana Litz, a member of the crew, described the ordeal as "surreal."
"Even when the boat was going down, I felt like it was just a scene out of a movie. Like everything was floating," she said.
Rodriguez and his friends acted fast, firing off mayday calls and text messages as they activated a life raft and dinghy.
He said he sent a text message to his brother Roger in Miami and to a friend, Tommy Joyce, who was sailing a "buddy boat" in the area as a safety measure.
“Tommy this is no joke," Rodriguez wrote in a text message. "We hit a whale and the ship went down."
"We are in the life raft," he texted his friend. "We need help *ASAP."
Raindancer sank within about 15 minutes, the group said. Their rescue took much longer that, with the four friends out on the open waters for roughly nine hours before they could be sure they would live to tell the tale.
Peruvian officials picked up the group's distress signal and the U.S. Coast Guard was alerted, with its District 11 in Alameda, California, being in charge of U.S. vessels in the Pacific.
Ultimately, it was another sailing vessel, the Rolling Stones, that came to the group's aid after Joyce shared the incident on a Facebook boat watch group.
Geoff Stone, captain of the Rolling Stones, said they were about 60 or 65 miles away when his crew members realized that their vessel was the closest boat.
After searching the waters, they were eventually able to locate the group of friends.
“We were shocked that we found them," Stone said.
The timing of the rescue, which unfolded at night, appeared to be critical as the Stones' crew members were able to see the light from the dinghy bobbing in the darkness.
Rodriguez lost his boat and the group of friends said they also lost their passports and many of their possessions, but they said they were just grateful to be alive.
The severity of the injuries sustained by the whale were not immediately clear.
Kate Wilson, a spokeswoman for the International Whaling Commission, told The Washington Post, which first reported the story, that there have been about 1,200 reports of whales and boats colliding since a worldwide database launched in 2007.
Collisions causing significant damage are rare, the Coast Guard told the outlet. It noted that the last rescue attributed to impact from a whale was the sinking of a 40-foot J-Boat in 2009 off Baja California. The crew in that incident was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.
One member of Raindancer's sailing crew, Bianca Brateanu, said the more recent incident, however harrowing, left her feeling more confident in her survival skills.
“This experience made me realize how, you know how capable we are, and how, how skilled we are to manage and cope with situations like this,” she said.
In an Instagram post, Rodriguez said he would remember his boat "for the rest of my life."
"What’s left of my home, the pictures on the wall, belongings, pizza in the oven, cameras, journals, all of it, will forever be preserved by the sea," he said.
"As for me, I had a temporary mistrust in the ocean. But I’m quickly realizing I’m still the same person," Rodriguez wrote. “I often think about the whale who likely lost its life, but is hopefully ok. I'm not sure what my next move will be. But my attraction to the sea hasn’t been shaken."