What Happens If You Smash a Boat Into a Whale?

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Ed note: Today marks exactly 10 years since Rhett first started writing physics posts for WIRED. Congratulate him on Twitter!

On the show The Boys, a speedboat smashes into a cetacean and the humans emerge unscathed. Could this happen in real life?

I think the best thing about The Boys on Amazon Prime is that it shows all the bad stuff that can happen when humans get superpowers. So it’s still a superhero show—but with a different viewpoint. That makes it interesting.

Of course I’m always on the lookout for physics problems to solve, and I found one in season 2 of the show. There is this scene in episode 3 in which the Deep tries to be a hero and stop the non-superheroes. Oh, the Deep is basically like Aquaman—he can swim underwater and he can talk to sea creatures (fish, yes, but also whales and other mammals). The Deep wants to stop a speedboat from escaping into a tunnel. To do this, he “asks” the whale to jump onto the beach and block the boat’s path. Oh, shouldn’t the beach stop the boat? Yeah, probably. I guess the Deep is just trying to overdo it, to show he’s a real hero.

In this scene, the boat does stop—but not before plowing straight into the side of the whale. The whale doesn’t survive, but everyone in the speedboat mostly walks away. Although it’s terrible that the whale died, at least we can get a nice physics problem out of this. (The whale was fake anyway.) In the show, we get a top-down view of this boat-whale collision as though it were filmed with a drone. This means that it’s perfect for a video analysis. Using software like Tracker Video Analysis, I can get the position of the boat and whale in each frame of the video. From this, I can find the velocity and acceleration of the boat and determine if real humans could survive.

Pretty much the first step in any video analysis is to determine the scale. In this case, I can use the length of the speedboat to set the distance scale. One small problem: I don’t actually know the size of the boat. I’m just going to guess it’s a 21-foot boat. That at least seems reasonable.

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