The Sailor and the Whale: Survival at Sea

A 40-ton gray whale lunges onto the deck, and Max Young seems sunk. What follows is the fight of his life.

By Kenneth Miller | Reader's Digest Magazine
Deep Blue SeaTui De Roy/Corbis

Max Young grew up in Northern California, one of seven children of a highway worker and a waitress. His father moonlighted as a commercial fisherman, and Young often accompanied him on his expeditions. Aboard their small trawler, Young’s dad would describe his exploits as a B-24 pilot during World War II, when he flew bombing runs across the South Pacific. At age 12, Young announced that he was going to sail to all the places his father talked about.

He spent the next five decades preparing for the voyage, honing his seamanship on boats of increasing size and complexity. After getting married and earning a master’s degree in industrial design, he financed his passion by teaching shop class and science at a high school outside Sacramento; for extra cash, he remodeled and flipped houses. In 1987, when he was 43 and divorced, he bought Reflections—the big, sleek boat that matched his childhood dreams. He broke it in on jaunts along the California coast with his second wife, Debbie, and their kids (two from his first marriage, one from hers, and the daughter they had together). And then, in 2000, he retired and began his globe-circling odyssey.

At first, Young followed the route his father had taken during the war: San Francisco to Australia, by way of Hawaii, French Polynesia, Samoa, Fiji, and various islands in between. He and Debbie, a financial adviser, spent two years in Australia before returning to Sacramento to work and replenish their funds. From then on, whenever time and money allowed, Young would fly to the last place he’d left the boat and pilot it a few thousand miles farther around the world—sometimes with his wife or a volunteer crew, other times alone.

There had been joy along the way—breathtaking sights, rewarding friendships—but also trouble. Huddled now in the pitching pilothouse, Young remembered terrifying storms. He recalled the time the wind failed off New Caledonia, and he spent days disassembling the engine and putting it back together before it would start. He remembered the pirates off Malaysia who threatened to ram his boat. None of those situations, however, were as dire as this one: his steering gone, his boat filling with water, and help out of reach.

At 1:30 a.m., Young was praying again when a plane circled overhead. His radio crackled to life. “This is Lt. Amy Kefarl, United States Coast Guard,” said a voice through the static. “Do you read me?”

Young’s heart was hammering as he answered: “Thank you, Coast Guard. I thought this was the end.” As he later learned, the signal from his emergency beacon, carrying his approximate location as well as contact information for his wife, had reached a base near San Francisco; an officer had called Debbie, who confirmed that Young was four days’ sail north out of Cabo San Lucas. The cargo plane had then headed to sea, homing in on a blip on the radar, from one of Young’s emergency beacons.

“We’ve found a container ship to pick you up,” Kefarl told him, after Young briefed her on his encounter with the whale. But his elation vanished when she added, “The vessel is 45 miles out. It should reach you in about five and a half hours.”

“I don’t have that long,” he protested. “I’m taking on water fast.”

“Have you checked to make sure all the bilge pumps are working?”

He hadn’t. With the boat wallowing and listing, he’d feared it might capsize at any moment, trapping him below. But now he realized he had no choice but to risk it. When he opened the hatch, he saw that the pumps were covered with a mass of pipes and wires that had floated out of two storage bins. Only one of the devices was working; the others must have turned off when the debris settled on their switches. He cleared away the junk and was pleased to hear the disabled pumps hum back into action.
Then he began snatching mementos from the walls and stuffing them into a garbage bag—drawings by the kids, framed photos from his wanderings. He also grabbed a bag full of souvenirs for his family and hauled both sacks with him up the stairs.

When he was back in the pilothouse, the voice on the radio had more instructions. “Mr. Young, I’d like you to get your life raft into the water now. That way, it’ll be ready if you need to jump into it.”

Stepping onto the deck, Young noticed pieces of whale flesh lying near the stern. They were black on one side and glistening with bloodstained blubber on the other, and they ranged in size from banana to bread loaf. That must have hurt, Young thought. In spite of himself, he felt a rush of pity for the beast and hoped it hadn’t been badly injured. He lifted the smallest chunk; it felt like rubberized leather. Then he made his way to the foredeck, pulled the life raft out of its storage case, and dropped it over the side. He tugged on its tether to inflate it. But no matter how many times he did so, it remained stubbornly flat.

Reflections also carried an inflatable dinghy, normally used for trips to shore, and Kefarl suggested he try launching that. Young tossed in the bag of souvenirs before lowering the semi-flaccid vessel. To his chagrin, the bag toppled out and vanished beneath the waves. Worse, Young couldn’t find the pump to inflate the dinghy.

Suddenly, Young’s chances seemed much slimmer. He was wearing a flotation suit, designed to provide buoyancy if he were separated from his vessel, but it couldn’t protect him from sharks or hypothermia. If Reflections went down before the rescue ship arrived, he realized, he would likely perish with it.

  • Your Comments

    • Jessica Jacquet

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