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 Sea

Tui De Roy/Corbis

Fixing the bilge pumps had bought Young some time, but the water beneath the floorboards was still slowly rising. As the hours crawled by, the vessel’s rocking grew more violent. In the pilothouse, Young clung to a safety line and distracted himself by replaying his life.

He recalled his first fishing trip with his father. He saw himself learning to ride a bike and sail a boat. He remembered his first car, his first love. He relived his children’s first steps and his first kiss with Debbie. And then came the great journey: He revisited Turkey and Thailand. He glided through the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. He sunned himself in the Bahamas, hiked through a Costa Rican rain forest, and cruised through the Panama Canal. He was sailing through a pod of whales off Baja California. Night fell, and he was gazing again at the stars.

Then Young yawned, rubbed his eyes, and watched the sun rise from the pearly sea. The boat was foundering now, waves washing over the gunwales. But something square and massive was looming on the horizon: a merchant ship with a largely Indian crew. Young willed the vessel forward. Finally, the huge carrier drew alongside, with a rope ladder draped down its rusty flank.

Young handed the bag of drawings and photos to a tall sailor. Then he followed the man up the ladder and collapsed, exhausted, onto the deck.

During his eight days on the freighter, Young got to know its young captain and developed a taste for East Indian food. He also learned what had crippled his boat: Crew members had seen a crack in the stern and severe damage to the propeller and rudder. After landing in Panama, he flew to Sacramento and made it home in time for his anniversary and his granddaughter’s birthday.

The whale may not have been so lucky: Two weeks after Young’s return, a 65-foot gray whale washed up on a beach in Baja, its head gouged with prop marks. “It could have been a coincidence, but I doubt it,” he says. “I feel bad that such a beautiful creature had to die.”

Young also mourns the loss of Reflections. He hopes to replace her someday and to decorate the new craft’s cabin with the family artwork he salvaged. Despite his losses,
he’s thankful for his memories. “Those,” he observes, “we can keep forever.”



Max Young

To read more about Max Young’s adventure, check out his book Reckoning at Sea: Eye to Eye with a Gray Whale

Tui De Roy/Corbis
Max Young

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