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.

Gray Whale

Marcos Delgado/Getty Images

A dozen years after he set out to sail around the world, Max Young was entering the homestretch—an 850-mile haul from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to San Diego, then a 500-mile hop to San Francisco. On a moonless night in June 2012, his 50-foot cutter, Reflections, cruised northward, propelled by a steady breeze, its rudder guided by autopilot. Young, 67, sat in the pilothouse, gazing out at a magnificent conflagration of stars. The retired schoolteacher wished that his wife, who’d skipped this leg of the trip, were there to share the beauty.

A yawn escaped him. Usually, Young slept all day when he was sailing solo so he’d be fully alert to meet the challenges of nighttime navigation. Today, however, he had only catnapped: The ocean had been full of whales—grays, he guessed, migrating toward Alaska. He’d seen dozens, more than he’d ever observed in such concentration. Lolling and flourishing their flukes, they were wonderful to watch, but he was relieved when he’d gotten past them. Now he stretched and glanced at the autopilot gauges. The chronometer read 10:12 p.m.

Suddenly, Young heard a tremendous whoosh from beneath the hull. His adrenaline surged. An instant later, a whale easily as long as the boat rocketed out of the water in a cascade of silver spray, just off the stern. It seemed suspended upright above Reflections, the barnacles on the underside of its head glimmering in the vessel’s running light. Next came a cacophony of crumpling metal and cracking fiberglass as the head and upper body of the 40-ton animal slammed onto the rear deck. The bow tilted skyward. For a moment, the sailor and the whale made eye contact. Young toppled forward into a pile of bags. As the creature struggled to free itself, the boat turned sharply to the left. When Young looked up, the beast was gone.

The tower that held his wind generator and radio antennas—ten feet tall, made of two-inch steel tubing—swayed, then collapsed into the sea. The stern railing was mangled, but the craft was still afloat. Young presumed that its inch-and-a-half-thick hull had survived the event.

Mike Reagan for Reader’s Digest

His first concern was to get back on course. He was now headed southwest, toward Polynesia. Young figured the collision had thrown the autopilot out of adjustment, so he tried to reset it. But the boat continued on its wayward path.

Perhaps the problem was with the steering. Young went below to check the lines, but they seemed normal. In the stern cabin, he noticed that the floor and mattress were wet. Then, on his way back up the steps, he heard an ominous sloshing. Lifting a hatch beneath the small stairway, he was shocked to find three feet of water in the bilge, an area between the floorboards and the hull. Some accumulation was normal, but a set of pumps usually kept it to a few inches.

Young began checking the most likely sources of a leak: the pipes that ran from the galley and two bathrooms through the hull and the spot where the bilge pumps emptied into the ocean. Everything was sound. When he checked the bilge again, the water was still rising. Returning to the top deck, he tried steering the boat by hand, but the wheel would turn only a few inches.

Now Young was fighting panic. He quickly set off two emergency beacons. For good measure, he flipped the switch on his pocket-size beacon, which had a much smaller range but a signal that could provide rescuers with more precise information about his location. Only U.S. Coast Guard facilities could pick up the beacons’ frequencies, and the nearest base was in San Diego, 450 miles to the northeast. He wasn’t sure if the alert would make it that far, and, if it did, whether Reflections would still be afloat by the time help arrived.

Hoping to summon assistance from nearby, he grabbed a portable two-way radio—able to transmit over just a few miles—and shouted, “Mayday! Mayday!” There was no response.

Young sat down and took a deep breath. It’s been a good life, God, he prayed. I’m not a young guy. But my 23rd wedding anniversary is in two weeks, and my granddaughter’s third birthday is the same day.

She’s got leukemia, God. I’d really like to make it home.

Deep Blue Sea
Tui 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.

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

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest