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.

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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.

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