Dan­ger in the Deep Blue Sea

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

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - KEN­NETH MILLER

Calamity af­ter a 40-tonne whale slammed onto a ship

A dozen years af­ter he set out to sail around the world, Max Young was en­ter­ing the home­stretch—a 1400-km haul from Cabo San Lu­cas, Mex­ico, to San Diego, USA, then an 800-km hop to San Fran­cisco. On a moon­less night in June 2012, his 50-foot [15-me­tre] 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 night-time nav­i­ga­tion. To­day, how­ever, he had only cat­napped: The ocean had been full of whales—greys, he guessed, mi­grat­ing to­wards Alaska. He’d seen dozens, more than he’d ever ob -served in such con­cen­tra­tion. Lolling and flour­ish­ing their flukes, they were won­der­ful to watch, but he was relieved when he’d got past them. Now he stretched and glanced at the au­topi­lot gauges. The chronome­ter read 10:12pm.

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 glass fi­bre as the head and up­per body of the 40-tonne 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—three me­tres tall, made of 5-cm steel tub­ing—swayed, then col­lapsed into the sea. The stern rail­ing was man­gled, but the craft was still afloat. Young pre­sumed that its 4-cm thick hull had sur­vived the event.

His first con­cern was to get back on course. He was now headed south­west, to­wards 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 one me­tre 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 cen­time­tres.

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 bit.

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 US Coast Guard fa­cil­i­ties could pick up the bea­cons’ fre­quen­cies, and the near­est base was in San Diego, 725 kilo­me­tres 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 kilo­me­tres—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.

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; for ex­tra cash, he re­mod­elled and sold 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 Cal­i­for­nia 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 kilo­me­tres fur­ther around the world—some­times with his wife or a vol­un­teer crew, other times alone.

There had been j oy along t he 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 France, 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 f illing with wa­ter, and help out of reach.

At 1:30am, Young was pray­ing again when a plane cir­cled over­head. His ra­dio crack­led to life. “This is Lieu­tenant 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 learnt, 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, Mex­ico. 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 van-

ished when she added, “The ves­sel is 70 kilo­me­tres 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.

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, Mex­ico’s western state. 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 ei ght days on t he freighter, he got to know its young cap­tain and de­vel­oped a taste for East In­dian food. He also learnt 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 Cal­i­for­nia 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 20-me­tre grey 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 t han­k­ful for his mem­o­ries. “Those,” he ob­serves, “we can keep for­ever.”

Grey whales breach the wa­ter to knock off bar­na­cles on their skin. It’s also one of the ways they com­mu­ni­cate.

For breed­ing, grey whales mi­grate to the waters along Baja Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­ico, where Young’s ac­ci­dent oc­curred.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.