IN­VIS­I­BLE PRES­ENCE

A YOUNG COU­PLE ON THEIR 30FT YACHT HAVE A DRA­MATIC MEET­ING WITH A POD OF HUMP­BACK WHALES ON THE WEST AUS­TRALIAN COAST

Yachting World - - Front Page -

It’s far too easy for a re­tired ocean sailor like me who served his time 40 years ago in a freer, sim­pler world, to imag­ine that the age of high ad­ven­ture, near-zero fund­ing and min­i­mal­ist boats has gone with the wind. It has not. Hu­man­ity doesn’t change a jot, and the good ship Orca and her bold crew are here to spell it out for us.

John A. Pen­ning­ton is a 22-year-old surfer from Cal­i­for­nia who de­cides life has more to of­fer than the beach and an­other wipe-out, so he goes for a sail in­stead. He and his girl­friend Kara ship out in a 30ft boat and sim­ply dis­ap­pear into the Pa­cific with no par­tic­u­lar voy­age plan. One im­prob­a­ble sce­nario leads to an­other un­til they find them­selves in West­ern Aus­tralia.

Morale has taken a se­ri­ous thrash­ing in the Aus­tralian Bight, and read­ing of Kara’s re­ac­tions to the idea of fur­ther pas­sage­mak­ing whisks me back many decades to my own sim­i­lar re­sponse fol­low­ing a beat­ing-up in the North At­lantic. It’s all so real. The char­ac­ters they meet are larger than life, the in­ci­dents on pas­sage are out­ra­geous and there are laughs even when all seems lost.

John’s book en­ti­tled sim­ply Orca is a to­tal blast from be­gin­ning to end. The paperback is cheaper than a glass of cham­pagne in a Lon­don bar, and it’s even freely avail­able on the in­ter­net. Here they are, in a re­mote Aus­tralian out­port, watch­ing their fate slowly re­veal it­self in the form of straight, down­town, fem­i­nine logic. Af­ter a week in the vil­lage I could walk down the sin­gle street and greet ev­ery­one by name. Af­ter a month, I’d in­quire af­ter their grand­moth­ers’ bunions and send my re­gards to their sec­ond cousins, and each day slid by in a fas­ci­nat­ing malaise of com­fort­able com­pan­ion­ship, sunny weather, fun surf and new friends.

That all ended when Kara’s lit­tle brother, Nathaniel, said he wanted a taste of the sail­ing life. The fates cer­tainly pro­vided it. Per­haps we all got a lit­tle more than we bar­gained for.

The night his plane landed, an ex­tremely vi­o­lent cold front swept through West­ern Aus­tralia – me­te­o­rol­o­gists called it a once-in-a-decade storm. Power was knocked out in much of Perth, light­ning flick­ered across the south­ern sky, and 17 boats were lost in the vul­ner­a­ble Fre­man­tle moor­ing fields. White-out con­di­tions pre­vailed in my lit­tle haven, with gusts to 70 knots. Orca was ready for storm con­di­tions with dou­ble moor­ing lines and ex­tra chafe gear, but other boats weren’t so lucky.

At 3am an un­manned sloop went fly­ing by, pushed by the sus­tained pres­sure of 50 knots. With a dinghy res­cue ren­dered im­pos­si­ble by the 4ft whitecaps rolling through the har­bour, I threw on my wet­suit and dove over­board, strik­ing out to save the boat be­fore she crashed into the break­wa­ter. Scram­bling aboard, I searched fran­ti­cally for an an­chor, the en­gine start switch, or any other way to avert dis­as­ter—but there was noth­ing.

I braced for the ship­wreck and a re­sound­ing boom set the mast vi­brat­ing and trig­gered an avalanche of gear down below. The cabin lights flick­ered, electrics knocked loose by the im­pact. I leaped over­board and scram­bled up the break­wa­ter to where the rest of the vil­lage had gath­ered. With the boat pinned to the rocks by wind and waves there was lit­tle to be done. As a tes­ta­ment to the strength and dura­bil­ity of fi­bre­glass, the boat ham­mered against the rocks for hours be­fore be­ing towed off af­ter the storm – still afloat. This gave me some much-needed con­fi­dence for what hap­pened to Orca the next week.

I felt re­cov­ered and ready to pro­ceed, aside from a pro­nounced limp. I’d walked across town in search of an oil-pres­sure sen­sor for Orca’s en­gine soon af­ter ar­rival. My with­ered walk­ing ap­pendages had not been pleased, and a ten­don on my star­board side had re­belled by seiz­ing and swelling; it re­fused to heal. Oth­er­wise, I was ready to con­tinue the voy­age.

Kara had re­cov­ered – but only phys­i­cally. Af­ter her col­lapse in the Bass Straight and sub­se­quent bat­ter­ing in the Bight, she was strug­gling with a cri­sis of con­fi­dence. Weather dis­cus­sions gave her an un­palat­able mix­ture of symp­toms – sweaty palms, un­con­trol­lable shal­low breath­ing, heart pal­pi­ta­tions, and gen­eral at­tacks of anx­i­ety. Her night­mares were of waves, storms, and sink­ing; she’d of­ten wake scream­ing and in tears. Panic struck at odd times, even un­der fine weather in port, un­ex­pect­edly re­duc­ing her to trem­bling si­lence and tear­ful still­ness. Look­ing back, I now re­al­ize that I was dan­ger­ously, hor­ri­bly close to los­ing my first mate.

Af­ter the storm front, I stub­bornly loaded Kara and

John and Kara Pen­ning­ton’s ad­ven­tures aboard Orca even­tu­ally took them north to Alaska

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