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