Friday, December 26, 2014

Sailor details disastrous journey in new book

Moonlight casts a shimmering shadow of "Reflections," Natomas resident Max J. Young's sailboat, in which he nearly circumnavigated the globe. A gray whale breached and sank his boat in June 2012 off the coast of Baja California. Courtesy photo

Meet the authors

Who: Max J. Young presenting his new book, “Reckoning at Sea: Eye to Eye With a Gray Whale,” written with Davis authors Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 26

Where: The Avid Reader, 617 Second St.

Collisions between large whales and recreational boats are exceptionally rare. That’s why sailor Max J. Young of Natomas made front-page newspaper headlines and internationally televised news coverage one year ago, following his dramatic rescue at sea.

As the hours agonizingly ticked away, Young was preparing to drown until a freighter rescued him minutes before his sailboat, “Reflections,” sank thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean.

Young had been sailing alone the night of June 12, 2012, on a northerly course through choppy swells 60 miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. He was bound for San Francisco, heading home with only 490 miles remaining on the final leg of a remarkably adventurous 36,660-mile circumnavigation of the globe that he began 12 years earlier.

Without warning, a gray whale that likely had been feeding in the depths below breached and landed with full force on the port-side stern of the sailboat, causing irreparable damage.

“The bow of the boat lifted, the way it would if I had hit a submerged rock,” Young said. “As surprised as I was, I could clearly see and feel everything that just occurred, as if it were taking place in slow motion. I could see the whale’s enormous head, and its dark blackish-gray eye. I had the feeling the whale must have seen me also.”

In those desperate, lonely hours, Young had his reckoning at sea as he contemplated the nightmarish end of his lifelong dream of sailing around the world. He describes that journey in detail in his new book, “Reckoning at Sea: Eye to Eye With a Gray Whale — A 12-year Circumnavigation,” written in collaboration with Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March of Davis.

During a 27-year statistical study period, only seven recreational boats were struck by whales — fewer than one every three years. Those statistics were compiled in a database published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service.

Young’s dream of sailing around the world began when he was a young boy living in a housing project adjacent to freight railroad tracks in Marysville. He slept at night in his small red wagon because his parents couldn’t afford a bed for him. But he dreamed big, of one day sailing around the world to visit the South Pacific destinations his dad had seen as a member of a military aircraft crew during World War II.

Over the course of his 32-year high school teaching career, Young bought “Reflections,” modified it, and saved enough money for his circumnavigation journey, which he began as he sailed from San Francisco Bay in May 2000.

He completed the journey in phases, some with a crew; some with his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Janelle; and on some stretches, “single-handing” — sailing alone. He tied up in numerous foreign ports and returned periodically to the United States before resuming the journey.

His circuitous course took him to remote islands in the South Pacific, to Australia, Indonesia and Thailand, then across the Indian Ocean. He traversed the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea and Sicily, the homeland of his mother. Young single-handed across the Atlantic and explored the Caribbean before passing through the Panama Canal during what would be the final days of glory for his beloved boat.

Along the way, he and his family befriended scores of welcoming people in exotic lands, and they learned about numerous cultures by experiencing them first-hand. The journey wasn’t entirely idyllic, though. They weathered fierce storms, and mistakes by inexperienced crew members put their lives in jeopardy.

Young battled serious illness twice; and in the forbidding Strait of Malacca and in the Gulf of Aden, he had two bone-chilling encounters with ruthless pirates.

The September 2013 edition of Reader’s Digest will contain a story about Young’s circumnavigation adventure.

“Reckoning at Sea: Eye to Eye With a Gray Whale” is available in print and e-book. For more information, visit



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