A young couple on their 30ft yacht Orca 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.

From Orca by John A Pennington

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.

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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.


Evening watch as the sun goes down

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 realise that I was dangerously, horribly close to losing my first mate.

After the storm front, I stubbornly loaded Kara and Nathaniel aboard and set out for Shark Bay, 250 miles up the coast. The storm’s leftover slop and onshore conditions made for fast but miserable sailing. Nathaniel was confined to his bunk, groggy and nauseous. At night, the cloud cover and new moon plunged us into complete darkness, the horizonless night causing even me to feel the early symptoms of seasickness.

The shallow offshore reefs along this coastline bend the seas in strange ways, and occasionally the refracted swells combine beyond an unpredictable and uncomfortable motion into breaking crests – one of which ploughed into us amidships and sent several gallons of seawater cascading below. Nathaniel groaned and buried his head in the now-wet pillow.

Kara slogged down the companionway from the filled cockpit and I took the watch. I was huddling in the dubious protection of the dodger, aflood of icy rain running down my sleeve, when there was an awful crash. The bow lurched upward as Orca ran up onto something. The rigging shook, the mast flexing and oscillating with the shock. There was a second thud under the keel and the stern flew above the bow. Then, we crashed back onto an even keel in a crater of spray. The whole incident was over in an instant.


Orca at anchor in the south-west of Tasmania

I leaped to my feet, eyes on our wake but there was nothing in the darkness. Kara wrenched open the bilge covers and reported no water. I grabbed the wheel to feel for feedback from the rudder – hopefully we still had one. I spun the wheel, concentrating, when a deafening blast and a jet of water erupted alongside Orca.

I felt a huge, violent, and terrifying presence in the blackness: a whale, close enough to touch. We were sailing among a pod of them, invisible in the murk. They couldn’t hear Orca, sailing silent in the blackest of moonless nights. We’d collided.

Nathaniel groaned, still uncomprehendingly and uncaringly seasick, and rolled over in his wet bunk. Kara, shaking with panic-tinged adrenaline, snapped through the charts looking for the closest port. A freighter terminal was close; we diverted. Under the cover of darkness, Orca found anchorage in a rolly corner behind the dubious protection of a submerged and derelict breakwater.


Landfall in the South Pacific

The following morning I dove under the boat to inspect the hull. Despite a distinct whale-textured impression in the antifoul paint near the bow, everything seemed fine. The propeller and rudder were present and accounted for, and our fibreglass looked solid and unfractured.

Since Orca’s keel was already battered from the reef in New Caledonia, I mentally led the whole thing away as a great experience for Nathaniel, who let out a snore. Kara, however, understood exactly how fortunate we’d been. “I don’t know, I don’t think I can do it. I can’t go back to sea.”

She needed encouragement; I provided. “You can do it, we can do it. Look, the weather forecast is still good,” I said. A tear tracked down her cheek. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.

“Sorry? Why should you be sorry?”

“I’m weak. I’m letting you down, I know. I’m letting Orca down, but I’m just so nervous. Something bad always happens at sea.”

I sighed. This was typical. I’d kidnapped Kara from a happy life in California and ordered her to sail into a series of storms in the Southern Ocean, and she thinks all this is her fault. I tried a new tack.


Anchored up in a South Pacific atoll

“You call last night something bad? This is great! We just crashed into a freaking humpback whale and survived without a scratch! Imagine the free drinks at the next pub!” Her mouth quirked, but the tears still ran.

She sniffed. “Well, I guess you’re kind of right, which is pretty unusual. We did get swatted by a whale. What could be worse than that?” She giggled.

We went back to sea. Kara’s confidence began to recover during two gorgeous days of sailing. The humpbacks followed us up the coast, spouting and breaching and sounding. The sunsets flashed green, skies were clear, and the first sliver of moon shone brightly – the whales kept their distance. Nathaniel gained his sea legs and stood several night watches, freeing me to catch up on some sleep.


John and Kara exploring ashore

Inside massive Shark Bay, the water was clear, the sailing smooth, and the weather settled. While sea life was plentiful, the land was eerily barren. Other than stunted brush, skeletons, shipwrecks and ruin, only vultures circled above the endless sand dunes. Reef sharks prowled the shallows. Nathaniel was game to spearfish among the sharks, but the 8ft sea snake that snuck up behind him was more than he could handle; I’d rarely seen anyone swim quite that fast.

We ate lobster, fish, and giant clams cooked on an open beach fire. Nathaniel speared squid in the shallows, butchered a tuna, and battled a sizeable black-tip reef shark before tackling it into the cockpit. After, he even used his teeth to pull the cork on a bottle of rum; he was turning into a great sailor.

Time rushed by once we were safe in the Bay, and soon it was time to find a bus stop to send our guest home. At the north end of Shark Bay, another mangrove-fringed mudhole oozes stench adjacent to the town of Carnarvon.

We bounced our way over the bar and got ready to say goodbye to Nathaniel. He was not looking forward to an 18-hour bus ride to the airport and then a 20-hour flight. Kara packed him snacks and sent him off. The boat suddenly seemed very quiet. Kara and I looked at each other.

humpback-whale-sailing-encounter-Orca-book-coverWhat now? We were anchored at the westernmost harbour in Australia.

“Kara, we’ve got three choices. The new one-year plan is to sail north to Southeast Asia. Visit Indonesia, Thailand, maybe South Korea and Japan. Then we can use the high-latitude westerlies to cross the North Pacific back to the States.” Kara shivered and frowned.

“Second, we can keep sailing west, in the trade winds, out into the Indian Ocean. This is a two or three year plan. There are serious pirate concerns along this route, as well as a lot of offshore sailing.

“Third, we could sail the boat up to Darwin and sell her.”

“Sell Orca?” Kara was shocked I’d even mention it. “I won’t consider it. Not after all she’s done for us, not unless we have to. How are the finances?”

Finances were very good. Aside from buying fresh vegetables, cans, rice, and noodles in strategically inexpensive countries, we’d been hunter-gathering and living rent-free at anchor for two years now. We hadn’t even dented the $20,000 we started with. I calculated that for every day I’d worked back home, I could afford the sailing lifestyle for 20. We could go on practically forever.

Kara considered. “So, really it’s a choice between two years in the trades or a one-year dash into the stormy North Pacific. Seems obvious to me. After what we just went through down south, I want to stick to the trades.”

“What about the Somalian pirates?”

“Pirates? I’m more scared of weather. Let’s go west.” Thinking back, I realised we were about to experience something truly magical.

The tradewinds are a band of tropical easterlies that encircle the globe, and if we continued to sail west – downwind and downcurrent – we would eventually arrive upwind and upcurrent of where we started. Few acts of laziness are as richly rewarded as sailing around the world.

First published in the September 2018 issue of Yachting World. Orca by John A Pennington is published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. RRP: £6.99 in paperback via Amazon, currently free to read on KindleUnlimited.