The impact from the collision knocked out the sailboat's steering and the vessel began taking on water late Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland said.
Max Young of Sacramento stuffed a mattress into the hole caused by the whale, turned on four bilge pumps and was "trying to bail out water as fast as he could, because he didn't know how long it would take to be rescued," his wife, Debra Young, told The Associated Press.
He also activated an emergency beacon, which alerted the Coast Guard.
"His EPIRB delivered an exact position to us, contact information that allowed us to quickly discern the sail plan of and number of persons on the vessel, and really took a lot of the search out of the search and rescue," said Lt. Charles Kelly, of the Coast Guard's command center in Alameda, Calif.
With that information, officials at the command center were able to immediately direct a merchant ship, which was about 60 miles away, to the sinking craft.
Meanwhile, as the rescue efforts were just beginning, Young was initially unaware that the boat was taking on water, his wife said.
"He was steering the boat and trying to get it back on course," Debra Young said. "It took him a while to realize he didn't have any steerage at all. It took him a bit longer to realize he was taking on water."
When the freighter arrived at around 4 a.m. Wednesday, Young scrambled off his boat by a rope ladder thrown by the ship's crew.
Young had been on the final leg of a trip from the East Coast to a marina in Emeryville, Calif., when the collision took place. The 67-year-old has been sailing for at least 30 years, but having worked on boats with his father, who was a commercial fisherman, he's been on the ocean most of his life, his wife said.
Debra Young said she has been able to talk to her husband while he's on board the merchant ship. He's not expected to make it back to Sacramento for another week or so.