Alone and adrift in the Pacific: No radio. Dwindling rations. And only sharks for company. The heart-stopping story of the couple from the suburbs who quit the rat race to sail the world – only to have their yacht sank by a sperm whale

As dawn rose, Maralyn looked out at the emptiness. A clear sky, the Pacific Ocean, and themselves: a small boat, sailing west.

She left her watch on deck and went down to the cabin. Her husband Maurice was still asleep. The morning would follow the usual rhythms: coffee and breakfast, then all the checks and jobs a boat requires.

Except this morning — in March 1973. At the precise moment that Maralyn put her hand on Maurice to wake him, they felt a crack, a jolt, the sound of a gun going off.

The noise split the air. Books leapt off the shelves. Cutlery flew. The tearing and splintering of wood was like the pained scream of a child.

Up on deck in an instant, they discovered the cause. A whale was next to them in the ocean, massive and alive.

Water streamed down the dark cliffs of its body as it twisted and writhed. Its tail, 10ft across, was beating at the surface in a kind of fury. Blood poured from its body.

Maurice and Maralyn pose with the sextant and life raft that saved their lives. Pictured in 1974, the year after their ordeal

Maurice and Maralyn pose with the sextant and life raft that saved their lives. Pictured in 1974, the year after their ordeal 

Maralyn couldn’t understand where it had come from. She’d just been up here and seen nothing but a fishing boat. You don’t miss a whale.

But perhaps you do. It must have risen from the depths just after she’d gone down the ladder. She couldn’t bear the thought that they had hurt the creature. It seemed uncanny that in the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, this would be the spot it chose.

A sperm whale, Maurice could tell, from the blunt, square block of its head. It was 40ft long, he guessed; a good 10ft longer than their small boat.

The whale was still thrashing, as if it were trying to shake something off, or escape its own body. It was dying, Maurice realised. These were its death throes.

And then it was suddenly gone, sucked into the darkness of the ocean. Great whites and blue sharks would gather, rip it apart and feast on its blubber.

Down in the cabin, water was already coming up through the decking boards. How many valuable minutes had they wasted up on deck, staring at the whale?

Maralyn worked the pump while Maurice searched for the damage. There it was: a hole where the creature had struck their vessel below the waterline near the galley, around 18 in long and 12 in wide.

Maurice was shouting to get the spare jib sheet, clip it to the corner of the head sail, lower it over the bow and drag it to cover the hole, then make it fast to secure it.

The pressure from the ocean should force the sheet into the hole, plugging it.

Maralyn kept pumping, hoping the water level would now go down. But the sheet wasn’t working. The water kept rising. She found clothes, cushions and blankets and stuffed them into the hole. That didn’t work either.

Perhaps there was another hole. It was too late to look for it now. The water was up to their knees and the cupboards were starting to spring open. Eggs and tins bobbed round them.

They looked at each other.

The life raft and dinghy, which they packed with essential belonging as as much fresh water containers as they could find

The life raft and dinghy, which they packed with essential belonging as as much fresh water containers as they could find

Maurice fetched the life raft and the inflatable dinghy, then collected as many fresh water containers as he could find. Maralyn filled bags with their things.

Two plastic bowls, a bucket, passports, a camera, a torch, their oilskins, her diary, two books, a gas canister and stove, a saucepan, two dictionaries and Maurice’s navigational tools: his Nautical Almanac and sight reduction tables for navigation, his chart, sextant, compass and log book.

They worked fast and in silence, strangely calm as the water rose. It wasn’t easy, gathering possessions from a vessel filling with ocean.

Then they climbed off the boat into the dinghy. Maralyn watched cushions she’d spent hours embroidering float away on the waves. The boat settled low in the ocean, then lower.

She found her camera and took photographs as the vessel they had loved like a child tipped to one side and then disappeared altogether.

On a wet November evening seven years earlier, Maralyn had said to Maurice: ‘Suppose we sold our house, bought a yacht and lived on board?’

It seemed like a crazy idea. Why would they give up the home they’d only just managed to buy? Maurice Bailey, then 33, was a compositor for a printing firm in Derby, while his wife Maralyn, eight years his junior, worked at the city’s tax office.

Their story is one that I, a journalist, have been captivated by since I first came across it during the pandemic winter of 2020-21. Using their published works, interviews and a diary that Maralyn kept, here, I’ve reimagined their all-too real ordeal.

They’d created a comfortable life together: a bungalow, a vegetable patch, modern conveniences, weekends away indulging their passion for outdoor pursuits. But both were bored with what Maurice would later describe as ‘suburban domestic stress’. Gradually an ambitious idea took shape. What had seemed impossible, extraordinary, out of the question, started to become a reality.

They’d sail to New Zealand, taking in the Canaries, the Caribbean, the Galapagos. Maurice applied for a job in Wellington and had a tentative offer. ‘In short,’ he wrote, ‘her arguments finally won me over.’

The couple's beloved yacht called Auralyn, a combination of their two names

The couple’s beloved yacht called Auralyn, a combination of their two names 

They commissioned a Plymouth boatyard to make their dream vessel: a 31ft single-masted Bermuda sloop to their specifications. On board they would have no radio transmitters or extraneous electronic devices of any kind.

Everyone said they were mad. No radio transmitter? But Maurice wanted to rely on the same stars that had guided the great captains before him: Columbus, Cook.

Just him and Maralyn, needing no one but each other. So different as people, Maralyn popular and outgoing, Maurice shy and austere, their marriage worked. They named their boat Auralyn, a combination of their names.

For years they thought of little else. They sold their house, rented a small flat in Southampton, from where they would sail, and took new jobs. With friends they made practice voyages in Auralyn along the south coast and across the Channel to Normandy.

Maurice was captain, navigator and mechanic. Maralyn was in charge of the galley and stores.

Maurice studied books of ocean passages and pilot charts and reread the closest thing he had to a sacred text, sailor Eric Hiscock’s guide to circumnavigating the globe, Voyaging Under Sail.

They had to get used to bad weather, broken sleep and sea-sickness that could render people incapable for days, he read.

Everyone said they were mad. No radio transmitter? But Maurice wanted to rely on the same stars that guided the great captains before him: Columbus, Cook 

And solitude. For weeks, crossing oceans, they would be alone. You might see only one ship a month, warned Hiscock. So don’t expect help if something goes wrong. If someone is hurt, if you run out of water or a crew member becomes unwell, you will only have yourselves. Weakness is not an option.

Maralyn worked out the exact quantities of food required. Eggs: one per person per day, plus four a week for cooking. Sugar: one ounce each per day, and one and three-quarter pounds per person for cooking. Cheese: an ounce each per day. Milk: quarter of a pint per person per day. Biscuits or crackers: one packet a day alternating between savoury and sweet.

A 30ft yacht, she calculated, should be capable of stowing 500 cans of meats, soups, vegetables, fruits, drinks, powdered and evaporated milk. She removed each can’s paper label, marked it to indicate its contents then treated the top and bottom with clear varnish to protect it from rust.

On June 28, 1972, they were ready and set sail for the Canary Islands to catch the trade winds that would carry them across the Atlantic. Their new life was beginning.

As Auralyn slipped beneath the waves, they floated separately, Maralyn in the life raft, Maurice in the dinghy. Neither spoke.

The walls of the raft, 4ft 6in in diameter, were formed of two inflated rings. The floor was a single layer of rubber-proofed fabric. A semi-circular tube formed an arch supporting a bright orange canopy, like a floating tent.

On one side was the entrance, covered by a flap, and on the other a ventilation duct and a small look-out window. Only this flimsy structure, and the dinghy now attached to it, lay between them and the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Sitting facing each other, Maurice and Maralyn considered their chances. Maurice thought they were doomed, but didn’t say so.

They had no radio transmitter and no motor. He found himself wondering if they had enough gas in the canister to kill themselves.

Around them floated items from Auralyn. Maurice, rowing the dinghy, retrieved what he could: four containers of water, one of kerosene, one of methylated spirits, a jar of Coffee-Mate, a tin of margarine, two pencils. Everything they owned in the world was arranged around them on less than 5ft of raft.

Maralyn wrote an inventory. It wasn’t much: 33 tins of their original 500, a few dates and nuts. A Dundee cake for her April 24 birthday in seven weeks’ time. Surely they’d be rescued by then?

She turned to what needed doing. Establish a routine, she thought. Maintain order. Don’t let the structures dissolve.

It was morning. Morning meant breakfast. Maralyn spread biscuits with margarine and marmalade.

Then what? The day, like the ocean, opened out around them, empty and formless. ‘What on earth can we do to keep ourselves occupied?’ said Maurice.

Maralyn told him which books she’d salvaged: the Hiscock guide to circumnavigation and a biography of Richard III.

Maurice groaned. The life of a 15th-century king didn’t seem relevant, and what use was the guide when their boat was sunk? Surely there was barely enough room for food, let alone books?

But Maralyn said: ‘We can read them and analyse them line by line and discuss them.’

Maurice knew she was right. They’d need this kind of stimulation to occupy their minds. Keeping busy was essential. It limited the dangers of thinking too much.

Using his compass and chart, Maurice estimated they were 250 miles north of Ecuador and 300 miles east of the Galapagos Islands. Close to a shipping lane, but too far north for the current to carry them west towards the islands.

The dinghy had oars, he thought. They could row. If they took turns rowing south for ten miles a day, they would eventually reach the islands’ latitude.

He wasn’t sure they were capable of doing it with the raft in tow. Perhaps they should cut it off? But the dinghy had no shelter. And what if it sank? They’d have no back-up. Why did every problem seem to contain more problems?

He no longer felt able to make a decision. Maralyn would know what to do.

After lunch, a handful of peanuts each, he mentioned the idea. Maralyn was immediately convinced.

The couple at the London Boat Show in 1974. After being shipwrecked in the Pacific, they took it in turns to row with an initial plan of making ten miles' progress a day

The couple at the London Boat Show in 1974. After being shipwrecked in the Pacific, they took it in turns to row with an initial plan of making ten miles’ progress a day

‘We’ll have to do the rowing at night,’ she said. ‘It would be impossible in the heat of the day.’ If it was too dark to read the compass they could steer by the stars. They’d start that evening, she said, taking turns to row in two-hour shifts.

As the sun dropped below the horizon, they ate their first dinner on the raft. One tin from their collection, which Maralyn heated over the stove. They passed the saucepan back and forth between them, taking one spoonful at a time. For ‘afters’, wrote Maralyn, they had a biscuit each.

The air cooled. Darkness fell. As they couldn’t lie down at the same time on the raft, they took turns, huddling under their oilskins. Maralyn curled up in a ball while Maurice sat up and kept watch.

When a boat sinks, it is the captain’s fault. There is no one else to blame, he knew. Captaincy is a series of decisions, and he’d made the wrong ones.

Think of all the things he could have done differently. Had they given up pumping too soon?

Perhaps if they’d gone on stuffing the hole they could have stabilised Auralyn long enough to get the water out. She’d been their home, their future, and he’d just watched her go down, helpless.

It was his failure. Someone else, someone better, would have known what to do.

What about the fishing boat they’d passed? Perhaps it had been a whaling ship. Perhaps it had been looking for a whale they’d harpooned but failed to catch.

Perhaps the whale had escaped, injured and angry, followed them for the rest of the night and collided with them in some sort of misguided revenge attack. It was somehow more comforting than the idea that it was all pure coincidence, pure misfortune. That their boat had sunk for no reason at all.

Any pretence that he was in charge had evaporated. All he could offer was doubt. Maralyn was captain now.

Under a high, clear moon, they began to row. Maurice wedged the compass between two water carriers to check they were going in the right direction.

Once the moon had sunk, he used the stars: the Pole Star, low on the northern horizon, Orion, Crux, and the seven bright points of the Plough.

The problem was not so much the rowing itself, but having to tow the raft behind them. It was like trying to drag a tired child up a hill, their reluctance almost pulling you back down.

They rowed, two hours on, two hours off, until the sun rose again. At one point, Maralyn thought she heard a plane overhead. But when she looked there was nothing there. Out at sea, as in the desert, things seemed to appear and disappear.

To keep them from dehydrating while rowing, Maralyn doubled the water ration. It didn’t help. Their thirst felt like an illness, a throb that infected every thought.

They were racing through their supply. Maurice wasn’t sure they’d be able to row far enough to reach the right latitude before they ran out of water. Maralyn refused to complain, or give in.

‘I could not disillusion her,’ wrote Maurice. Maralyn reminded him, instead, that it would soon be the wet season. The rains would come. Precious drinking water would fall from the sky.

Thunder clattered around them and lightning jagged across the sky. If they weren’t being battered by wind, they were being hit by creatures, as if the storm had woken the ocean’s inhabitants 

Maurice took a morning sight with the sextant, eager to know how far they had travelled after their night of rowing. He worked out that they had rowed just over four miles south, and drifted nearly 30 miles west. Four miles! A pitiful distance.

They rowed for three more nights. Blisters formed all over their hands. They realised, through their exhaustion, that their strength was no longer endlessly renewable. The rowing might just take the rest of it.

At noon on March 9, nearly a week since Auralyn had sunk, Maurice took another sight. Four nights of rowing and they had gained ten miles to the south.

To reach the latitude of the Galapagos, they would have to keep going for at least ten more nights, but the current was carrying them west faster than they could row. By that logic, they would never reach the islands, however hard they rowed.

The whole effort had been pointless. They should stop, Maurice said, save their bodies and their last pints of water, and hope against hope for a ship.

After a string of blue days, the sky filled with fat clouds. The ocean became wild, waves frothing.

Thunder clattered around them and lightning jagged across the sky. If they weren’t being battered by wind, they were being hit by creatures, as if the storm had woken the ocean’s inhabitants.

Sharks circled and buffeted the raft. Danger lay in every direction.

Then, early on March 12 when the storm had passed, Maralyn saw movement on the horizon. Even in the morning haze, when shapes suggest themselves and then dissolve, the hard, dark outline of a ship heading east was unmistakable.

A ship! Here it was, and only about a mile away. It hadn’t taken so long, after all. They were saved!

She laid out the flares. Maurice shortened the line between the raft and the dinghy. As the huge ship drew level with them, Maralyn passed Maurice a smoke flare. He tore off the tape and tried to light it. Nothing.

The raft, packed with her belongings, proved to be a drag on their progress

The raft, packed with her belongings, proved to be a drag on their progress

‘It’s a dud. A bloody dud!’ he shouted and threw it into the sea.

They tried another. Same again. Then a third. No light, no smoke.

Waving didn’t work; they were too easily obscured by the swell. They needed blazing fireworks 40ft above them in the sky.

The ship kept sailing. The helplessness was horrifying. To be so close to people, real people, who had no idea you were there.

Maurice could almost swim after it, if it would only slow down. He wanted to try another flare, but they only had three left and the ship was now too far away.

They watched it shrink back into the haze. Maurice gave up and sat back down in the dinghy. Maralyn kept waving her jacket. She knew it was pointless, but she couldn’t just sit there knowing a ship was so close, even if all she could see was its funnel being sucked away into nothing.

They ate breakfast in silence. Maralyn wondered if it had been too early in the morning. Perhaps the crew had been eating below deck.

They’d left the ship on autopilot and there was no one on deck to spot them. That must be it. If someone had been up there, they’d have seen the raft in a second.

Next time it would be different; the ship would pass later. Someone would notice them.

Adapted from Maurice and Maralyn by Sophie Elmhirst to be published by Chatto & Windus on February 29 at £18.99. To order a copy for £17.09 (offer valid to 17/02/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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