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Maurice and Maralyn: A Whale, a Shipwreck, a Love Story by Sophie Elmhirst review – how to keep a marriage afloat

Maurice and Maralyn: A Whale, a Shipwreck, a Love Story by Sophie Elmhirst review – how to keep a marriage afloat

During the 1970s, many people in suburban Britain dreamed of escaping through intrepid sea voyages. The adventures of Thor Heyerdahl and Francis Chichester, which were often televised, fueled this desire. These voyages sparked a sense of wanderlust in men who grew up hearing war stories from their fathers and grandfathers, and now sought their own tales in their midlife. One such man was Maurice Bailey, a typesetter from Derby who had a difficult childhood but found love and married Maralyn Harrison in 1963. Nearly ten years later, when Ted Heath, a yachtsman, became prime minister of Britain, the Baileys left their bungalow and camping trips in the Lake District to embark on a sailing journey to New Zealand.

The Baileys’ journey was not a spontaneous decision. They had devoted the past five years to constructing and equipping their vessel, named Auralyn after combining their names. It was a representation of their closest experience to parenthood. Maurice was a traditional enthusiast, who believed that a skilled sailor should minimize risk. He self-taught himself how to navigate using a sextant and the stars, as Auralyn did not have any electronic equipment. He assigned Maralyn the task of managing the kitchen, where “fresh fruits were carefully wrapped in newspaper and rotated regularly to prevent bruising.”

During their journey to the Galápagos islands, the Auralyn’s hull was damaged by a whale, forcing the Baileys to carefully plan their survival. They spent four months on a small rubber dinghy, unable to lie down, before being rescued by a South Korean trawler. Upon returning home, they gained fame as a couple and received £10,000 from the Daily Express for sharing their story of survival. In 1974, Margaret Thatcher, who was then the education secretary, awarded Maralyn with the title of “woman of the year”. Their best-selling memoir, 117 Days Adrift, detailed their experiences of fishing with safety pins, rationing rain water, and eating turtles while lost at sea.

This beautifully conceived book by Sophie Elmhirst, her first, retells the Baileys’ story not just as that extraordinary tale of endurance, but as a singular and universal kind of love story – because, as she writes: “What else is a marriage, really, if not being stuck on a small raft with someone and trying to survive?”

Elmhirst, a journalist with a knack for cleverly perceptive and extensively researched long-form articles in publications such as the Guardian, brings her keen attention to detail to this story. Her writing is crafted with the same precision and care that the Baileys put into maintaining their main deck or navigating their way to port. As she delves into Maurice’s extensive recollections and Maralyn’s diary entries, Elmhirst uncovers the true essence of their relationship and adds her own poetic touch to their tale. At one point, she reflects on love and how it can often feel like a terrifying stroke of luck, evoking the haunting image of the leviathan’s tail.

Elmhirst’s account delves into the emptiness surrounding the couple at the heart of the story, highlighting their desperate daily routines aboard the dinghy. The author notes that she was drawn to their experience during the isolating period of lockdown, when existential thoughts permeated every relationship. In response to this darkness, whether it be the endless nights on the tumultuous sea or the anxiety of the pandemic, the Baileys found solace in mundane habits and rituals. Despite lacking a motor, sail, or means of signaling for help as they drifted 1,500 miles in a deflating dinghy, they understood the importance of having a system in place for their small and fragile home. They initially relied on lists of their possessions – a jar of Coffee Mate, a biography of Richard III, a tin of Sainsbury’s ravioli, and a Huntley & Palmers Dundee cake saved for Maralyn’s birthday – and worked to create the best life they could from there.

Some of this has a comedic tone, with the writing capturing the world of Maurice and Maralyn as well as the other travelers they encounter at various ports before the dramatic events take place. These couples share a common desire to escape the stereotypes and constraints of the 1970s. There is Nevil and Sheila, Brian and Sue, who express their indignation over inappropriate touches and celebrate Christmas in the Caribbean with asti spumante.

The Baileys ‘recreate’ their ordeal for the cameras at the London boat show in 1974.

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The occasional presence of Abigail’s Party influence is contrasted with the incredible perseverance and ingenuity that allowed the Baileys to survive and stay mentally stable. Maralyn is portrayed as a character with immense strength, constantly rejecting her husband’s despair and finding ways to pass the time and provide for their basic needs, such as making playing cards and figuring out how to catch sharks for food. Despite their individual struggles, they work together as a team. Maralyn’s unwavering determination is linked to Maurice’s relative weakness, as she credits her ability to endure to having someone else to care for instead of solely focusing on herself. One thing that Maralyn was able to avoid thinking about, thanks to Maurice’s frailty, was the fact that she did not know how to swim.

The book’s emotional depth is not only found in the intense moments, but also in what comes before and after them. The Baileys were requested to write a new book about a different journey, but it would not be very interesting if everything went according to plan. Eventually, they found themselves living a more conventional life on land, with a home, pet, and yard.

Adventures are always set outside of the normal terms of life, but here Elmhirst lets her readers experience the extremes not only of those 117 days at sea but the ways in which they shaped and were shaped by the many thousands of days of Maurice and Maralyn’s relationship either side of them. The result is a compelling book about a shipwreck, but also as thoughtful a tale about marriage, for better and worse, as you are likely to read.

Source: theguardian.com