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Sophie Elmhirst's review of Maurice and Maralyn – Lost in the Ocean.
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Sophie Elmhirst’s review of Maurice and Maralyn – Lost in the Ocean.

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When Maurice and Maralyn Bailey made the decision to construct a vessel and embark on a journey to the opposite side of the globe, it was not a spur-of-the-moment choice. The Derby couple had long desired for thrilling escapades that would break them free from their mundane suburban lifestyle. For a span of six years, they diligently researched boat designs, routes, schedules, and provisions. They quit their jobs, sold their bungalow and majority of their possessions, and supervised the construction of their boat, which they aptly named “Auralyn” after their first names. Auralyn was intentionally not equipped with a radio transmitter as Maurice was determined to maintain their independence from external influences.

When Maurice and Maralyn embarked on their journey to New Zealand in the summer of 1972, they were experienced sailors who had prepared for all possible situations. However, they could not have predicted a distressed 40ft sperm whale colliding with their boat 250 miles north of Ecuador, causing a hole the size of a briefcase below the waterline. Despite their efforts to pump out the water and patch the hole, their attempts proved futile. They eventually realized that they needed to act quickly and spent 10 minutes gathering necessities in silence before boarding a small dinghy with an attached inflatable raft. From there, they watched their beloved boat, Auralyn, sink into the dark depths.

Sophie Elmhirst chronicles the events leading up to, during, and after the Baileys’ four-month-long ordeal in her book “Maurice and Maralyn.” Elmhirst, an expert in long-form feature writing, stumbled upon their story while quarantined with her own family during the Covid lockdown in 2020. Her captivating and tension-filled book starts with a powerful crash as a whale collides with the Baileys’ boat. As we join the couple on their raft a few pages later, we experience the overwhelming stench of rubber and fish. Where once their lives were structured and routine, they are now stranded and vulnerable to the whims of the wind.

The story of Maurice and Maralyn may be based on true events, but it reads like a work of fiction. This allows for a deeper exploration of the thoughts, fears, and coping mechanisms of the pair as they struggle to survive. Elmhirst draws from Maralyn’s diaries, written on the raft, which include lists of the food she yearned for. He also refers to interviews with the Baileys after their rescue and their subsequent memoirs, which were written to fund a second sailing trip – hopefully, this time with a small crew and a radio.

The couple spent a total of 118 days lost at sea, enduring sunburn, dysentery, dehydration, and near-starvation. They also suffered from sores and fungal infections due to sitting in a small floating vessel for months. Although they managed to save some food from the sinking boat, their supplies quickly dwindled. To survive, Maralyn fashioned a fishing rod out of safety pins and string. During their harrowing journey, they primarily ate raw sea turtle, small sharks, and the occasional sea bird. They also collected rainwater in containers, which became covered in algae.

The simple details of how the couple managed to survive are incredible, but this is not solely a tale of physical strength. There is also a deeper spiritual aspect as the couple’s relationship is challenged. Elmhirst poses the question, “What is a marriage, but being stranded on a small raft with someone and trying to make it through?” Despite not being one to speculate or exaggerate, the author effectively delves into the emotional aspects of Maurice and Maralyn’s journey.

The key factor is understanding the identities of these individuals before they embarked on their ocean journey. Prior to meeting his wife, Maurice was an introverted and anxious man who had a difficult childhood, leading to a strained relationship with his family. He and Maralyn were introduced through a mutual friend named Mike. Mike and Maralyn used to attend car rallies together once a month, but when Mike couldn’t make it one week, he asked Maurice to go in his place. At the time, Maurice was 29 and had limited experience with both women and cars. However, Maralyn, who was 21 at the time, complemented him perfectly – she was outgoing, adventurous, and happiest when outdoors. Maurice later wrote that he needed someone like Maralyn in his life to compensate for his lack of confidence. For Maralyn, Maurice represented freedom. She was still living with her parents and had a boring administrative job at the tax office in Derby. She felt dissatisfied and fearful of settling into a domestic lifestyle, and instead longed for a life free from household chores and children. Maurice, nine years her senior, appeared to already be living this kind of life – sailing boats, climbing mountains, and even flying planes.

Maurice had a pessimistic outlook and had accepted his fate of dying while on the raft. According to Elmhirst, Maurice had found a strange sense of peace in the vast emptiness of the sea, even though it felt like he was close to annihilation. During their journey, they encountered another whale, and after it dived, Maralyn expressed her regret at not being able to take a photograph as proof of their close encounter. Maurice was surprised by her assumption that they would be rescued and that this experience would become a mere anecdote in their lives. Maralyn seemed to have complete faith in their survival, without any doubts.

After being rescued – without revealing too much – it took several months for the survivors to fully recover as their bodies adjusted to food and movement. Initially, they could only walk on all fours, just as they had on the raft. Maralyn credited their survival to their teamwork, with one supporting the other when needed. In an interview with radio host John Peel, she said, “When one stumbled, the other lifted their spirits.” However, Maurice was more honest, admitting that he was the one struggling while Maralyn provided support. The most heartbreaking part of the book is the final chapter, where Maurice is left a widower after Maralyn’s death from cancer in 2002. Without her constant support, he feels lost and alone once again.

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The tale of the Baileys is clearly a gift for an author: high drama followed by slow torture followed by a second chance at life (a film adaptation surely beckons). But all credit to Elmhirst for marshalling these elements into an electrifying narrative full of atmosphere and humanity and with the lightest dusting of romance. Maurice and Maralyn is about a shipwreck, yes, but it’s also a tender portrait of two unconventional souls blithely defying the conventions of their era and making a break for freedom.

Sophie Elmhirst’s book, “Maurice and Maralyn,” is published by Chatto & Windus and is available for purchase at guardianbookshop.com for £18.99. Any delivery fees may apply. By ordering through this link, you will also be supporting the Guardian and Observer.

Source: theguardian.com