While Maurice and Maralyn Bailey thought about their impending death on a liferaft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale emerged and contemplated them. One huge eye, inches from the boat, peered at the couple. “It’s such a treat to see a docile whale alongside you. It did nothing. It just stared at us for half an hour. I got to know it very well. It eventually went off very slowly, just dived without a splash. It was marvellous,” Maurice said when recalling their 117-day ordeal at sea.

The couple had sold all their belongings to buy a 9.5m yacht, the Auralyn, and set sail from Southampton in June 1972 for a life of adventure. On March 4, 1973, a 12m whale crashed into the hull when they were about 500km west of the Galapagos Islands.

One huge eye, inches from the boat, peered at the couple. “It’s such a treat to see a docile whale alongside you.... It just stared at us for half an hour. I got to know it very well.”

In the hour it took the yacht to sink, Maurice inflated a liferaft and a dinghy to hold supplies. Maralyn went below deck to rescue already submerged equipment and supplies: buckets to collect rainwater, matches, a torch, scissors, binoculars, six emergency flares, clothes, tins of food, a small oil burner, a map, a sextant, a compass, rubber and glue to mend the dinghy, knives, plastic mugs and passports — should they need them again.

Some of the tools the Baileys hurried to save in the hour it took their yacht to sink.

After drifting towards the middle of the Pacific on a northwesterly current for 20 days their food rations ran out. In that time they had glimpsed several ships, but their flares had failed and they were not seen. They started to drift away from known navigation routes. Maurice had calculated from sea charts that after 45 days drifting northwest they would be swept up by an easterly counter current that would take them back towards Latin America.

Drifting into the Doldrums

However, it was not long before they realised that their flimsy craft had been taken by a north equatorial current. They despaired as they drifted farther into a sea area known as the Doldrums, renowned for constant grey clouds as well as heavy and violent rainfall. In these storms they lost vital equipment including their compass. The Velcro fastening of the liferaft stopped working, exposing the couple to the rain and waves. Constantly soaked in seawater, their bodies became ulcerated. As they grew physically weaker they would bail out water day and night. The seams of the liferaft and dinghy began to split and had to be reinflated every half hour. Maralyn could not swim.

Although their situation seemed more hopeless with each passing day, they found solace in the animals that gathered round their liferaft. Indeed, they effectively created an ecosystem. Fish fed on barnacles that formed on the underside of the craft. Turtles and sharks circled them. Seabirds would land to have a rest. Dolphins would jump over the raft. They would hear the eerie cries of whales at night.

Turtles and sharks circled them. Seabirds would land to have a rest. Dolphins would jump over the raft.

“We found the animals companionable and they helped us to alleviate our isolation. None showed any fear of us at all. After so many months with them we felt just like sea creatures ourselves.” As if to underline the sacredness of this communion, resting seabirds would regurgitate fish to provide the couple with a meal.

The Baileys had one regret — they had to kill the birds, turtles and even sharks to stay alive. Maurice recalled crying every time he decapitated a turtle; it took an interminable amount of time to cut through the tough skin with a knife. They would drink the blood. Maralyn fashioned a fishing hook out of a safety pin and they became adept at catching fish. There were times when they could simply scoop turtles and handfuls of trigger fish out of the water with their hands.

The Baileys as seen from the Weolmi, the South Korean fishing boat that rescued them. “They just slumped on deck sobbing with happiness,” said the captain.

To begin with the couple kept up their morale by playing cards. They drew up plans for imaginary feasts they would have back on dry land. They even designed a replacement yacht. As hopes of rescue began to fade, they simply formed an intimacy that neither had known before. “We explored the hidden depths of each other’s character,” wrote Maurice. “We had no secrets, no privacy and no inhibitions … we reverted to a simple, prehistoric way of life. In some weird way we found peace.”

The couple kept up their morale by playing cards. They drew up plans for imaginary feasts they would have back on dry land.

On June 30 Maurice thought he heard the sound of a ship’s engine in the distance. At the same time a South Korean fishing boat, Weolmi, saw a dot on the horizon and altered its course to take a closer look. Not long afterwards they were hauled on board semi-conscious; their clothes had almost rotted away and they were so weak and thin that they could hardly walk. Suh Chung-il, the Weolmi’s captain, recalled: “They just slumped on deck sobbing with happiness.”

After drifting for about 2,400km Maurice said that he owed his survival to his wife. She had insisted that there was a spiritual force keeping them alive and persuaded him not to give up. They hardly knew how they were going to pick up the strands of their life back in “civilisation” — all they knew was that they were going to become vegetarians and that they were going to build another yacht and go back to sea.

Austere Upbringing

Maurice Bailey was born in Derbyshire in January 1933. Little is known of his early family life except that he had a strict and austere upbringing. He left home to do National Service at the age of 19 and never returned; nor did he see his parents again. He found a job as a printer’s compositor and settled down to life in Derby. Being, by his own account, “a loner with a stutter”, Bailey was not confident in the presence of women and had little contact with them until one weekend when a friend who was a rally car enthusiast asked if he would stand in for him as the navigator for a race. The driver and owner of the car was Maralyn Harrison, a tax officer for the Inland Revenue. Bailey agreed, but later recalled the day as a complete disaster. His appalling navigation got them lost several times. At the end he offered to pay for the petrol, but, after filling the tank, realised that he had no money on him. To try to make up for his bungling he sent Maralyn a bunch of flowers and an invitation to dinner. To his amazement, she accepted.

Maurice and Maralyn reach land after their rescue.

A year later, in 1963, they were married. Bailey later said that their relationship was the first time in his life that he had felt love and affection.

Five years into their marriage the couple sold their house and bought a yacht, which they named Auralyn, a combination of their names. Kitting out Auralyn and learning to sail took four years. Maurice read up on survival techniques in Safety and Survival at Sea, the last book he had helped to set in type.

After they had recuperated from the shipwreck, the couple wrote their harrowing story in 117 Days Adrift (1974). The book became a bestseller. Living off the royalties, they bought another yacht, which they named Auralyn II, and spent the next few years studying whales in the seas off Patagonia in South America.

The Best Days of His Life

In 1980 they settled in the port of Lymington, Hampshire, where Maurice ran a boat chandlery and Maralyn a garden centre. In their later years they took up mountain climbing.

The Baileys lived off the royalties from their account of their adventure and even bought a new boat.

After Maralyn died of cancer in 2002, Bailey was left alone and bereft. The couple had no children or surviving family, and few friends.

Alvaro Cerezo, a Spanish explorer and film-maker, felt inspired to make a film about the couple’s forgotten adventure and in 2016 made contact with Bailey, who was still living in Lymington. In Cerezo’s short documentary Maurice Bailey said that his 117 days stranded at sea with the woman he loved were the best of his life. “If I could do it with the knowledge that someone would collect me after four months, I would do it again.”

Maurice Bailey, shipwreck survivor, was born in January 1933. His death was announced in November 2019; he is thought to have died in late 2018, aged 85