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Sophie Elmhirst on Love Tested in Stormy Waters

Posted on 15th January 2024 by Anna Orhanen

A story so extraordinary it could be fiction, Sophie Elmhirst's Maurice and Maralyn follows an English married couple who in the 1970s sold their house, bought a boat, and set sail from Southampton to New Zealand to start a new life there – an adventure which turned out far more dramatic than either of them could have predicted. In this exclusive piece, the author discusses how she came across this incredible true tale of shipwreck, survival, and all-conquering love.  

People often ask me how I found the story of Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, the subjects of my book: Maurice and Maralyn: a Whale, a Shipwreck, a Love Story. Truthfully, I didn’t feel like I found them. They had been there all along, hiding in plain sight, a true story so extreme and so intimate that I couldn’t believe it had been so widely forgotten. When I chanced upon their experience in a short film made by the Portuguese explorer Alvaro Cerezo, I knew it could form the basis for a dramatic work of non-fiction. But I didn’t, at that point, know what I would uncover along the way. 

The fundamentals were electrifying. Here was an English couple, living in suburban Derby in the mid-1960s, who decided to sell their bungalow and sail round the world. They wanted to escape suburbia, leave England forever and start a new life in New Zealand. They sold everything they owned: they were not rich people, for whom boats are affordable accessories. It took years to prepare themselves and their boat for the voyage. Finally, in the wet summer of 1972, they untied the rope and sailed into the choppy waters of the Solent. 

At first, all went well: they crossed the Atlantic, meandered among Caribbean islands, endured storms on their way to Panama. And then, a few days into their crossing of the Pacific, on the way to the Galapagos, they were hit by a sperm whale. Their boat went down within an hour. Maurice and Maralyn were cast adrift on their tiny inflatable raft and dinghy with the few possessions and tins of food they managed to salvage from their boat before she sank. 

From that moment, they were alone in the middle of an ocean, with no means of contacting anyone. They tried, briefly, to row to the Galapagos, but exhausted themselves within a couple of days. Their supply of fresh water was running out. They had to work out how to catch rain to drink and how to kill fish, turtles and birds - anything they could eat raw. 

As the days and weeks passed, their bodies shrank as they starved. Maurice, an awkward, troubled man at the best of times, became profoundly depressed, then unwell with a lung infection. Maralyn did everything she could to keep his spirits up: inventing dinner party menus they’d eat on their return, playing cards made from scraps of paper, forcing him to imagine their next voyage, after they’d survived this one. 

After nearly four months of this, so close to death that Maurice was regularly drifting into unconsciousness, they were eventually rescued. I won’t reveal how, but given that seven ships had already passed them without stopping, it felt like nothing short of a miracle. 

This extraordinary story of survival was captured in multiple newspaper accounts, television shows and by Maurice and Maralyn themselves in the book they wrote on their eventual return to England: 117 Days Adrift. It was all rich, dramatic material. But somehow I knew it wasn’t enough, at least not for the story I wanted to tell. Their book was factual and specific, it contained technical descriptions of their boat (Maurice’s speciality) but it concluded shortly after their rescue. I wanted to know what happened next. What does it feel like to re-enter the world after months floating in the middle of an ocean, surrounded by sharks? How did they adjust to civilization and rebuild their lives? They had nothing, after all: their last possessions were rotting on the ocean floor. 

By 2021, when I started writing the book, neither Maurice or Maralyn were still alive to tell me, but I needed to find out how the rest of their lives had unfurled, and how the experience had shaped them. More than anything, I wanted to know how it had affected their marriage: to somehow access the inside of what can seem so impregnable, which is the truth of other people’s relationships. 

I kept searching. A close friend of theirs, Colin Foskett, showed me photograph albums and gave me recordings of radio interviews they’d done later in life. He told me stories about what they’d been like, how Maurice could be impossible and Maralyn was always the engine that kept him going. But Maurice and Maralyn had also left behind their own trail. Maurice, in particular, had kept writing. There was another book, about their next voyage to Patagonia, and then a self-published collection of letters, which he began writing to a friend shortly after Maralyn died, in 2001. He called it, When the Water Becomes Still. 

I remember, very clearly, reading the first of these letters and knowing that I would be able to write the book I wanted to write. The project Maurice had set himself was to recall their adventures at sea, which he did in laborious detail. But along the way, Maurice himself emerged. He was writing in a state of profound grief. Retelling their voyages was a way of bringing Maralyn temporarily back to life on the page, but it also revealed his own state of mind. He was ravaged by loneliness and often wrestling with guilt and self-loathing. Somehow this allowed him to write about Maralyn in a way he never had before, perhaps in a way he never would have if she were still alive. The letters were an outpouring from the pained mind of someone struggling to see the point in living without the person who had always given him purpose. 

Finally, I’d found the missing dimension to their story, the element that would make it more than an account of a shipwreck. Maurice had opened the door to both the inside of their marriage and his own heart. We crave these insights into other people’s internal realities for good reason: we hardly ever get to see them, at least in non-fiction. Novels give us the interiority of imagined lives and minds, but we devour biographies and memoirs because we want to know the sharp edges of reality. Those, however, tend to be individual stories. It is far more unusual to be granted access to someone’s relationship. No wonder a show like Couple’s Therapy, in which couples agree to be filmed during counselling with the New York psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik, is so popular. Finally, the curtain drops. We get to see what actually goes on. How other couples talk to each other, feel, express themselves, endure or divorce. 

One of my favourite books, Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, offers the same kind of illumination. Rose recounts five Victorian marriages, including those of George Eliot, John Ruskin and Charles Dickens. Though she explores the political dynamics of marriage and the status of women, she privileges above all the distinct, psychological detail, the desire to show how these marriages worked or faltered day to day. You could call it voyeuristic, but I think it speaks to an urge that goes beyond prurient curiosity. We want to know how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves. We want to know the hard truth of their lives, rather than the projected versions, so we can accept our own. 

Through Maurice’s account, I discovered that the death of Maralyn had left him far more isolated than he’d felt while shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean. There at least he was with her. I realised, too, the extent to which we can form ourselves around our partners, so that without them we feel not just bereft but undone. But I also learned that a relationship can, in its best form and even after its loss, feel like a defining experience. “Although I am wary of accepted truths,” wrote Maurice in one of his later letters, “I believe in all human beings there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make it a measure of the success of one’s life.” 

Maurice had loved. He’d found connection and experienced that fierceness of human emotion. It had left him stricken and adrift once again, but at least he’d felt it. By his own measure, his life had been triumphant. I’m simply grateful to him for sharing it. 

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