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This edited article about survival at sea originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 769 published on 9th October 1975.
To Captain Suh Chung-II aboard the South Korean trawler, Woelmi, there was something strange about the object bobbing two miles away amid the Pacific waves. It was not identifiable as a yacht or lifeboat; yet it was not small enough to be ignored. Captain Suh altered course.
As his trawler drew close, the shape in the water became clearer, separating into two rubber life-rafts. Crouched inside one, among tattered covers, were a man and a woman, scorched dark brown and blistered by the sun and sea. They could not stand, they were too weak to fasten the line thrown to them. And when the Korean fishermen lifted them aboard the trawler, they slumped to the deck, sobbing with relief and happiness.
For Maurice Bailey and his wife, Marilyn, it was a happy ending to 117 days adrift in the Pacific after their 32-foot sloop, Auralyn, sank following an attack by a whale south-west of the Galapagos Islands, west of Panama Canal.
It was the end, too, of a dream born in the late 1960s. A dream of emigrating to New Zealand and sailing there from Britain in their own boat.
For it took the Baileys nearly four years to prepare their sloop for the voyage half way around the world. On June 22, 1972, they sailed from Southampton in the Auralyn full of zest.
They called at ports in Spain and Portugal before heading west towards the Canary Islands and Barbados in the Caribbean. They sailed on to Panama, entering the Pacific on February 26, 1973.
Six days later they sighted a whaling ship and had to change course to avoid her. Shortly afterwards, as the Auralyn nosed through the blue ocean for the Galapagos Islands, disaster struck. The angry whale rammed their sloop, holing her badly below the water-line. The impact almost threw Auralyn clean out of the sea. The water gushed in and for a desperate hour the Baileys baled frantically.
Realising that their craft was doomed, they took to the two rubber rafts, transferring seven blue plastic water bottles, two blue plastic bowls, a small aluminium saucepan, a gas stove, a supply of canned food and a quantity of water. They also managed to grab an emergency kit containing pins and cord.
Moments after finally cutting adrift they watched Auralyn slide into the Pacific depths. They were alone 400 miles west of Acapulco Bay, Mexico.
One of their rafts was circular and about six feet (nearly two metres) in diameter. It was covered by an iridescent orange canopy which after weeks in the blazing sun was to become faded and frayed. The second raft was shaped like a dinghy and carried one paddle. Maurice and his wife, who could not swim, lashed the two together.
They warded off attacks by sharks that thumped the bottoms of their two rafts, weathered violent tropical storms and cheated starvation and thirst.
They spent the hottest part of the day beneath the canopy. Every dawn they started fishing with bent pins and cord, never stopping before 10 a.m. and resuming again at 4 p.m. They caught nearly 4,500 fish – or approximately 40 a day!
They even snared six three-foot (nearly a metre) long sharks – a real delicacy for castaways. Their system worked well: as a shark cruised near the raft Mrs Bailey – her reaction faster than her husband’s – grabbed the tail. Together they hauled it aboard the dinghy. Gulls, too, were easy prey as they perched on the two life-rafts. They were caught quickly with the bare hands. Turtles provided more meat. Leaning over the side of their dinghy, the Baileys grabbed them and lifted them aboard.
In their first four weeks adrift, the Baileys limited themselves to half a pint of water daily. But as they moved slowly into the doldrums, tropical rainstorms swept their little craft enabling them to increase their rations to two pints a day.
Their two greatest fears were, in fact, the storms and the sharks. Often their rafts were inundated by huge waves as storms whipped up the Pacific into a tempest.
Sharks often followed them bumping the undersides of the two craft, inflicting severe bruises on the Baileys resting inside.
As day after day passed on the empty sea, the Baileys played cards and dominoes made from the unused leaves of a diary Marilyn kept. They also created a calendar on the inside of the protective canopy, circling the birthdays of close friends and relatives: Xs marked the days when turtles were caught and plus signs were inscribed against dates when passing ships failed to spot them. In the moments that those ships dipped below the horizon, the Baileys sat silent, overcome by black depression.
Inevitably, they became weaker. Unknowingly, they drifted into the Humboldt current off the Guatemalan coast. Maurice Bailey estimated that he and his wife could not survive another 10 days.
It was then that the Korean trawler, Woelmi, appeared. The Baileys waved their oilskins with waning strength. The date: June 30 – 117 days after the Auralyn had sunk and 1,200 miles from the spot where she had gone down. And it was their lucky day, for the crew spotted them and brought them safely on board.
It was a week before the Baileys were able to move about aboard the rescue ship. They were unable to eat normally, so the South Koreans fed them with milk, chocolate, biscuits, water melon and chicken. Daily, the fishermen helped to massage their slack muscles.
The Woelmi took them to Honolulu where the Baileys finally recovered from their ordeal. Maurice Bailey praised his wife’s courage. “It was her fortitude,” he said, “that was the deciding factor between death and survival. She was fitter than I was. She worked harder than I did. In fact, she shamed me into working just that little bit harder.”
Yet despite their gruelling experience, the Baileys failed to set up a survival record at sea.
The longest recorded survival alone on a raft was 133 days by second steward Poon Lim, from Hong Kong. His British merchantman, Ben Lomond, was torpedoed in the Atlantic in the last war. He was picked up by a Brazilian fishing boat off Brazil and was able to walk ashore.