BC’s Tales of the Pacific | What we learn from the Baileys

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SOME years back we discussed the extraordinary adventure of Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, an English couple whose sailboat was wrecked by a whale and who drifted in a life raft for 117 days, a record at that time. I recently read a book about their experience that teaches us vital lessons which we can all use, whether stranded in a raft at sea or stranded in a thankless job. First, a summary of their story, then some life lessons.

In 1972 the Baileys sold their home in England and bought a sailboat, planning to travel the world. They stopped in the Caribbean Islands, passed through the Panama Canal, and intended to visit New Zealand and Australia by way of the south Pacific. They made it almost to the Galapagos Islands in March of 1973 when a sperm whale attacked their boat, damaging it beyond repair. The couple inflated their life raft, stocked it with what supplies they could, then watched their beloved vessel Auralyn, its name a blend of their two, slip beneath the waves.

Now what? Maralyn could not even swim, and her very survival depended on a flimsy rubber raft, four feet across. Where to go? Should they paddle? In what direction? The closest land was the Galapagos but the Humboldt current pushed them north, away from the islands. They futilely rowed against the current for a couple of days before realizing they did not have the strength or supplies to keep it up very long.

They drifted north toward what they hoped would be the salvation of a passing ship. Afterall, major shipping lanes converged at the Panama Canal. Surely they would be seen, and they were. Incredibly, over the next four months, seven ships passed the couple without stopping. Did they not see them? Or did they see them but chose to keep going, not wanting the hassle or delay that came with picking them up. Finally, an eighth ship did stop, a Korean fishing vessel, which took them to Hawaii and freedom from their ordeal.

After contemplating their experience, several lessons stand out. They meant the difference between life and death. First, nature is not always benign. That goes without saying today, after we have experienced Australian wildfires, Filipino volcanoes, and killer viruses from China. It is not that nature is cruel, it is simply that you and I do not matter to it. Whether we live or die does not cross the mind of a tiny coronavirus. Whether the Baileys survived never crossed the mind of the whale that stove in their boat. A volcano is neither moral nor immoral, it is amoral.

Second, you are stronger and more resourceful than you think you are. Maralyn Bailey was a clerk in a printer’s office and Maurice was a tax man. Neither had the resume to lead you to believe they would make it. They were not survivalists, or even in great physical shape. She couldn’t even swim. But they dug deep and found inner strength that surprised each other. That point comes out again and again in their journals. They were constantly surprised by how strong or ingenious the other was.

Third, rely on yourself, do not count on other people to help you, especially as the situation grows more serious. In the play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche DuBois utters the line, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” That may have been true in the 1940s, but today’s world can be a cold place. I’m not suggesting we not stick close to family and friends, but when the chips are down, be very careful who you let hold your lifeline.

Fourth, keep your mind sharp. The Baileys survived because they kept their wits by playing games, reading books and even designing their next boat. They stimulated their thinking process and kept their minds in good working order. That enabled them to solve problems which grew more severe as the journey wore on. Which leads to the final lesson.

Fifth, stay positive. Those who believe they are doomed usually are, and those who believe they will survive usually do. This is no coincidence, there are mountains of research and hundreds of books written on what is called the survivor’s instinct. Positive thinking, hope, knowing you are going to get through it, makes all the difference.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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