The mysterious last adventure of Mrs Unwin

What made Tory activist set sail on her fatal trip? David Randall on the missing newlywed's complex life

Last night, a week after she left a Cornish port to sail to her north Devon home, there was still no sign of Mary Unwin, or her body. Despite the scrambling of three lifeboats, two helicopters, a plane, cliff rescue parties, and no fewer than 150 coastguard staff, all that has been found so far are a few broken pieces of the boat she had purchased just three days before.

Heaven knows what was going through her mind to think she could sail single-handedly in the dark, through stormy October weather, 140 nautical miles round Land's End. Everyone who knows this rocky and treacherous coast described her plan as reckless to the point of insanity. So what caused this newly remarried 65-year-old Conservative activist, Facebook friend of Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox, organiser of Tory women's lunches, and past employee of a village post office to set off on a doomed voyage that would bring out half the air-sea rescue forces in the South-west?

The story of Mary Unwin that can be pieced together this weekend – and it is by no means complete – is not a straightforward one. She has been widely referred to in the media as a millionairess, a description wide of the mark, according to her husband's family. (Her own family politely declined to talk to us.) But of the fact that she was a forceful personality – popular and engaging say friends and acquaintances, but headstrong, even, and certainly a character – there is no doubt.

She was born Ona Mary Davies in Gower, south Wales in 1947, and, according to her Facebook page, attended Swansea Law School, had and then cared for her children, gained a qualification in voluntary work, and was employed by the Post Office. From the tone of her entries, it seems clear she had more vitality than some people half her age, and this seems to have extended to marriages. The Daily Mail reported yesterday that there have been five of these, with the first coming in 1964 when she was 17. Official records show that an Ona M Davies was married in 1964, 1980, 1990, 2002 and 2012. We have been unable to confirm that all five of these are this Ona M Davies, although her brother-in-law believes this to be the case.

The last two weddings were to Carol John Unwin, four years her junior, and the son of a wealthy couple who owned Longdon Hall, a nine-bedroom historic house outside Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. Through his mother, the descendant of a baronet, he, and therefore Mary, have a small walk-on part in Burke's Peerage. Carol had a bad motor-racing accident at Brands Hatch when he was 19, and the serious effects of his injuries remain with him, his family say. His brother, the inventor and entrepreneur Guy Darell Unwin, said that widespread reports that Carol was a multi-millionaire property dealer are not true. The only listed directorships we have found are for dissolved companies.

Carol met Mary in 2001 when they both lived in the village of Upton-on-Severn, Worcestershire, and the couple married several months later. They lived in Longdon Hall, from where she threw herself into energetic action with the local Conservative Party, organising women's activities and lunches, and standing as a candidate in local elections. Her Facebook friendships reflect this interest: of the 103 friends listed, many are prominent Conservatives, including Liam Fox, Jeremy Hunt, Tim Montgomerie, Kit Malthouse, and a variety of MPs and MEPs. Only one of those we contacted had ever met her, and that only fleetingly some years ago.

She divorced in 2009, and later that year appeared in a television documentary about online pawnbrokers. She had pawned some jewellery so she could put down a payment on a £98,000 Aston Martin, pending – accounts vary – either her divorce settlement or the maturing of an investment. "I just like nice things," she told the programme, "but I can't always afford them."

Mary and Carol remained in contact, reconciled, moved to a £495,000 bungalow in Northam, near Bideford in Devon, and remarried on 5 October this year in the church at the popular tourist destination of Clovelly. Three of her adult children attended, as did some score or so friends, but the Unwin family were not there. Less than a week later, on Thursday 11 October, Carol and Mary set off in his Porsche to drive down to Falmouth in Cornwall to view his intended wedding present to her: a yacht.

The boat they viewed at Falmouth Yacht Brokers was a 31ft sailing yacht named Seagair, priced at £31,995. They inspected it and discussed a survey, but the surveyor could not crane the boat out of the water until the following Wednesday, something that did not fit into Mary's plans. The boat was paid for by banker's draft (which, as of early Friday afternoon had not cleared – such transactions can take 10 days to complete). Mary told Jayne Hobkirk, a director of Falmouth Yacht Brokers, that she had a "navy ticket", but Ms Hobkirk urged her to take a refresher course. This was duly booked, and during the few hours she spent with an instructor, he told her not to take the boat out on her own. She inquired about a skipper, but one could not immediately be found. And so, the following day, Carol having driven back to Bideford, Mary set off on her own. Her intention was to sail round the Cornish peninsular to north Devon – a distance of around 140 nautical miles,

She reached Mousehole on Saturday, and spoke to two fishermen whom she asked to help her tie up the boat. She told them her plan to set off for Devon on the evening tide, and they expressed amazement at such a single-handed trip by a pensioner, in the dark, with a swell approaching five feet, winds varying around and above Force 5, without a beacon, and in a boat possibly lacking a functioning radio or charts. "No different," she told them, "to driving a car at night" – a remark that belies her husband's claim that she was an experienced sailor.

One friend, and the instructor in Cornwall, said she showed them a coastal skipper's certificate of some vintage, but her brother-in-law said yesterday he had never known her go sailing in the 10 years he had known her. And yet, at 6.30pm last Friday, with darkness almost fallen, she set sail. As she left, she bumped into the quayside.

That was the last anyone saw of her. When she failed to show up in Devon on Sunday evening, the alarm was raised and the extensive search launched. On Monday, a large part of the cockpit and other smaller fragments of the boat were found near Sennen Cove, just north of Land's End. No one outside some outlandish postings on online forums doubts that she can be anything other than presumed dead. Devon and Cornwall Police say there are no suspicious circumstances.

No one who knew her well thinks that she was at all suicidal. Reckless, perhaps; disinclined to take advice, certainly; but not likely to kill herself. Was it also an attempt by a woman of advancing years to prove herself? An adventure by someone whose marital history and appearance on television suggests she was a stranger to caution? Barring some extraordinary development, it's unlikely we'll ever know.

Additonal reporting by Daisy Stenham

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn