The year was 1983, and a regular, every day California woman sailed out for an adventure on the ocean. Unfortunately, as is usually the case when tragedy strikes, she had no idea just what kind of adventure she was truly in for. In no time flat, the woman’s entire life would be quite literally flipped upside down, and she would be forced to grasp with all her might at what mattered most to her. Could she find the reason to keep going when tested as few people have ever been? Let’s read on to find out the answer.
What Just Happened?
Tami Oldham Ashcraft woke up to the blinding sunlight, stunned and confused. It was October 13, 1983, and she was 23 years old. She had been on plenty of boats before, but this was an unusual circumstance. She was groggy, had been out for over a day and was bleeding from her head. To make matters worse, three feet of water was flooding the lower deck.
Tami did what any sailor would do and immediately climbed up to the deck of the ship. That’s when things got much, much worse. She saw immediately that the ship was damaged. There was no sail and no mainmast. Looking around quickly, she couldn’t see land in any direction. Worst of all, her sailing partner was nowhere to be seen.
Rewinding The Story
Tami began to mentally unwind what had happened. It seemed like she had just left with her fiance, Richard Sharp, into the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean. This was nothing new for the California woman, who had already spent the better part of six months sailing throughout Fiji and enjoying the company of her future husband.
A Working Trip
For the time being, the couple had shelved their plans to continue sailing on Richard’s 36-foot boat, which he dubbed the Mayaluga. Instead, they were going to take on a special job. They were hired by the owner of a 44-foot luxury yacht known as the Hazana to deliver the yacht from Tahiti to San Diego, where it was being sold to a new owner.
Though Tami was young, the couple was experienced on the seas. Between the two of them, they had logged over 50,000 hours on the sea. They were knowledgeable enough that the luxury yacht’s owner had no qualms about hiring them for the job. The lovebirds planned their trip and checked out the upcoming weather conditions for the month-long trip.
A Picturesque Day
Many sailors believe in bad omens that warn of tough times to come. None of that was apparent for Tami and Richard, as they sailed out of Tahiti in September to beautiful blue skies and perfect sailing conditions. Everything seemed perfect, and there was certainly no way that the pair could have expected the trials and tribulations to come.
First Signs Of Trouble
Sailors are very careful about avoiding dangerous storms, and Tami and Richard were no different. They monitored the radio and sure enough, heard about a tropical depression coming off of Central America. Instead of panicking, the couple simple changed their route by heading north to avoid the worst of the incoming storm.
Impossible To Outrun
Unfortunately, Tami and Richard may have done the right thing by trying to outrun the storm, but they simply weren’t able to do it. The storm ended up being a Category 4 hurricane. It was less than three weeks into their trip when they hit the storm on October 12. The couple was in the fight of their lives, facing waves up to 50 feet high and 160 mile-per-hour winds.
Blinded By The Storm
Despite all of her experience sailing, Tami had never seen anything like it. She would later explain that the devastating effects of the storm were simply impossible to manage. “When the wind’s howling that hard, it’s picking up spray right off the top of the water,” she said. “There’s so much spray; you can hardly see anything.” Tami compared it to being in a blizzard.
A Terrible Night
Tami and Richard tried to fight through the conditions and keep the boat afloat as the storm raged on. The two worked for hours through terrible conditions until Richard urged Tami to go below the deck. Later on, she would say that the last sound she remembered was Richard crying out as the boat capsized and she was violently thrown against the cabin wall.
Somehow Still Alive
Tami would be unconscious for 27 hours before finally coming to. When she did, she realized that the boat had been tossed like a ragdoll end-over-end before falling into a trench. As she surveyed the damage, she was relieved to see that the hurricane had passed, but even that could not possibly have improved her outlook.
The unsettling calm was preferable to the raging hurricane, but it also provided a stillness that allowed her to realize just how alone she was. For the first time, she began to process what had happened to Richard, who was gone. His safety line was drifting in the water and severed at the end. She was utterly alone.
Even if Tami wanted to look at the bright side and take her mind off of the loss of her fiance by trying to survive, there was no good news waiting for her as she checked out the damage to the boat. The mast was gone. The engine and electronics were damaged. The radio wasn’t working, and a lot of the food and fresh water were gone. The rudder still worked, but that was about it.
None of this really mattered to Tami at that moment, however. The stillness of the sea, her missing fiance, and the vastness of the ocean filled her with a grief so deep that she thought she might never come out of it. “Being on that boat was like solitary confinement,” she explained. She took two days and just let her sadness consumer her, refusing to eat and mourning her man.
Will To Live
After a couple of days, however, Tami was overcome with a desire to survive. She said later that she heard a voice in her head and she simply went step by step, doing whatever it took to move on. She built a makeshift sail from a broken pole and storm jib. She pumped water out of the cabin and set herself to work.
Tami had no engine to work with, so the only thing that she could do was develop a makeshift sail. The sail did its job but still would only take the Hazana to speeds of 2 1/2 miles per hour. She had to use an old sailing tool to measure the angle between the horizon and the sun to navigate the boat. Going so slow, however, if she navigated falsely she’d die before she could change course again.
For Tami, the grief of losing her fiance came in waves. She would have periods of focus and determination broken up by heartbroken sobs and despair. Mixed in with it all was the survivor’s guilt that she felt for having been the one to live through the storm. Still, she focused on making it one second at a time and focusing on each task.
Amazingly, Tami was able to spot land after several days of navigating the old-fashioned way. She spotted Hawaii and sailed to it, arriving 41 days after she departed with Richard from Tahiti. The trip took her 1,500 miles, many of which were sailed with a makeshift mast and sail. The boat, of course, was a total loss.
The Struggle Continues
Although Tami’s struggle to avoid death in the vastness of the ocean was over, she now had a different challenge: the struggle to live without her fiance, Richard. Without having to focus on her survival, the sadness from his death overcame her. She saw couples together and couldn’t cope with the feelings that took over her mind and soul.
Learning To Move On
In time, the same mental spirit that saw her through her survival challenge at sea allowed her to move on after the tragedy of losing Richard. Although she eventually married and started a family, the trauma has never completely left her. She wrote a memoir, which helped her process her feelings and express herself to a caring audience. She said that the experience was like “purging” herself of those feelings. The book is currently being turned into a film.