Adrift in the Pacific: How Tami Oldham Ashcraft Survived 41 Days at Sea

The Pacific Ocean has many stories of survival and loss, but few are as heartbreaking as that of Tami Oldham Ashcraft. In 1983, she and her fiancé, Richard Sharp, embarked on a journey that was supposed to be an adventure of a lifetime, sailing from Tahiti to San Diego.

But their dreams came crashing down when they crossed paths with Hurricane Raymond. After the storm Tami found herself alone and the ship in tatters.

Over the next 41 days, guided only by the stars and her unwavering will to live, she navigated her way to safety.

Tami and Richard before the tragic events.

Early Aspirations and Love for the Sea

Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Richard Sharp were adventurers at heart who both shared a love for the sea and sailing. Richard was an experienced sailor long before he met Tami with dreams of one day exploring the world’s oceans. Their shared passion for sailing wasn’t just a hobby, it was a way of life.

In 1983, the couple embarked on what was supposed to be a dream voyage, a journey that would take them from the shores of Tahiti to the bustling docks of San Diego.

It was more than just a passage across the Pacific; it was to mark a significant milestone in their lives together. Equipped with Richard’s expertise and Tami’s resilience, they set sail aboard their sturdy yacht, blissfully unaware of the ordeal that awaited them.

As they navigated through the tranquil blue waters, their dream voyage took an unexpected and harrowing turn. The Pacific, known for its unpredictability, unleashed one of its fiercest storms upon them; Hurricane Raymond, a Category 4 storm.

The little yacht was no match for the mighty storm. The couple found themselves in a dire struggle at the mercy of mother nature. She tried her best to listen to her husband’s commands as they tried to sail through the storm but the wind was too strong, it caught in the sail and spun the ship’s boom with such force it knocked her unconscious. 

After the Storm

When Tami finally came to 27 hours later, she found herself adrift in the middle of the ocean in a severely damaged yacht.

After taking in her surroundings, Tami realized that Richard was missing. After searching the yacht and relentlessly calling out to him, the reality of her situation sinks in. But Tami knows she has to be strong. She doesn’t have time to mourn; she has to live. Unfortunately, the electronics and navigation systems are inoperative, and she has no idea how to sail by herself. 

One of Tami’s first steps was to assess her situation and take stock of the available supplies. After searching the boat she managed to find a few cans of canned fruit salad and sardines. She knew that careful rationing was crucial to her survival.

Despite her limited sailing knowledge, Tami managed to patch up the yacht with duct tape. She was able to get the craft somewhat seaworthy again, which was pivotal in keeping her afloat. Her efforts included rigging a makeshift sail, which allowed her to have some control over the vessel’s direction, an invaluable asset in the open ocean.

Celestial Navigation: A Beacon in the Darkness

The only tools that Tami had for navigation were a sextant and a watch which she found floating in the bilge of the boat. A sextant, an instrument that measures the angle between an astronomical object and the horizon, allowed her to calculate her latitude.

By measuring the angle of the sun at noon or the angles of specific stars at a known time, and then using tables in the nautical almanac that Richard had brought along, she could determine how far north or south she was from the equator.

Setting a Course

With her position approximately known through celestial navigation, Tami faced the monumental task of steering the damaged yacht towards land.

The closest land to her was the Hawaiian Island of Hilo which was 1,500 miles across open sea. Using her knowledge of the currents and prevailing winds, along with a makeshift sail she had managed to rig from the tattered rags of the yacht’s sails, Tami set a course for Hawaii.

Steering the yacht towards Hawaii required constant vigilance and adjustments to the sail and rudder. The damaged yacht was far from ideal in terms of handling and speed, making the journey not only physically exhausting but also a mental battle.

Despite these challenges, Tami’s determination never wavered. She kept a strict routine of checking her course, making adjustments as necessary, and ensuring she took advantage of the wind and currents.

Sighting Land

After 41 days adrift on the open ocean, Tami finally saw the gray silhouette of the Hawaiian islands appear on the horizon. She had made it, against all odds. As she neared the island a Japanese research ship spotted her and pulled her aboard. After learning about her journey, she was taken ashore and looked over by doctors. 

Recovery and Reflections

When doctors examined Tami they found that she was overall healthy, despite suffering a severe head injury that would impair her ability to read for six years. She documented her experience at sea in a memoir which was published into a book titled, “Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea”.

The book was a smash hit and was translated into eight different languages and published in fifteen different countries. The book was adapted into the film “Adrift”, starring Shailene Woodley as Tami.

Today, Tami has found solace and a new life on San Juan Island, located off the coast of Washington, where she continues to pursue her lifelong passion for sailing. She has since remarried and has two children, but she still carries the memory of Richard and her journey with her in her heart. 

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