Adrift: Surviving a hurricane at sea
In September 1983, 23-year-old American sailor Tami Oldham Ashcraft set to sea for a 31-day crossing from Tahiti to San Diego, California. She was with her British fiancé Richard Sharp, and delivering luxury yacht, Hazana.
20 days into the journey, they were caught in a Category 4 hurricane, bringing with it 15m waves and 150mph winds. Despite courageously battling the giant waves, the Hazana was pitchpoled (rolled end-over-end) when she slipped down into a trench between waves.
The last thing Tami remembers before being knocked unconscious for 27 hours is Richard shouting: ‘Oh my God!’ as a big wave crashed down on the boat.
Her account of the events that unfolded has been made into a book, Red Sky in Mourning, and now a movie, Adrift.
We sat down with Tami to learn more about her self-rescue.
Content warning: Some people may find some of the content of this article distressing.
How much sailing had you done before the crossing?
‘I'd been on a 123-foot square rigger through the south Pacific for about a year and a half. That was where I learnt a lot of my bosun trade, navigation and that kind of thing.
‘When I met Richard, we did 30 days across the south Pacific on the Mayaluga and about 4 or 5 months around the south Pacific islands. I’d crossed the Pacific twice, so I had quite a bit of sailing experience.
'I love the long passages and going across the oceans – getting into the rhythm, doing the navigation and watching the weather.’
You were crossing from Tahiti to San Diego, how did the journey start out and where were you when things took a turn for the worse?
'The journey started out pretty good; it wasn’t nice downwind sailing – but it was definitely something we could manage.
'About 2 weeks in, we were just north of the Equator when we heard about the tropical depression down by Panama. Then this system started coming westerly and grew in intensity. We were trying to get into the safe area, but the hurricane was travelling so fast by that time.
‘Normally they’ll take a turn and peter out up by the Baja in México, but it was an El Niño year and the water was so warm that it just kept heading west. It was going so fast that we couldn’t get out of its way – and it ended up hitting us big time.’
What does it feel like to be caught in 15m waves and hurricane winds?
'It’s terrifying. You can’t even fathom it unless you’ve been through one. It’s very stressful on the body: you’re scared for one thing, as you don’t really know what you’re in for, and then the complete pounding of the boat.
‘We had a little bit of time to prepare – we’d battened things down and taken things off the deck – but you’re never really prepared for 50-foot (15m) seas and the wind anemometer blowing off the top of the mast. We didn’t have any sails up, we just had the engine on, and we were going up and over these massive seas, becoming airborne and falling down the back of them. The whole boat would shudder. I kept thinking: "Oh my God, what if one of the portholes go, what are we going to do then?”.
‘Richard was secured in the cockpit with his safety harness and tether and we felt like we were handling it – bobbing up and over these big seas and holding on until it passed. But then there would be these rogue waves that would come from a slightly different direction and cause pockets where the waves would become more like shore breakers, breaking on you.
I think we got caught in one of those pockets, because I had just gone down below and attached my safety harness when I heard Richard scream: “Oh my God!” – he saw it coming. And then I felt the boat just drop out from underneath me as we pitchpoled 360º (capsized end-to-end). That’s the last thing I remember.
When I came-to, the tether was still there on the cleat and the karabiner was still on it, but he was gone. The D-ring on his safety harness had parted.’
Did you reach anyone with a mayday call after the hurricane passed? Did you send one out before it hit?
'I was on the radio every 15 minutes, sending out a mayday. But that was the VHF radio – the short wave radio – so somebody would have had to be in the area and there was nobody out there.
'We also had a single-sideband radio – a long distance radio – but after 2 weeks of pounding from the sea, it had given up.
‘So I sent out maydays on the little VHF radio. It worked for about 5 days after the capsize, when I was alone. But then there was so much water damage that it finally just petered out.
'I never actually reached anybody on a radio.’
Can you explain what tools you used to navigate to Hilo, Hawai‘i?
'I had a sextant and sight reduction tables for air navigation. There’s a couple of almanacs and tables you need to use to get your position. So I basically used the sun to navigate.
'When the sun hangs in the sky it’s called ‘meridian passage’. It hangs there for about 2 minutes – it’s a long time – and that way, you can find your latitude. Latitude is easy to find.
'I couldn’t find my watch anywhere and you have to have the correct time to get longitude, so I was just going to sail by latitude. I headed up to the 19th latitude and hung a left, just hoping that was going to get me to Hawai‘i.
‘A week into it, I was able to get most of the water out of the boat – and there was my watch in the bottom of the bilge! Once I got my watch, it changed everything, because then I could find my longitude.
'It all worked out – took some time, but it all did. I got there!'
You’re really resourceful in the film, did you have any mechanical or other skills to help you get back on course or was there just a lot of improvisation?
'I tried to get the engine to go but one of the mizzen shrouds had melted onto the propeller shaft. I tried and tried because I’m a little bit mechanically inclined, but I couldn’t waste a lot of time on that.
'I really had to rely on my bosun trade. I’d learnt a lot on the square-rigger.
'The spinnaker pole had been severed in half, so I just had that half a pole – about 9-foot (3m). I was able to stick that up in the chain locker on the foredeck and rig it with rope and line, and then I used the one last little sail I had – a really heavy little storm jib. I hung it on its side onto that half of a spinnaker pole and I sailed 1,500 miles with that thing. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to!
'I was very lucky to have the current. Once I found my watch and could find where I was, I got back into what’s called the North Equatorial Current – it’s like a little freight train; it goes about 6 knots at times. So once I got back towards the equator, there were three different days that it took me 60 miles a day. That was huge. Because with the little sail I could only do 2 or 3 knots.
'The problem with getting off that 19th latitude is that it was like: “Oh my God, I hope my navigation is on.” As I got closer to the longitude that Hawai‘i was on, I was always so worried that I would miss it. That was a constant fear because there isn’t anything past that.'
What safety equipment did you have onboard?
'I had an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) onboard that I sent up, but I don’t think it actually worked. I tore it apart because I couldn’t get it to signal and the electrical board inside was all corroded.
'And we did have the radio. We didn’t have GPS then. We had satellite navigation but that went out.
'Back then – in ’83 – all this stuff was not as weatherproof as it is now. The boat was half sunk; there was so much water inside the boat that everything just got fried.
'We also had a liferaft. I inflated it and secured it on deck, just in case the boat was sinking – then at least I could just cut it loose. I also took measure of what was inside the liferaft – canned water, food and that kind of thing.
'When Richard took the helm, I sat in the cockpit for a while, trying to ease my nerves, before he said to go below.
'Richard didn’t have a lifejacket on when he was at the helm, which was such a shame. He’d taken it off when trying to get water and had left it down below. It was an overlooked thing. We had a lot to think about.
'When I went below, I took off my jacket and my lifejacket – they were the bulky Mae West type, not like the nice ones we have now – and attached my safety harness.'
Did you know how long you were adrift? Did you keep a record of the days?
'I wrote in the log all the time. I tried to keep a record of the days because if I didn’t make it, I wanted some kind of record if the boat was floating out there. I didn’t want my family to never know what happened to me.
'Reading back over it later, my mind was so fragile – I went all over the place, being out there for so long. When I didn’t have any wind, I blamed Satan. I prayed a lot. I’m not a really religious person – I believe in the Universe and higher powers but I did pray a lot. I wanted to live.’
In the film, you had hallucinations of Richard. Did they really happen? How did you manage them?
'They weren’t as vivid as the movie depicts. But I really felt him right there with me the whole time, the air was thick with his presence. I wanted to show that in the movie.
'And then I had a pillow with his shirt and his guitar. I slept with his shirt. I never touched the line that he departed from, I always had the line on the cleat there. I would just sit and talk with him, and I would hear him encouraging me.
'When I was out there, I constantly searched for him. On the horizon, in the water. Even when I got back to shore, I was looking for him in crowds.’
Did you ever think: ‘I can’t do this?’ or ‘I give up?’ and what changed to help you go on? Did you have to negotiate with yourself or play any games or tricks?
'Oh yeah. Especially at the end – around day 39, I almost killed myself.
‘I had seen the island way in the distance and I couldn’t figure out if it was clouds or if it was actually the island. And then the clouds came back and I couldn’t see anymore.
'A small military aircraft flew over me very low, and didn’t see me. I couldn't believe it. I had shot flares off and all that, and my mind was just so fragile. I'd seen two ships before and then this airplane – and nobody saw me! I was going to end it but Richard’s voice was just saying: “No! No! Don’t do that! You’re almost there! Go out and look”.
'So I went back out and, sure enough, the clouds were gone and there was the island in the distance. I thought: “Oh my God. I’ve got to pull it together”.
'One thing I realised from being in solitary confinement on a piece of floating fibreglass was how much we need human contact. Without that, when you’re alone, your mind just plays all kinds of tricks on you.
'But the survival instinct is very strong. I wanted to survive, I didn't want to die. Even with the grief that I felt for Richard, he was rooting me on too, cheering with me and helping me. It’s harder to lie back and hope someone rescues you, I’m more proactive than that – and I’m glad I am because nobody was out there.'
Is there anything you can share that you learned for future sailing, or advice for readers who may find themselves in peril?
'The first one is: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. Study the weather, because Mother Nature is much bigger than we are. That’s one of the most important things I can say.
'With today’s technology, you can get up-to-date weather reports and marine weather faxes. In 1983, we could only get the weather every 3 hours. Also, now electronics are so much better and waterproof.
‘Make sure you’ve got good gear onboard: top-of-the-line harnesses, lifejackets. We were using the owner’s harnesses, we didn’t bring our own. That was kind of a bummer because I don’t know if that would have made any difference or not, as far as Richard’s failing.
'While we all rely on electronics and batteries for GPS and handheld radios and all that, I tell you: that sextant saved my life. Even if it’s a plastic sextant – I always say that if you’re going to do ocean crossings, make sure there’s a sextant onboard with the relevant tables. Because in the end, if all the batteries go, you have that to fall back on. And that is what saved my life.'
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