Woman Survives 41 Days Alone At Sea After Boat Capsizes In Category 4 Hurricane

In late September 1983 a young, carefree couple were about to set off on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean. An exciting journey lay in prospect, but nothing that the two seasoned sailors felt they couldn’t handle. The duo were Richard Sharp and Tami Ashcraft, and the 4,000-mile-long voyage they were planning led from the island of Tahiti to San Diego, California. But around three weeks into their exciting trip, events took an extremely dark turn.

Impending horror

The 34-year-old Briton Sharp had been given the task of sailing a luxury yacht currently berthed in the idyllic island in French Polynesia and delivering it to the city on America’s west coast. A keen sailor, he had been only too happy to accept the contract, and he brought his beloved, 23-year-old American fiancée along for a voyage that they expected would take roughly 31 days.

But the grim reality of what had initially looked — and indeed felt — like a fun trip would suddenly dawn on the pair 20 days in. What followed would change things between them forever, and the sheer horror and adventure they experienced was turned into a major Hollywood movie called Adrift.

How it all began

The origins of this infamous and ill-fated voyage lay in the first meeting of the main protagonists of this story, Sharp and Ashcraft. At this point, several questions about the couple may well be presenting themselves to you.

Where were Sharp and Ashcraft born? How did the loved-up couple link up? When did they fall in love? All of these questions are probably swirling around in your mind now, reader, so let’s do our best to address them.

Introducing Richard Sharp

Sharp was born in the English county of Cornwall back in 1949. This picturesque county lies at the south-western tip of England; it’s a peninsula that boasts coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the English Channel to the south. There’s a good chance, then, that Sharp’s birthplace and upbringing gave rise to his lifelong love of the oceans.

Anyway, in his youth, Sharp was privately educated. And after leaving school, he went straight into the Royal Navy’s academy. But just when it looked like he was on his way to following in his father’s footsteps and graduating into the British Navy, Sharp was expelled for ‘insubordination.’

Introducing Tami Ashcraft

Ashcraft, meanwhile, had been born Tami Lee Oldham on March 23, 1960. Her place of birth was San Diego, California, which coincidentally was the destination that she and Sharp were aiming to reach from Tahiti back in the fall of 1983.

Ashcraft had attended Point Loma High School in her hometown. Then, some time in her late teens or early 20s, she made it out to South Africa. Ashcraft found not only some work there, but also love.

Meeting in South Africa and getting engaged

Yes, whilst in South Africa, Ashcraft would Sharp, who came across as a charismatic, blue-eyed British rogue. He had been working at a boatyard there at the time. The two realized they had a lot in common, including a shared love of sailing.

The mutual attraction must have been strong: the pair fell for one another, and they soon got engaged. The marriage proposal had come after they had sailed together to Tahiti on a boat that Sharp had reportedly built mostly by himself.

Pleasure sailing

Sharp owned the 36-foot sailboat, named the Mayaluga, that had carried the couple to that idyllic island out in French Polynesia. Once there, the 34-year-old Briton had popped the question to Ashcraft, and she happily accepted.

In the six months prior to their intended voyage to San Diego, the couple had pleasure-sailed on the Mayaluga. Things between the couple seemed to be near perfect. But there were stormy times ahead — quite literally.

Plenty of sailing experience

But what fate had in store out in the Pacific couldn’t be blamed on childish whim and inexperience. In a 2019 interview with RNLI Lifeboats magazine in the U.K., when asked how much sailing experience she’d had before that ocean crossing, Ashcraft elaborated, “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.”

The American continued, “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.”

Setting sail in September

Fast-forward, then, to September 22, 1983, and the fateful day upon which Sharp and Ashcraft would set sail across the Pacific Ocean for San Diego. Sharp had been hired by a British couple to sail on and deliver a 44ft vessel named Hazana to Ashcraft’s hometown.

Of course, Ashcraft wanted to go on this exciting sojourn with her fiancé, and make it home too. It was either that or take an expensive flight back to the U.S on her own. So, the couple set off from Tahiti’s Papeete Harbor on the luxury yacht they were delivering for their British friends.

20 days of fun and frolics

Ashcraft was relishing the prospect of a beautiful voyage across the Pacific with her ruggedly handsome British fiancé. And to begin with, she got her wish. For the first 20 or so days, Sharp and Ashcraft had a whale of a time on board the Hazana.

Ashcraft recounted the intimate details of the couple’s first three weeks on the ill-fated voyage from Tahiti to the USA. She told U.K. newspaper The Sun, “We hugged, laughed, made love, and relaxed into 20 days of paradise.” It sounded like the ultimate cruise for two.

Calm before the storm

In her revealing interview with RNLI Lifeboats, Ashcraft recalled the earliest part of the voyage in more of a seafaring manner. She said, “The journey started out pretty good; it wasn’t nice downwind sailing — but it was definitely something we could manage.”

But around two weeks into the pair’s Pacific Ocean crossing, they got a warning on their radio about a severe storm, one that was quickly getting closer to them. This weather system would become dubbed Hurricane Raymond.

Tropical depression

Ashcraft recalled getting the news about Hurricane Raymond to RNLI Lifeboats. She said, “About two 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 traveling so fast by that time.”

Sharp and Ashcraft’s vessel had run into an enormous tropical cyclone, a Category Four hurricane that had changed course sooner than anticipated. Ashcraft told the magazine, “Normally they’ll [hurricanes] take a turn and peter out up by the Baja in Mexico, but it was an El Niño year, and the water was so warm that it just kept heading west.”

No ordinary storm

And this was no ordinary hurricane, as bad as that would have been to face in itself. No, this particular weather system was one of the biggest storms to ever strike the Pacific.

The worse news was that there was by now only one way past it, and that was through it. Ashcraft told RNLI Lifeboats, “It was going so fast that we couldn’t get out of its way — and it ended up hitting us big time.”

Battening down the hatches

With a matter of urgency, Sharp and Ashcraft plotted together how they could ride out the storm. They attempted to board up the Trintella yacht as much as humanly possible, put on their best raincoats and prayed for the best.

Ashcraft told RNLI Lifeboats, “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 seas and the wind anemometer blowing off the top of the mast.”

Huge waves and powerful winds

What followed was a waking nightmare. Huge 15m waves struck the vessel, and frighteningly powerful winds pushed it around as though it was a piece of fluff. An increasingly concerned Sharp took out the yacht’s log book and wrote, ‘Watch this one.’

When asked by RNLI Lifeboats years later what it had felt like to be caught in such powerful hurricane winds and the towering waves it created, Ashcraft said, “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 [there was] the complete pounding of the boat.”

Fear in Sharp’s eyes

Ashcraft recalled looking in the “electric blue eyes” of her British fiancé Sharp and seeing fear. This storm was rapidly turning into the worst conditions we’d ever experienced together,” she later wrote in her 2002 book on the ordeal, Red Sky in Mourning.

The memoir vividly captures the horror the couple went through, way out in the Pacific Ocean with no help or land in sight. Ashcraft wrote, “We were terrified [Hurricane] Raymond was catching us — but there wasn’t a damn thing we could do but sail and motor as fast and hard as possible. Finally I shouted to Richard, ‘Is this it? Can it get any worse?’”

Sharp comforts his fiancée

Sadly, the answer to Ashcraft’s question was that it could: much, much worse in fact. But before that came to pass, Sharp had done his level best to comfort and support his fiancée. According to Ashcraft’s account, he’d told her, “No, hang on love, be my brave girl.”

The 34-year-old Briton then attempted to reassure her that they would be okay, and that there was an epic survival tale in the making. He said, “Someday we’ll tell our grandchildren how we survived Hurricane Raymond.” But Ashcraft had her doubts, shouting back to him, “If we survive.”

Riders on the storm

Although they had an almighty battle on their hands, Ashcraft recalled that there was still some hope, and a plan. She told RNLI Lifeboats, “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.”

Ashcraft continued, ‘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.”

Ashcraft retreats into the cabin

At some point during their battle with the mammoth storm, Sharp insisted Ashcraft took refuge inside the cabin, whilst he remained strapped to the vessel’s safety harness and battled the waves above deck. The Briton gave his fiancée a loving and supportive wink of the eye as she clambered below to the cabin.

But just moments later, a terrible tragedy struck. After a few seconds where time seemed to stand still, and the roar of the Category Four maelstrom and its gigantic waves quietened to a deafening silence, Ashcraft heard Sharp scream loudly “Oh my God!”

Sharp is thrown overboard

Ashcraft had only just made it into the cabin when she heard that ear-piercing scream from her fiancé. The Briton had been thrown overboard as the boat pitchpoled a full 360 degrees — that is, capsized end-to-end. Ashcraft had seen and heard her partner for the final time.

But before she could dwell on the horrific prospect of having lost her dearest love, Ashcraft was knocked out cold inside the cabin. The force of the boat capsizing had thrown her against the side of a boat; she struck her head and was rendered unconscious.

Waking up to a nightmare scenario

It would be roughly 27 hours before a stunned Ashcraft would come to her senses, and once awake almost immediately she realized the gravity of her situation. The Californian was now completely alone, with a bad concussion and a cut on her head, on a badly damaged yacht in the middle of a hostile Pacific Ocean. Worst of all, the love of her life had perished amid its dark and unforgiving waters.

Ashcraft screamed Sharp’s name almost immediately after she’d awoken, but deep down she knew it was a futile exercise. She told RNLI Lifeboats about the heartbreaking moment when she realized her fiancé was gone for good. The American said, “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.”

Battling dark thoughts

All alone in the midst of a violent storm, grief-stricken from losing her fiancé and with no realistic prospect of help on the way, Ashcraft not surprisingly began to battle dark thoughts. She said, “There were times I didn’t want to live — I didn’t know how I was going to go on. The hardest part was Richard being gone.”

The Californian later admitted that she contemplated joining her fiancé in the Pacific Ocean by tossing herself overboard soon after she knew he had gone. At other points after, she had a vial of morphine in her hand and even put a rifle that was kept onboard in her mouth. But thankfully Ashcraft never overdosed on the morphine, nor pulled the trigger. She revealed, “I really had to keep determined I wasn’t going to die.”

A voice from the beyond

But what was it that had made her determined to fight on? According to Ashcraft, it was in large part down to Sharp’s voice and spirit, that guided her from the beyond. Yes, in that interview with The Sun, the American said she’d heard Sharp’s voice when she held the vial of morphine in hand.

Ashcraft said that Sharp had told her, “Don’t give up, love.” She also claimed the voice was instrumental in her abandoning a lifeboat escape plan, as it told her, “Never leave the boat. Get the water out of the boat.” The latter message made Ashcraft go and check if the boat was letting in water. It wasn’t, but what had flooded on obviously needed baling out.

No time to mourn

In any case, Ashcraft had precious little time to sit and mourn and feel sorry for herself if she was to follow Sharp’s advice from the beyond and “keep going.” The vessel she had been stranded on amid a hurricane was badly damaged: its mast had been torn from the deck and its sails were dragging in the ocean.

As mentioned above, it had taken on a lot of water; Ashcraft had been up to her waist in it when she awoke. But somehow the yacht was still afloat. There was very little food and drink left, and she was at least a few weeks’ sailing away from landfall. Ashcraft was in a gut-wrenching battle for survival, with no shoulder to lean on. Her sailing, navigation, and survival skills were about to be tested to the maximum.

Radio silence

Ashcraft did have a few radios on board, and would attempt to make SOS calls. She told RNLI Lifeboats in 2019, “I was on the radio every 15 minutes, sending out a mayday. But that was the VHF radio — the shortwave radio — so somebody would have had to be in the area, and there was nobody out there.”

Sadly, she fared no better with the other radios. The San Diego native continued, “We also had a single-sideband radio — a long-distance radio — but after two weeks of pounding from the sea, it had given up. So I sent out maydays on the little VHF radio. It worked for about five days after the capsize, when I was alone. But then there was so much water damage that it finally just petered out.”

Failing engine and electronic navigation system

Ultimately, Ashcraft would fail to reach a single soul with any of those radios. But those devices on which she desperately made distress calls weren’t the only things on board the vessel that were in a state of disrepair or completely useless.

No, the expensive electronic navigation system, the emergency position devices and the engine on the Hazana had also all but packed up. What had once been a luxury yacht was now little short of a floating disaster. But at least it was still floating.

Using her ingenuity

Even that fact couldn’t be taken for granted. Indeed, on Ashcraft’s to-do list were clearing the cabin of all that excess water which had flooded on during the capsizing, and either fixing or constructing a new makeshift sail.

Regarding the latter, fixing the sail was out of the question. So the Californian had to use all of her ingenuity to craft one out of a broken spinnaker pole and a storm jib. This despite the serious concussion from the head injury she suffered, that would go on to affect her for years afterwards.

Crafting a new sail

Ashcraft explained to RNLI Lifeboats in 2019 how she had managed to craft the makeshift sail. She said, “The spinnaker pole had been severed in half, so I just had that half a pole: about 9 foot.”

She continued, “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.”

Building a pump

To get rid of the excess water out of the cabin, Ashcraft was able to use all her DIY craftsmanship to construct a makeshift pump. Thankfully, what she managed to make did the trick, and the deck and cabin were cleared of excess water. She told RNLI Lifeboats, “It’s amazing what you can do when you have to!”

With those important jobs taken care of, Ashcraft could turn her attention to sailing again, and actually hitting a significant landmass where she could find safety. But how exactly could she do that, given the vessel’s electronic navigation system was kaput and the radios were not working?

Finding important items

Fortunately, there would be another way. Suddenly, Ashcraft got something of a break. A relative one, we should say, given her dire situation she’d found herself in and the tragic loss of her fiancé.

She remembered that the Hazana had a few things on board besides the radios and damaged navigation system that could help her. After searching the cabin she had cleared of water with the makeshift pump, the American was able to find a couple of important items, both of which would prove key in helping her reach safety.

A watch and a sextant

The two items that would prove vital to Ashcraft being able to navigate to land, and therefore safety, were a watch and a sextant. Unless you are an avid sailor, you are probably wondering what the latter is.

Well, a sextant is an old-school navigation device that was created over 250 years ago to help sailors plot their passage with reference to the angle of the Sun in the sky. The triangular tool may lack the sophistication of an electronic navigation system, but if you know how to use it, then it works.

Assessing boat damage and wind conditions

Mercifully, Ashcraft had learned how to use one effectively during her years of nautical training and those many sailing experiences she had enjoyed before this horrifying one. At this point, the then 23-year-old made an assessment of the damage to the boat and the nearby wind conditions.

Ashcraft determined from her review that she would not be able to make it to the original destination that she and Sharp had set off for in the Hazana: her hometown of San Diego. Not least, this was because her canned food and water supplies were dwindling.

Setting her sights on Hilo

With all that in mind, Ashcraft set her sights on reaching another U.S. landmass, one that was far from the mainland. That was, of course, Hawaii, the 50th and most recently added state of the union.

Together with her sextant, watch, and her meager supplies of spam, canned fruit, sardines and peanut butter, Ashcraft set off for the Hawaiian island of Hilo, which was roughly 2,400km away. But how did she manage to do it?

Using the Sun to navigate

When asked to explain how she navigated to Hilo and what tools she’d used in that RNLI Lifeboats interview, Ashcraft explained, “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.”

The Californian used the sextant daily at noon, in order to accurately work out how far north of the equator she was. She continued, “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.”

Finding longitude

But without her watch, there would have been no way for Ashcraft to accurately assess her longitude. The American said, “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 Hawaii.”

But that all changed with the discovery of the watch. Ashcraft continued, “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.”

Hawaii or bust

But there was absolutely no room for error in locating Hawaii. Ashcraft only had roughly ten days of food and water supplies for her arduous 41-day journey, as of course, she and Sharp had not anticipated the hand fate would deal them. As such, the American had to ration incredibly strictly in order for her to survive.

Ashcraft told RNLI Lifeboats about the life-or-death nature of making Hilo. She said, “As I got closer to the longitude that Hawaii was on, I was always so worried that I would miss it. That was a constant fear, because there isn’t anything past that.”

Using the currents

Ashcraft was also reliant on the currents drifting her in the right direction, as her sail was makeshift and not ideal. For once, something went in her favor. She told the magazine, “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.”

This speed would prove vital to her survival on such meager rations. Ashcraft continued, “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.”

Reaching Hilo

It certainly wasn’t plain sailing, but eventually — and miraculously — Ashcraft would get there. On the voyage to Hawaii there would be numerous disappointments that nearly pushed the American over the edge, such as when two ships she spotted failed to see the distress flares Ashcraft had fired into the sky.

But, as she was approaching the coast of Hilo, a Japanese research ship spotted the Hazana, and helped pull it into the harbor. Ashcraft was finally on land, and safe, if completely overwhelmed and mentally shot from her horrific fight-for-survival at sea, and the loss of her fiancé.

Safe, but not sound

Although she’d battled dark thoughts whilst on board Hazana, Ashcraft later told The Sun that nothing had prepared her for how she would feel when she finally made landfall. She said, “While I was in survival mode, the grief was fairly low.”

Ashcraft continued, “ It wasn’t as intense as when I got to shore, the survival was over, and I could see people together and everything kept reminding me of him. There were times I didn’t even want to live anymore because I didn’t know how I was going to go on.” The Californian also battled the effects of the head injury suffered onboard Hazana for years; she had difficulty reading and remembering things short-term.

Happily married and still sailing

Thankfully though, as hard as it undoubtedly was, Ashcraft was able to find a way to continue. She found love again, and nine years after her incredible ordeal, she got married to property developer Ed Ashcraft. They live on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington state, and Ashcraft regularly sails around the waters there.

Sadly, more grief would hit Ashcraft in 2017 when the eldest of the two daughters she had with her husband died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Meanwhile, her bestselling memoir helped lay some of the torment to rest from her 1983 ordeal at sea. Still, Ashcraft regularly wears a triangular diamond pendant on a necklace around her neck; a nod to the sextant she used to find land. She told the Daily Mirror, “It reminds me of how I got home. It saved my life.”