Back in September 1983, Tami Oldham Ashcraft and her fiancé, Richard Sharp, set out on a three-week trip that would change the course of their lives…
Unbeknownst to them, Sharp would soon be lost at sea, leaving Ashcraft shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean for 41 days, aboard a battered and broken 44-foot yacht.
Like most incredible tales of survival against the odds, Ashcraft’s story began in relatively normal circumstances. She and her fiancé were simply doing a favour for a friend, setting out to sea with the mission of delivering a 44-foot yacht, named Hazana, from Tahiti to San Diego.
The pair had years of sailing experience between them, and were as adept at navigating the sea as they were the land. The 4,000 mile distance they expected to cover from Tahiti to San Diego was further than they had ever sailed before, but they were certain they could do it – after all, there were two of them, and there is always confidence in numbers.
However, early into the trip, Ashcraft sensed a worrying change in the weather.
“There was an odd weather pattern happening,” she recalls to Stylist.co.uk. “The hurricanes that year were really late; statistically, they happen in mid to late October.”
The pair had set out on their voyage in late October, before the storms had hit, and were travelling in the wrong direction to avoid any potential late storms. “We were being paid to go in the opposite direction of the good weather!” Ashcraft added.
But neither Ashcraft nor Sharp could have predicted just how devastating the impact of this would turn out to be. Three weeks into their voyage, the couple faced a category four hurricane, Storm Raymond, whipping up waves as high as 20-storey buildings.
“I’d sailed through gales and storms before, but never a hurricane,” Ashcraft says. “We had tried to escape it for three days, but the boat could only go 15 miles per hour, we could only go so fast. I was petrified.”
Once the hurricane hit, it was too late for the pair to turn around and escape, so they had no choice but to brave it head on. They put on raincoats and boarded up the yacht, all while 140-mile-per-hour winds and 40-foot waves battered against the small ship that was their only hope of survival.
“The wind and rain felt like pellets on our skin,” Ashcraft says. “We felt like we were handling the situation we were in, just waiting for the worst to be over.”
However, the worst was still to come.
Sharp encouraged Ashcraft to seek safety below the deck, while he strapped himself into the safety harness. Just moments later, the boat capsized, causing Ashcraft to bang her head, knocking her unconscious.
“I had just gone down below,” Ashcraft recalls. “I heard Richard scream, ‘oh my god’. He could see what was coming. We got caught in a wave, and the boat capsized. It hit thunk.
“I remember holding my head… and that was the last thing I remember.”
Knocked unconscious, Ashcraft would wake an unknown amount of time later to find the safety harness empty, and her fiancé gone.
“I was just a mess,” she says. “I had a major head injury and had lost so much blood. After screaming and being in so much shock, I lost all my energy, and ended up in the foetal position.”
However, there was little time for panic or grief. Ashcraft knew the yacht had suffered irreparable damage that would make it impossible to sail; the navigation system, engine and even the sails were all broken beyond repair. On top of this, she could feel the ship was slowly starting to sink.
Her survival instinct kicked in. She started pumping the water out of the cabin, and used a storm jib and a broken pole to create a makeshift sail. The only tools that survived the storm were a watch and a sextant, which she used to direct her to the island of Hilo in Hawaii. At 1,500 miles away from the ship, it was the closest spot of land she could find.
Despite all the odds being stacked against her, Ashcraft went on to survive an incredible 41 days at sea. She had only canned food to eat, and the unimaginable loss of her fiancé weighing on her mind.
“I wrapped one of his shirts around a pillow,” she recalls. “I felt his presence with me the whole time.”
Her survival was no mean feat, and testament to her inner grit and steel. “I wasn’t going to sit around and wait to be rescued,” she says firmly. “I kept myself busy and distracted from the grief. It was good that I had the navigation to focus on; if I didn’t constantly focus on steering, I wouldn’t be going in the right direction.”
And after 41 days aboard the broken vessel, a Japanese research ship spotted the Hazana drifting near the harbour of Hilo, and Ashcraft was – at last – rescued.
It’s no surprise that Ashcraft’s experiences have since been immortalised in the appropriately titled Hollywood film Adrift, which first hit the silver screen this summer. The cast included Divergent’s Shailene Woodley and Me Before You’s Sam Claflin, playing Ashcraft and Sharp, respectively.
The film could quite rightly be likened to a Nicholas Sparks novel for its portrayal of the pair’s relationship, with Sharp being brought back into the film to highlight his importance in Ashcraft’s story.
“We brought Sharp into the movie because I was forever looking for him,” Ashcraft says, referencing a scene where Woodley, as Ashcraft, spots a dinghy out in the water.
“I was forever looking for him, always,” she affirms. “I was always looking.”
Adrift is out now on DVD and Digital Download
Words: Salma Haidrani and Sarah Biddlecombe