If you’ve seen the movie Adrift, then you probably know how terribly heart-wrenching this survivor story truly is. In 1983, sailor Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s life went from a blissful paradise to a desolate island of grief. She found herself stranded in the Pacific Ocean for 41 days after her yacht capsized during a violent hurricane.
Her courage as she sailed through pounding waves of sadness and grief seems absolutely surreal, and her will to live through those 41 days at sea is unfathomable. Here’s the tale of a woman whose story isn’t just about survival but also about a deep love that was cut off violently and far too early.
Californian Tami was 23 when she first met her British fiancé Richard Sharp, in Tahiti. Both felt passionate about sailing and exploring the world, and a great love gradually formed between the two. Their sailing plans took a surprising turn when a British couple hired them to take their yacht, the Hazana, back to San Diego.
The journey was supposed to last 31 days, and, for the first three weeks, Tami claimed that they were overjoyed, “We hugged, laughed, made love and relaxed into 20 days of paradise.” Sadly, their journey took a disastrous turn when Hurricane Raymond created waves that were impossible to survive.
Two weeks into their trip, the young couple heard of an unsettling storm picking up speed directly in their planned route. They heard it was growing in intensity, and they immediately changed their course to try and outrun it. Desperately trying to reach safer waters, they struggled against massive waves and violent winds, but the looming danger was so fast it quickly caught up to them.
Tami described the journey as “starting out good.” Despite some rocky weather, they felt it was “definitely something we could manage.” But Hurricane Raymond was rated a Category 4, the second-highest hurricane classification. Any encounter with such a relentless force is bound to end up in disaster.
They were battling hard waters for a while, and Tami was feeling pretty distressed. Richard suggested she go below deck to rest for a while and reassured her he would be fine. He secured himself to the boat with a safety line and remained on top to steer them through the treacherous waters. Tami believed they would be able to ride out the storm and that she would see Richard again after a few hours of sleep.
But the yacht capsized, and Tami found herself flying across the room, her head violently hitting the cabin wall. The last thing she recalls hearing was Richard’s cry from above, “Oh my god!” Afterward, there was complete darkness. Tami knows that if she were had been on deck with him at the time, she wouldn’t have survived.
Tami was unconscious for 27 hours. When she opened her eyes and took stock of the surrounding chaos, she began crying out Richard’s name in wild despair, even though deep down, she knew he was gone. She understood in an instant that she was facing the cold and disastrous reality on her own, and her will to live was almost nonexistent.
In her book, she writes, “I know in a blinding flash he’s gone overboard. Snatched by the boiling cauldron of the ocean, whipped to a frenzy by the hurricane. I scream and rage at the vast sea that’s torn my man from me. I slip in and out of consciousness, delirious, half-dead.”
Tami persistently tried to reach out and call for help. She shook the soaked and damaged receiver crying out maydays every 15 minutes, only to hear nothing but a dreadful silence from the other end. She attempted contact on the VHF shortwave radio, but no one was close enough to hear her cries, and the long-distance device failed to turn on.
For five days after the capsize, she desperately hung her hopes upon the VHF radio because, as long as it showed some signs of functioning, someone might respond. She constantly repeated their last location and explained her situation to a device that was slowly dying down, and once its lights stopped flickering, she knew that was the end of it.
In the movie, Richard is physically present on the boat, guiding Tami through long and despairing days. But reality didn’t play out like that. From the moment she opened her eyes, Richard was no longer by her side. Tami claims that despite not being as vivid as the film portrays, she still felt that “the air was thick with his presence.”
She spoke to him day and night and claimed she heard his voice three times. According to Tami, it was completely audible and guiding her to do what was needed in order to survive. Tami slept with his shirt, played his guitar, and kept the line he departed from in its place.
As the days passed, Tami grew weaker, both in body and mind. She was starving, injured, and lonely, and after being stranded on her own for that long, her mind began to play tricks on her. She recalls mistaking clouds for an island, followed by the frightening realization she was slowly losing it, “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.”
Startled by her condition and struggling to put herself together, she almost killed herself. She grabbed a rifle she had on board, loaded it, and put it in her mouth. At that instant, she heard an inner voice pleading her to put it down. She knew Richard was encouraging her, yet again, to live on.
Tami was terrified that the days would blend into each other to the point where she would lose all points of reference. She kept track of the passing time by jotting it down in her notebook: “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 her notebook today, she can clearly see how frail her state of mind truly was. Her thoughts on paper were scattered, and she began believing in things she would have never considered to be true. For example, if the day didn’t go well, and there wasn’t much wind, she would blame Satan.
Tami found her way home with a little navigational tool she had on hand called a sextant: a reflecting instrument used to measure the angular distance between an object and the horizon. While many navigational devices broke down and were of no use to this distraught sailor, the sextant was her only lifeline.
Tami makes sure to bring it up in many of her talks: “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 on board 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.”
After sailing for 41 days and approximately 1,500 miles across open water, Tami finally reached the harbor of Hilo, Hawaii. As she advanced towards land, she spotted a large ship sailing her way and instantly shot up a few flares. The 300-foot vessel noticed the Hazana and flashed its lights to signal in agreement.
Tami recalls crying tears of joy as the crew provided her with food, water, and a lot of heart-warming words. Despite overwhelming feelings of gratitude and relief, Tami knew that setting foot on land was just the beginning of her process towards recovery.
It’s often the case that when we’re struck with tragedy, we don’t quite digest it at first. Especially when there are more urgent things to deal with, like keeping your head above water and surviving. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, Tami mentioned that “while I was in the survival mode, the grief was fairly low.”
Once she arrived onshore and was out of danger, that’s when it kicked in. She claims she searched for Richard among the crowds, and constantly seeing people together reminded her of him. It was terribly painful to confront the new world she was now living in, but she’s thankful for her mind’s ability to put her grief aside while on the boat.
Miles away from the disaster occurring at sea, Tami’s mother, Zonna Pennell, claims she started having unsettling dreams. She wasn’t aware at the time that her daughter was in grave danger, yet she dreamt of “a guy outside on a boat looking through a porthole, it was blurry. I saw Tami, and she had something red on her head.”
Unable to shake off the sensations following her weird dreams, Zonna approached the Coast Guard office day after day to check if Tami had arrived. Despite knowing nothing of the hurricane, she knew something terrible had occurred. She figured out the truth when she reunited with Tami two months later.
For a long period, Tami suffered from reoccurring nightmares and struggled immensely to heal. She constantly dreamt about Richard and of being lost at sea. In addition, the trauma she suffered from the blow to her head made it impossible to focus or read. According to Tami, the words simply jumped off the page and became hazy letters devoid of meaning.
She clearly suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and, looking back, she wishes someone would have encouraged her to go to therapy and work it out. It was only after eight years that she truly began to heal. She began noting her memories and thoughts down on paper, napkins, or whatever material she could use to document what was stirring up inside her. This would later result in her book, Red Sky in Mourning.
For eight years, Tami was haunted by the thought of Richard. She struggled with feelings of guilt and confusion, but finally, after enough time, things began to change. She no longer felt threatened by him. Instead, she felt he was a reminder that life was worth living and that she needed to be thankful every day anew.
In 1994, ten years after the tragic incident, Tami met someone at a dance. A blue-eyed man who would later become her husband and the father of her two daughters, Brooke and Kelli. Tragically, Kelli passed away at 22 after an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
You would think that losing your best friend at sea would create such antagonism that you would never step foot near the ocean again. But that was never the case for Tami. She describes her visits to the sea as “cathartic” and as a form of therapy. For those of you wondering if she still sails, you’ll be glad to hear her love for the ocean has never subsided.
She’s now a licensed captain with over 50,000 miles offshore to her credit and has a lot of respect for the ocean’s powerful force. In one of her lectures on secure sailing, the first rule she mentions is, “Study the weather because Mother Nature is much bigger than we are. That’s one of the most important things I can say.”
Tami grew up loving the ocean. She claims she has always loved “getting into the rhythm of the sea, doing navigation, and watching the weather.” As a kid, she sailed her dad’s Hobie Cat and was always eager to plan out different courses and figure out where she was on the map.
Before meeting Richard, she had already sailed across the Pacific Ocean for about a year and a half. Even though she picked up on many useful sailing strategies, she claims she was by no means a master navigator when they set out for their tragic voyage. But when she found herself close to death, she “got real good, real quick.”
Hollywood tends to over-dramatize real-life events, or in other words, they stretch the truth. But Tami Oldham reassured the movie’s fans that this wasn’t the case for Adrift and that she spent five years working closely with the screenwriters to make sure her story was told properly.
When the movie first premiered, Tami broke down in tears, especially during the scene when Shailene Woodley reenacted Tami’s struggles to mend the cracked yacht with tape. “Just seeing her alone, with no land in sight, with that wrecked boat—oh my gosh, it just brought me right back. It was just so surreal. It was like, God, that was me. I just wept.”
Shooting on open water near Fiji can seem like an idyllic environment, but the cast of Adrift suffered from some unpleasant odors on deck. Apparently, the crew was constantly throwing up, and the director used the actors’ queasy looks to create the perfect stormy scene.
Shailene Woodley joked in an interview that some of the time, they weren’t really acting because they were genuinely scared that they would vomit on each other. Despite the challenges of filming on a boat, Shailene felt extremely grateful for the role and was captivated by Tami’s story the moment she laid eyes on the script.
To play the role of a woman who had nothing to eat but peanut butter and canned fruit, Shailene was expected to get into character by losing some weight. In order to do so, the actress reduced her diet to two egg yolks, canned salmon, and some steamed broccoli. That’s pretty much one tiny meal a day, which is insane.
The scene in the movie where she passionately eats the peanut butter wasn’t acting. Her feelings were real! Constantly hungry and irritated, she found it impossible to fall asleep without a good glass of wine to end the day. But despite how miserable she felt, Shailene concluded that it was well worth it.
If you enjoyed Tami’s incredible story, you’d be blown away by a group of people who survived a volcano eruption!