Mind Over Matter

Lost at Sea, Tami Oldham Ashcraft Wanted to Die

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

The human body can endure a lot of mistreatment; it's the mind that is truly fragile. In October 1983, Ashcraft, then 23, and her British boyfriend, Richard Sharp, both California residents and longtime sailors, accepted a job delivering a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. The first week, they sailed the luxurious 44-foot Hazana east in calm seas. Then reports of a tropical depression off Central America came in over the radio. Ashcraft and Sharp tried to run north of the storm but soon were battling 50-foot seas in the heart of Category 4 Hurricane Raymond. Sharp sent Ashcraft below deck and clipped himself in to a lifeline. Moments later, the boat rolled over, then flipped end over end.

When Ashcraft regained consciousness 27 hours later, the storm was over, but her head was covered in blood, and Sharp's tether trailed off into the dark ocean. The boat was dismasted, the engine and electronic equipment didn't work, and the cabin was partially flooded. Though there was enough food and water on board to sustain her, Ashcraft was on the verge of a mental breakdown and wouldn't eat. Mourning for Sharp and weak from blood loss, she did nothing for two days—until a voice in her head began demanding that she get to work. "Being on that boat was like solitary confinement," recalls Ashcraft. "The voice kept me on track. I just followed it."

Working with a sextant for two days, she figured out her bearings and rigged a sail to position herself in currents she hoped would take her to Hawaii. After 42 days, she sailed into the Big Island's Hilo Harbor. Today, Ashcraft, who told her story in the 2000 book Red Sky in Mourning, lives in Washington State's San Juan Islands, where she continues to sail.

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