The Real Survival Story Behind ‘Adrift’
Tami Oldham Ashcraft, the subject of the new Hollywood lost-at-sea film, describes what her 41-day ordeal was like in real life and how the movie compares
On October 12, 1983, Tami Oldham Ashcraft and her fiancé, Richard Sharp, found themselves in the path of Hurricane Raymond as they sailed a 44-foot yacht across the Pacific Ocean. The experienced sailors were delivering the luxury boat Hazana from Tahiti’s Papeete Harbor to San Diego on what was supposed to be a routine passage. Instead, the Category 4 storm whipped up violent waves and catastrophic winds that eventually capsized the small craft. In the ensuing chaos, Ashcraft suffered a serious head injury that rendered her unconscious for 27 hours. When she awoke, Sharp was gone.
Alone at sea and awash with grief and shock, Ashcraft mustered the courage to guide the battered Hazana toward the nearest landfall—1,500 miles away, in Hilo, Hawaii. She worked furiously to rig the one remaining sail and a partial spinnaker pole to gain steerage for the boat. Since the electronics were shot in the flooded vessel, Ashcraft had to rely on a sextant and a watch to navigate across the open ocean. “I ran the risk of being off the latitude of Hawaii, so that was always really heavy on my mind,” she says. “If I did not get to Hawaii, I would die.”
Despite scarce rations and serious injuries, Ashcraft made it to Hilo Harbor 41 days later. Nearly a decade after, she began writing a memoir, Red Sky in Mourning, which, after she self-published it, was released by a Hachette imprint in 2002. (Dey Street recently reissued the book under the title Adrift). Among the book’s admirers were screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell. They turned it into a screenplay that became Adrift, a $35 million film adaptation of her story. The movie, directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, The Deep) and starring Shailene Woodley as Ashcraft and Sam Claflin as Sharp, hits theaters this month.
We spoke with Ashcraft about what it was really like to endure those days at sea, her reaction to the film, and the surprising way she began healing from her ordeal.
On How She Learned the Skills to Prepare Her for Survival at Sea: “It was hands-on, just by what I call ‘jumping off the continent.’ I learned first on my dad’s Hobie Cat and then during my first Pacific crossing in 1979. I was always interested in plotting the course on the chart and seeing where we were. I wasn’t a master navigator by any means, but I enjoyed it. Once it became a life-and-death situation, I got real good, real quick.”
On Finding Hope During the Darkest Moments: “First of all, having that half of a spinnaker pole. I still had one little sail left, even though all the other sails went overboard. Once I got that up and I had steerage, I could actually move the boat. Then all these little things started being put in place. Finding that I had a quarter of a tank of water, that was a huge turning point. Finding my watch in the bilge so that I could find out exactly where I was on the chart instead of just sailing by latitude. There were a lot of little things that kept me going.”
On One Surprisingly Emotional Moment From Adrift: “The one scene that kind of really threw me is when Shailene is leaning over the side, putting the duct tape on the hull. 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.”
On What She Thought About During Her 41 Days at Sea: “I thought about Richard all the time. I thought about our life together, I thought about my family. Your mind just races and runs around. I would think, ‘Have I completed the things I wanted to do in my life?’ Then there’s the whole shout out to the universe: ‘If I live, I promise I won’t ever do this or that or whatever!’ I mean, you’re just making promises to the universe. It’s very humbling, and it really puts you in your place.”
On Dealing with Grief and Survival at the Same Time: “I had to talk to myself and tell myself, ‘I have to quit crying.’ I had to quit crying because I was losing so much water, and I didn’t have a lot of water. A lot of the grief was really muted, really shoved back because of the survival and having to keep pushing forward. It really wasn’t until I was back on land, and I could relax and not have to worry about dying, that the grief started surfacing. It was really, really difficult.”
On What People Should Know About Richard Sharp: “He had a very good sense of humor, and people were drawn to him. He was a people person. I’m a little bit more reserved, so we made a good couple in that way. He was very well read, he was a pretty smart guy, and he was an adventurer. That’s what drew us together: quenching our adventurous spirit. Being a sailor, it’s hard to find a compatible relationship with someone. I mean, when you’re sailing with someone, you’re with them 24/7. He was just a very genuine, beautiful person.”
On What She Did After Surviving: “I just kept myself distracted and kept moving forward. I went back to sea for many years. I think it was cathartic for me to get back to sea, to get back to what I loved to do. That was kind of my therapy, I guess. My first trip was about six months of sailing through Fiji’s islands on a crew. After we got in a little bit of a gale, the owner of the boat goes, ‘You’re not afraid, are you?’ I said ‘Afraid? I’ve seen the worst! I’m not afraid of this. This is nothing compared to what I just experienced.’”
On What She Hopes Viewers Take Away from Adrift: “I’m just very pleased that it’s being told at a time when there’s such an empowerment of women. Like Balt [Baltasar Kormákur] says, it’s always these survival stories of man against wolves or man against the sea. I think it’s a time to show some of the strengths that women have, that they can overcome all kinds of obstacles in their lives. I’m hoping the movie shows that no matter what’s thrown your way, you just gotta dig deep. If you can just hang on, get through it, be strong, and have perseverance, then on the other end you’re gonna come out of it OK.”