Ocean ordeal brought author to deeper understanding

Book reading Sunday at CAST

Tami Oldham Ashcraft has a refreshingly positive outlook on life. It’s due in part, no doubt, to her good nature, but also to the fact that she survived a harrowing ordeal and lived to tell about it.

Ashcraft recounts the gripping tale in her book, “Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea” (Hyperion Books, $23.95). In the fall of 1983, Ashcraft and her fiance, Richard Sharp, were a few months into a planned circumnavigation of the world in their small sailboat.

While in Tahiti, they were offered a chance to earn some money by delivering a 44-foot sailboat to San Diego for some fellow cruisers who had to return home due to a family emergency. So they put their trip on hold in order to supplement their cruising kitty.

Halfway between Tahiti and San Diego, the couple encountered a hurricane. They tried for several days to outrun it, but became trapped as it veered direction and bore down on them. At the height of the storm, Sharp told Ashcraft to go below while he stayed at the helm. He was wearing a safety harness clipped onto a deck cleat. Moments later, Ashcraft heard a terrified scream from the cockpit, then blacked out.

When she awoke, the storm’s rage was gone — along with her fiance. His broken tether was still attached to the cleat and she came to the awful realization that he’d been washed overboard.

Whether by the same wave that had swallowed her fiance or more that came after during the 27 hours she was knocked out, the boat’s masts had been snapped, the engine disabled, the electronic navigation aids and radios ruined, and much in the boat’s cabin — including food stores and water — rendered useless.

In “Red Sky in Mourning” Ashcraft tells of the 41 days she spent limping under jury rig, with the help of ocean currents, to Hawaii. It is a story of self-reliance, of overcoming paralyzing fear and of the role fate plays in our lives.

“I wasn’t very spiritual before,” Ashcraft said in an interview with the Hood River News. “(This experience) really brought me to understand that there is a higher power, whether you call it God or the universe or whatever.”

For a couple of days after she awoke alone on the boat, Ashcraft mostly lay curled on a bunk in the ruined cabin hoping she would die. Finally she pulls herself together with the help of “The Voice,” a steadying alter-ego that remains with her during her lonely journey.

“This ‘Voice’ really helped me pull myself together,“ Ashcraft said.

“I’d argue with it, I’d rationalize with it. I believe it was my inner spirit helping me continue to stay focused and to survive.”

The story of Ashcraft’s day to day survival, and slow progress toward land, is told amid flashbacks to her romance and the journey that led the couple to disaster. The interwoven tale makes for a compelling read.

Ashcraft said she decided to write the book when she began having children.

“Dissecting the story again was really hard,” she said. “But it helped me to heal some of the wounds. Now I choose when to think about this whole time in my life instead of it consuming me.”

Perhaps as remarkable as the story itself is the fact that her ordeal didn’t turn her into a landlubber. She went on to return to the South Pacific for a sailing stint, got her 100-ton captain’s license and has sailed extensively on the East Coast. She now lives in Friday Harbor, Wash., with her husband and two daughters, 4 and 7.

“I’d like to take my children sailing to the South Pacific someday,” Ashcraft said. She says she’ll teach them, foremost, to be safe and cautious.

“But I hope they will grow up to be adventurous, to want to see and learn about other cultures and what the world has to offer.”

And most of all, to love life.

“Having an ordeal like this helps put things in perspective,” she said. “Life is such a precious gift to have.”

Tami Oldham Ashcraft will show slides and read from her book on Sunday at 4 p.m. at CAST Performing Arts Center, 105 Fourth Street in Hood River. The event is free.

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