Taking a 44ft luxury yacht from Tahiti to California, a voyage of 6500km across the glistening waters of the Pacific, was the chance of a lifetime for two avid young sailors.

And the task seemed as simple as it was pleasurable: sail the Hazana to her winter berth in San Diego on behalf of the well-heeled owners.

Yet the reality for this gilded couple, Tami Oldham Ashcraft and her British fiance, Richard Sharp, could barely have proved more catastrophic – as the course they set put them directly in the path of Hurricane Raymond and one of the most destructive storms in recorded history, according to the Daily Mail.

Tami Oldham Ashcraft, left, was sailing with her fiance Richard Sharp when he was washed overboard during a storm featuring 140-knot winds and 40ft waves.
Tami Oldham Ashcraft, left, was sailing with her fiance Richard Sharp when he was washed overboard during a storm featuring 140-knot winds and 40ft waves.

With winds of 140-knots and towering 12m waves, Raymond struck them with the force of a wrecking ball, flipping the vessel. Sharp was lost overboard, leaving Oldham Ashcraft alone aboard the devastated craft. The mast was broken, the sails in shreds and the boat flooded.


What followed was a story of good fortune, rare courage, and redemption. For more than 40 days, her boat crippled, equipment smashed and heart broken, 23-year-old Oldham Ashcraft somehow endured the elements threatening to annihilate her and then conquered them – and she did so thanks to the guiding spirit of her dead fiance, whose insistent voice, day by day, urged her on to a seemingly impossible survival.

That voice, she says, brought her back from the brink, helping her navigate with just a sextant and the stars above her head.

Now her ordeal and the extraordinary memoir that followed have been made into a big-budget Hollywood film, Adrift, shot in New Zealand and Fiji, set for release next month and featuring British actor Sam Claflin as Sharp and Shailene Woodley as Oldham Ashcraft.

Both are rising stars – Claflin appeared in the film adaptation of Jojo Moyes' novel Me Before You, and US actress Woodley played a teenage cancer patient in The Fault In Our Stars. And Adrift looks set to be this summer's cinematic hit.

The couple had already covered more than 50,000 miles of ocean sailing together so the prospect of covering 4,000 miles together over the course of three weeks wasn't daunting. (Movie cover).
The couple had already covered more than 50,000 miles of ocean sailing together so the prospect of covering 4,000 miles together over the course of three weeks wasn't daunting. (Movie cover).

Yet even the big-screen treatment could hardly be more dramatic than the 2400 solo epic Oldham Ashcraft describes in her book Red Sky In Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss And Survival At Sea, which will be re-published next month as Adrift.

It was September 1983 when the two young sailors embarked on what they imagined to be a routine delivery for the Hazana's British owners, Peter and Christine Compton.

At 34, Richard was more than a decade older than his young American lover, but with his lapis lazuli eyes, golden hair and "exotic" English accent, he meant everything to her. They had already spent a year and a half together on the Pacific, delivering and mending boats.

True, the distance involved in the new mission was vast, yet the pair had few concerns, as Oldham Ashcraft later recalled in a series of moving interviews: "I'd been sailing blue water for four years. Together we had 50,000 miles of ocean-sailing under our belts. We hugged, laughed, made love and relaxed into 20 days of paradise."


But disastrous reality was less than two weeks away, in the shape of tropical storm Raymond, which "tore out of the blue", hit hurricane force then held its peak intensity for two catastrophic days.

Sharp spotted a monster wave approaching the Hazana and ordered Oldham Ashcraft below deck while he secured himself with a safety harness and tried to keep the vessel afloat.

Moments later she heard him scream "Oh my God!" and her world was thrust into darkness.

Tossed like a cork on the raging ocean, the yacht had flipped end over end. It was 27 hours before she regained consciousness to an eerie silence and utter devastation. The cabin was half-filled with water, everything inside it smashed or scattered on the floor.

Scrambling onto the deck she looked desperately for Sharp but found only wreckage. The boat was all-but destroyed: masts were broken off and the waterlogged sails floated uselessly in the water.

Sharp's safety line dangled ominously off the boat. Oldham Ashcraft shouted his name over and over again, but found only empty ocean. Sharp was nowhere to be seen.

Overwhelmed with grief and shock, Oldham Ashcraft was initially paralysed, unable to comprehend the truth.

The couple set off on the 4,000 mile trip on board the Hazana across the Pacific Ocean.
The couple set off on the 4,000 mile trip on board the Hazana across the Pacific Ocean.

A serious head injury and blood loss meant that she drifted in and out of consciousness.

On the verge of a mental breakdown, catatonic, she failed to move or eat, her life seemingly at an end, as she explained movingly in her memoir: "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. When I realised he wasn't there, I wanted to die.

"From the depths of my soul, I feel an animal roar inside me. 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."

Briefly, she contemplated joining her fiance in the depths of the now calm water.

And it was then that the miracle happened: a voice in her head demanded she bail out the boat to prevent it from sinking. Confused, Oldham Ashcraft at first feared she might have brain damage, yet the voice – sometimes Sharp's, sometimes her own, sometimes her parents' – was persistent. It urged her to get up, to eat and to make a plan to get to land.

Faint and dizzy, she tried to resist its demands before suddenly snapping to as she explained, reliving the moment a few years later: "Virtually everything has been swept overboard. Then I see it, floating in front of me. A jar of peanut butter. I grab it, yank the lid off, scoop out a mouthful. It sticks to my tongue like a slug to concrete. I force it down. I need food, I must get my brain and body functioning."

And so the days went by with the voice as her only companion on the lonely waters. Tami found the boat's tinned rations among the wreckage and calculated that she could make them last up 40 days before starvation would set in. Then she turned her attention to creating a sail.

A scene from the film, Adrift - based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft's true story.
A scene from the film, Adrift - based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft's true story.

The original was shredded and the mast broken, but a heavy-duty sail was still rolled up in its cover.

Although Oldham Ashcraft was still struggling with her head injury, she managed to attach the sail to a broken pole and raise it.

At just 4sq m, it was small – but it was enough. A second important victory.

By day nine of her ordeal, Tami could sail and steer and briefly allowed herself a degree of hope. Grief was, for now, pushed aside.

She rationed her water supply with life-saving discipline, taking only a few sips a day from the storage bag that supplied the shower. She also found beer and – incongruously – Cuban cigars, which became her nightly treats.

Tami had no electronic navigation, just an old-fashioned sextant, waterlogged charts and the sun and the stars as she made for the safety of distant Hawaii.

And at times, it became overwhelming, particularly when the wind and rain returned to lash the boat on day 11. Still, however, the forceful inner voice kept pulling her back to sanity. Stay the course, it said. "Fight for your life."

At other times she heard her mother or father, or her own voice. Sometimes, the voice yelled at her so loudly she jumped.

Twice – on day 16 and then day 34 – she came within moments of rescue when a ship appeared on the horizon, but they failed to see her distress flares or the red T-shirt she waved desperately at the end of an oar.

Twice, too, a plane flew overhead, but again she was not spotted.

At one point, she was so near Hawaii she thought she might have overshot the islands, and was beginning to drift towards China – a terrifying possibility.

In her absolute solitude Oldham Ashcraft pondered whether she was already dead; that she had become impossible to see, and the thought drove her close to ending her life.

She loaded her rifle and put the muzzle her mouth, but the thought of never seeing her little brother grow up made her think again.

It was just as well. Shortly afterwards, on day 40, Hilo Harbour on Hawaii – and salvation – came into view.

A scene from the film, Adrift - based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft's true story.
A scene from the film, Adrift - based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft's true story.

It was nightfall and a perilous coral reef stood between her safety so, unable to risk going in until daylight, she endured one more agonising night before dawn broke and a rescue vessel sailed from port to guide her home.

It was time to contemplate her loss, yet Oldham Ashcraft's inner spirit once again counselled her to take courage. Few others would have survived the extraordinary voyage, it said. She should feel joy and pride before finally concluding: 'I will always be with you'.

It was the last time she would hear the voice that had truly saved her life.

Oldham Ashcraft arrived on land triumphant, but looking like a wild woman. It took three hairdressers two days to untangle her matted long blonde hair, which she was determined to keep long.

"I had lost everything, so there was no way I was going to give up my hair," she recalled.

Oldham Ashcraft returned to the US and was reunited with her family, and finding herself among other people once again reignited the grief she had buried to survive.

Recovery was long and emotionally traumatic. "While I was in the survival mode, the grief was fairly low. It wasn't as intense as when I got to shore and the survival was over, and I could see people together and everything kept reminding me of him. I just really had a hard time," she recalled. "There were times I didn't even want to live any more because I didn't know how I was going to go on. I was never going to fall in love again. But that survival instinct [while at sea] just kicked in. It helped me to focus, to keep myself on track."

It was some time before she found the courage to sail again and the mental scars were lasting. Oldham Ashcraft believes she suffered from severe traumatic shock, and regrets the lack of treatment or counselling.

"No one ever suggested it [counselling]," she said later, "but I wish I had because I definitely had some severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. I really wish I had taken the time to do that.

"I'm fairly headstrong, and thought 'Oh, I can get through this on my own'. Now looking back, at times I really needed some professional help." Writing Red Sky In Mourning, the memoir that formed the basis for the film, was a part of her recovery.

Her serious head injuries meant that it was six years before she was capable of reading a book again, let alone writing one and it was only after marriage and her first child that she finally felt able to tell her story.

"I've always wanted to write my story, but it took me years to move on from being totally consumed by it," she explained.

"I held so much of this in for so long. I just put it on the back burner. I grieved for so long, and I just wanted to erase it from my mind and move on.

"I had always wanted to write it. I couldn't believe how much I was still holding in my head, and just purging it like that really helped me to get past it all. Now I choose when to think about it, instead of it being always there."

And one moment perhaps more than any other helps her through: "As dawn breaks and the rescue ship is steaming towards me, I know my incredible journey against all the odds had surely taught me one thing.

"Even in our darkest hours, even in the wilderness, truly, we are never alone."