Red Sky in Mourning
A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea
By Tami Oldham Ashcraft
with Susea McGearhart

Published by Hyperion 
June 2002; 0786867914; 288 pages

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Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham AshcroftChapter One: On the Firing Line

Hearing the clank of the anchor shank as it hit the bow roller, I turned my attention to Richard. With a grand gesture, he waved to me - "Let's go!" I shifted the engine into forward. As I nudged the throttle, Hazana gathered speed and we headed out of Papeete Harbor on the island of Tahiti. It was September 22, 1983, at 1330. In a month we'd be back in San Diego, California. If only I were more excited. I hated to leave the South Pacific. It wasn't that I didn't want to see my family and friends, it was just too soon. We've only been gone from California for six months and had originally planned to cruise the South Pacific islands and New Zealand before visiting home again. This change in plan left me feeling ambivalent. But as Richard pointed out, this yacht-delivery job was a dream come true - too good to pass up.

Shouts from the shore drew my attention. Turning around, I saw some of our friends waving good-bye. I stood up on the helm seat and waved with both arms high in the air as I steered with my bare left foot. I felt a pinch on my big toe as Richard took the helm with one arm and put the other around my waist. I looked down into his China blue eyes. They were full of joy. He squeezed me close and kissed my pareu-covered stomach. I couldn't help but smile, he was like a young boy in his excitement.

"Anchors aweigh, love."

"Yep, anchors aweigh!" I chimed back.

My eyes teared as I gave one final wave to the friends on the wharf who now appeared as lampposts on the quay. The familiar knot in my throat was a reminder of how hard it always is to leave, the thought that you may never meet again. Even though we will be back soon, I reminded myself, our friends will probably not be there. Sailors don't stay long in one place - they travel on.

I took the wheel as Richard hoisted the mainsail. Taking a deep breath I scanned the horizon. The island of Moorea stood out to the northwest. Oh, how I loved the sea! I steered the boat into the wind, and the mainsail cracked and flogged as Richard launched the canvas up the sail track. With the boat turned downwind, the roller-furling jib escaped as slickly as a raindrop on glass. Hazana comfortably heeled over. What a yacht this Trintella is, I thought. Forty-four feet of precision. So plush compared to our Mayaluga.

 

Watching Richard trim Hazana's sails, I reflected on how hard it had been for him to say good-bye to Mayaluga. He had built her in South Africa and he named her after the Swazi word meaning "one who goes over the horizon." She had been his home for many years, and he had sailed the thirty-six-foot ferro-cement cutter halfway around the world. Mayaluga's lines were sleek and pleasing to the eye, her interior a craftsman's dream, with laminated mahogany deck beams, gleaming from layers of velvety varnish, and a sole --- floor --- made of teak and holly.

To avoid thinking too much about what we would be leaving behind, we had both kept busy during our last days aboard Mayaluga. I was preoccupied with packing all the clothes and personal things we would need in the two hemispheres we'd be sailing through and visiting in during the next four months: T-shirts for fall in San Diego. Jackets for Christmas in England. Sweatshirts for early winter back in San Diego. Pareus and shorts for our return in late January to Tahiti. Richard had focused on preparing Mayaluga for the months ahead without us.

She'd be safe in Mataiea Bay. Our friend Haipade, who lives at the bay with his wife, Antoinette, and their three children, promised to run her engine for us once a week. We took special care to prop up all the cushions and boards so the humid air of Tahiti could circulate. We left the big awning up to help protect her brightwork from the intense sun and cracked open a hatch under the awning.

When we left Mayaluga my back was turned to her as Richard rowed us to shore. I could not see his eyes through his sunglasses, but I knew they were misty. "I know Haipade will take good care of her," I assured him.

"Yeah, he will. This bay is completely protected."

"Besides, we'll be back in no time. Right-o?"

"Right-o." He smiled at me for having mimicked his British accent.

Now, aboard the Hazana, the wind shifted and I altered our course 10 degrees. Richard leaned down in front of me, blocking my view. "You okay?"

"Sure."

Going behind me, he uncleated the halyard to raise the mizzen sail. "Isn't this great?"

It was great. Great weather, great wind, and great company. His optimism was contagious. Isn't this what sailing's all about? I thought. Adventure. Going for it. Hell - time would fly.

The log entry for our first day out read: "Perfect day. Tetiaroa abeam. Full moon. Making 5 kts. In calm sea under all plain sail."

Day Two, we were making six knots under the mainsail and double headsails. Later in the day we had to sheet all the sails in hard to combat the north-northeast wind.

Day Three, we were still pounding into the wind. Hazana held up well, but we felt fatigued. A thirty-five-knot squall hit later in the day. We rolled in the genny, dropped the mainsail, and sailed under staysail and mizzen.

The clap of a wave against Hazana's port bow startled me. I ducked my head to block the spray. There was no way we'd be easing the sheets - spilling the wind from the sails to make the ride more comfortable - for we had committed to deliver Hazana, and it was San Diego or bust.

I watched the aqua and teal ocean colors commingle and dissolve into the deeper seas' midnight blue. San Diego or bust, I mused. I always return to San Diego - home sweet home. It seemed so long ago that I had worked in the health food store and graduated from Pt. Loma High. I remembered how I grabbed that diploma and split - cut every cord keeping me grounded. All I wanted to do was cross the border into Mexico and surf its fantastic waves. Back then, it was Mexico or bust. I smiled, remembering how important it was for me to be free, on my own. I bought a 1969 VW bus, named her Buela, and talked my friend Michelle into taking off with me. We threw our surfboards on the roof rack and breezed through customs for Todos Santos with its promise of great waves to surf and adventures to be had. That was fall 1978.

Michelle and I made camp on the beach at Todos Santos with other American surfers. For a month, all we did was surf, eat, party, and sleep. But, when Michelle couldn't shake the obligations she had waiting for her back home any longer, she reluctantly left, hitching a ride north.

I made friends with a local family, the Jimenezes. I learned enough Spanish to get by and had fun teaching their five kids English. They lived and farmed on leased land. I'd help them pick tomatoes and cilantro, and in exchange, they'd allow me to keep the overripe tomatoes to make salsa to sell to the gringos on the beach. My little business was lucrative enough to subsist on, so I didn't have to dip into my savings.

With so many Americans coming and going I never felt lonely and I never felt scared just being alone. Every week or so I would drive into Cabo San Lucas or La Paz for supplies. In Cabo there was a little sidewalk greasy spoon that served up a great Mexican breakfast. Lots of the gringos off cruising boats hung out there. The restaurant was a funky cinderblock building with a take-out window on the side. All of the seating was outside. There was a menu near the window and next to that was a huge bulletin board the size of a sheet of plywood. All kinds of messages and announcements were pinned onto this board.

One morning I saw an ad that caught my attention. "Crew wanted. Sailing experience not necessary. Cooking a must. Departing for French Polynesia at the end of the month." I didn't even know where French Polynesia was, but the sound of it lured me. "Contact Fred S/V Tangaroa."

"Hey," I yelled to Drew, a cruiser I'd met, "what does S-slash-V mean?"

"S-slash-V? It means sailing vessel, babe."

"Thanks, babe."

Copyright 2002 Tami Oldham Ashcraft
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

A true-life adventure story with everything: page-turning suspense, remarkable acts of courage, wrenching despair -- and a triumphant, life-affirming ending.

Picture yourself in a tropical climate, sailing out to sea with your fiancé. Life is perfect; you’re young and in love. Then picture everything going horribly wrong. You inadvertently sail into a hurricane, you’re injured, and you wake up to find that your loved one is gone. Your boat’s motor is shot and your masts have disappeared. Utterly alone, you’re weeks from dry land. Red Sky in Mourning is the story of Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s 41-day journey to safety, which she survived through fortitude and sheer strength of character. Interspersed with flashbacks to her romance with her doomed fiancé Richard, this survival story offers an inspiring reminder that even in our darkest moments we are never truly alone.

"Tami’s story will break your heart, then make it whole and fuller than ever . . . a dramatic story of single-handed survival."
--Herb Payson, Sail magazine

"[Tami’s] remarkable story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit."
--Herb McCormick, Cruising World magazine

"A walloping good yam that grabs your heart and tweaks your spirit." --Bookpage

"Inspiring . . . memorable . . . profound." --Booklist

"A dramatic debut . . . movingly told." --Kirkus Reviews

(back to top)

Author

Tami Oldham AshcraftTami Oldham Ashcraft continues to be an avid sailor and is a 100-ton licensed captain with over 50,000 offshore miles. She lives in Friday Harbor, Washington with her husband Ed and their two young daughters.

Susea McGearhart is a freelance writer and photographer who has been sailing for over 20 years.

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