As we are quickly reminded by the recent devastation to the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, it is not lost that we are still in the throes of the 2019 hurricane season that began on May 30th and doesn’t end until November 30th, 2019.
However, the story of Tami Ashcraft ‘hurricane-sized’ moxie really resonated with me while watching the news coverage over the 2019 Labor Day holiday weekend.
You see, Tami looks for all the world like your average laid-back coastal mom. She sports long blonde hair that would do any SoCal surfer girl proud, her face seems to permanently bask in the afterglow of thousands of days spent in the sun, and her eyes dance like water in a peaceful harbor.
It’s not hard at all to imagine her skillfully guiding a seaworthy craft with her hands steady on the sheets and her feet planted firmly on the deck. She has “saltwater in her veins” as she puts it.
But it’s difficult to imagine Ashcraft left adrift alone more than 1,500 miles from land on a battered yacht with broken masts, no engine, no navigation, and no communication. Yet that’s exactly where she found herself back in 1983 at the tender age of 23. The movie Adrift, released last year starring Shailene Woodley as Ashcraft, brings her dramatic story to life.
Ashcraft and her fiancé, another experienced sailor named Richard Sharp, had been sailing the 44-foot yacht Hazana from Tahiti to San Diego. The 4,000-mile journey should have been an adventurous but routine trip for the two, but it instead turned deadly.
Hurricane Raymond changed all that. The category 4 storm seemed to stalk the couple as they attempted to outrun it by heading north out of its path. The monster storm swallowed up the Hazana and spit it back up with significant damage. Ashcraft sustained a serious head injury that left her unconscious for a day or more. Sharp was swept overboard and lost at sea.
When Ashcraft came to, she was alone and adrift. She knew her only chance was to reach the Hawaiian Islands 1,500 miles away.
It takes moxie to survive such a catastrophe and find your way home, and Ashcraft has it. Here’s how:
People with moxie draw on all their skills.
Ashcraft assessed the damage and realized that the yacht’s communication and navigation systems had been destroyed in the storm. Ditto the masts.
But Ashcraft had been sailing her whole life and knew the fundamentals of navigation by celestial objects. And somehow, miraculously, she found her watch floating in the bilge and also recovered a sextant. Using these two tools and her skills, she figured out her position and charted her course.
“I wasn’t a master navigator by any means, but I enjoyed it,” she recounted for Outside. “Once it became a life-and-death situation, I got really good, real quick.”
Ashcraft fashioned a pump to get as much of the water as possible out of the nearly swamped craft. She also recovered the one remaining sail and rigged it to what remained of the spinnaker pole. With it, she was able to steer and propel the craft to some measurable degree.
It was enough. After 41 long, grueling days, Ashcraft was recovered just outside the harbor at Hilo, Hawaii.
Even at the age of 23, Ashcraft had amassed the skills she needed to survive a situation that could have easily killed even the saltiest old sailor. That takes moxie.
People with moxie listen to their own still, small voice.
Aside from the daunting task of salvaging enough of the wrecked yacht to sail and navigating 1,500 miles using a watch and a sextant with no communication system, Ashcraft had to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of her circumstances. She was alone, injured and in the most precarious situation imaginable. The love of her life had been washed overboard and was lost at sea.
At one point, she became so lost in despair and her situation seemed so hopeless that she loaded the ship’s gun and put it in her mouth.
Stop, she heard a voice say. She withdrew the gun from her mouth and resolved to keep pushing forward.
It wasn’t the only time she’d hear that voice in her long journey. The voice, she believes, was her own inner spirit, encouraging her to endure and not give up. She heeded that voice.
It takes moxie to listen to your own voice telling you to carry on when you just want to give up.
People with moxie tell their story, for themselves and for others.
If you’d been through an ordeal anything like Ashcraft’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if you avoided all water deeper than a bathtub. And maybe even that, too.
Not so for Ashcraft.
“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 the sea, to get back to what I loved to do. That was kind of my therapy, I guess,” she told Outside. “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.’”
She kept moving forward in other ways, too. Though she mourned the loss of Sharp deeply, she did fall in love again. She married, and two raised children with her husband. They made life on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington.
The head injury she sustained left her unable to read for several years, but she overcame that, too.
But in the midst of moving on, she pushed aside much of the grief and trauma. Around the time of the birth of her first child, she decided it was time to tell her story. In 1998, she self-published her own book about her experiences entitled Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea.
“I couldn’t believe how much I was still holding around in my head, and just purging it like that really helped me to get past it all,” she told the Chicago Tribune in a 2003 interview. “Now I choose when to think about it, instead of it being always there.”
No one suggested counseling at the time, but she wished now she’d had it.
“I definitely had some severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. I really wish I had taken the time to do that. I’m fairly headstrong, so I’m always, ‘Oh, I can get through this on my own.’ Now looking back, at the time I really needed some professional help,” she said in the Tribune interview.
Ashcraft’s book was made into the feature film Adrift starring Shailene Woodley. Watching her story come to life before her eyes on set and on-screen was cathartic for Ashcraft.
It takes moxie to overcome a challenge, but it almost always takes sharing your story with someone else to survive. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it, whether it is from a counselor, a friend or a reader or an audience.