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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 ...
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.
A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea
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'd 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 closeand 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?"
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 cinder-block 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."
Ah, so the Tangaroa was a sailing vessel. Not having a VHF radio to hail Tangaroa, I walked to the beach and studied the many sailboats at anchor. As they swung with the current I could read their names, and soon I spotted Tangaroa. Its dinghy was tied to the stern, so I knew its owner was still on board. I kicked back on the warm sand and waited for someone to row ashore. After some time had passed, I saw an older man get into the dinghy and row in.
After he had secured the skiff on the beach, I approached him.
"Are you Fred?"
"Yes," he said, quickly looking me over.
"I saw your want ad for crew and I'm interested."
He invited me to have a cold cerveza up at the Muy Hambre cabana. Over the cerveza I told Fred the only boat I had ever sailed was my dad's Hobie Cat in San Diego Bay, so I didn't know a thing about sailing, let alone sailing across the ocean to a foreign port. Fred told me his boat was a custom-built Dreadnought 32. We discussed what my responsibilities would be on board, namely cooking and taking watches. I said that if what he really wanted was a "partner" I wasn't interested. He told me he was recovering from a Tabasco-laden divorce and the last thing in the world he wanted or needed right then was a partner. All I would need to do was cook and stand watch.
With all the cards on the table, we agreed to go on a shakedown cruise—a trip to see how I took to sailing. We sailed to La Paz, 170 miles away.
It was a fabulous, two-day trip. Fred was the gentleman he promised to be and I took to sailing like a fish to water. I signed on the Tangaroa. My mom was more apprehensive about my sailing off into the wild blue yonder than my dad, but she knew she couldn't stop me, just like she hadn't been able to stop me from coming to Mexico nine months earlier.
When I returned to Todos Santos, the Jimenezes said it would be okay for me to leave my bus parked there. Years later I learned it had become a livestock feeder. They'd dump food into the sunroof and open the side doors so it could spill out, conveniently feeding the pigs.
Fred and I left Cabo in March 1979. The passage down to the Marquesas was a wonderful learning experience for me. I spent a lot of time at the wheel learning the feel of maneuvering a vessel through the dense sea. The only bummer was that Fred and I were like oil and water. He, in his mid-fifties, liked classical music. I, nineteen, liked rock 'n' roll. He liked gourmet cuisine, I liked vegetarian meals. He was disciplined. I was carefree. He was an impressive man—posture perfect, body perfect, tan perfect. But all that was way too perfect for me.
One day, the horizon gave birth to volcanic peaks. I was breathless, seeing land after being surrounded for thirty-two days by nothing but blue seas and blue sky. Dense peaks split what had been a monotonous horizon line. It was a mystical sight that brought tears to my eyes. I wondered if this was how Christopher Columbus felt when he first saw land. Fred and I were barely speaking to each other by this time. I could hardly wait to get off Tangaroa, although I knew my desire to sail and explore had just begun.
Fred had told me we'd need to post an $850 bond upon checking into customs at Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesan Islands of French Polynesia. But, being a novice traveler, I never dreamed my money, which was in pesos, was something the Marquesans wouldn't recognize as a trading currency. Fred posted the bond for me, but it meant I had to keep crewing and cooking for him. I mailed all my pesos to my mom in San Diego, who said via telephone that she'd convert them to American dollars and mail the exchange back to me in care of General Delivery, Papeete, Tahiti.
During that time, I met Darla and Joey, who were also crewing on a yacht. We became fast friends. A small group of us crewmates, all about the same age, ended up fraternizing, and to keep us from committing mutiny, our captains decided to buddy-boat together through the Marquesan Island group.
Fred and I were the first boat in our group to leave the Marquesas and head for the Tuamotu Archipelago. It would be a three-day trip, and we deliberately timed it to arrive on a full moon, which would give us the most available light at night to navigate the atolls in case we arrived later than planned. Atolls are low-lying, ring-shaped coral reefs enclosing a lagoon. Because atolls are not easily seen and are surrounded by underwater coral reefs, they are dangerous to the mariner. Going aground on one can ravage the underside of a hull and sink a boat in minutes. The highest points on an atoll are the forty-foot palm trees swaying in the tradewinds. Due to the curvature of the earth and the fact that you are in a boat rolling with the sea, forty feet is not as obvious as a four-story building. Palm trees are the first indication to a mariner that solid ground is near.
It had been suggested that Fred and I look for certain ships and boats that had gone aground on these atolls, and to use the old hulks as points of navigation. Sailing past the wrecks on the reefs made me realize how important it is that everyone on board a boat be aware of the dangers and know how to navigate through hazardous areas. This was something I thought Fred knew.
Our first port of call was to be Manihi. Fred calculated it would be early morning before we spotted the atoll, giving us plenty of time and good light to find the lagoon entrance. When late morning came and we still hadn't seen anything, I started to get worried. It wasn't until one o'clock in the afternoon—when we saw the tips of palm trees blowing in the distance—that I could finally sigh in relief. Before long we were close enough to try to locate the entrance shown on the chart. We looked for a lull in the streams of white water, but all we saw was one long breaker. Fred explained that often waves break on either side of a lagoon's channel, making it hard to distinguish the cut in the coral polyps.
Fred and I took turns looking through the binoculars, voraciously scanning the breakers along the shoreline. Finally I climbed up the mast steps to the spreaders—the crossbars on the mast—and wrapped my legs and one arm around the mast, surveying the tropical isle through the binoculars. The land appeared continuous, with no cut. We sailed completely around the atoll and still did not find an entrance. My nerves were taut and Fred refused to admit we were lost. The sun was quickly setting.
Through heated words we both conceded that we must have been set—that is, pushed—to the west, and that we had circumnavigated the atoll Ahe instead of Manihi. So we agreed to sail on through the night to Rangiroa.
Both of us were on edge that night. We stayed awake, watching and listening for any waves that might be breaking across a reef. It was that night, in my fear, that I realized I never wanted to be in such a position again. I needed to learn to navigate.
At first light we saw our destination. It was like the palms were waving a special hello to me. Around midmorning, we located the pass. This time it was easy to see where the white water petered out and then churned up again. The shift in color along the shoreline made the channel obvious. We
Excerpted from Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham Ashcraft with Susea McGearhart. Copyright © 2002 by Tami Oldham Ashcraft. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted April 24, 2006
I constantly tried to put myself in her shoes through her loss and surviving ways. I would have crumbled at her challenges, including being alone. This book makes you appreciate the ones you love and perhaps take for granted.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 23, 2006
I know zip about sailing, but this story is about so much more...the ability to survive what seemed impossible, the guidance of loved ones in our lives--even beyond the grave, and true, young, real love. This is a quick read and written from the heart.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 24, 2003
This book is an amazing story of a strong women who looses her love in a tragic storm out at sea. When I picked up this book I just couldnt put it down. Every page is full of suspense and suprise. This book has changed me tremendously. It taught me to never give up even when times get rough. I always think, Tami has been through worse.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2002
I have a very real fear of water, and wasn't sure I wanted to read this book.I'm so glad I did as you don't often hear much about the kind of love Tami and RIchard had for each other, as well as the love she showed by continuing the journey. A wonderful story about 2 people who took a journey with hearts full of love for each other and the adventure they both anticipated to be very memorable. It was memorable but for a different reason and the story is a wonderful memoir and a tribute to both Richard and Tami. Page 202 blew me away as it exemplified the great relationship they had and the final gesture that meant it was time to let go. Tami has made a wonderful life for herself with a wonderful husband and family. Please read this book. It really makes you appreciate what and who you have in your life !!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.