Iron Woman: The Real-Life Heroine Of ‘Adrift’

This article includes spoilers for the movie Adrift.

Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s story of her boat being tossed about by a vicious Pacific hurricane sounds as frightening as it looks in the new movie Adrift. “We were coming up and over these giant massive seas and just falling off the backside, becoming airborne a lot of the time,” Ashcraft told reporters at a recent press junket.

Starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, Adrift dramatizes the story of love and survival originally told by Ashcraft in her book Red Sky In Mourning. The book has been re-released under the title Adrift.

Ashcraft’s “Red Sky In Mourning,” 1998 edition. Source:

A Cruise Gone Terribly Wrong

Two weeks into a voyage from Tahiti to San Diego, Ashcraft and her fiance, Richard Sharp, were caught in the 120-mph winds of Hurricane Raymond. It was one of the strongest storms of the 1983 Pacific hurricane season.

She said they tried to outrun the storm, but their sailboat, the 44-foot Hazana, was not fast enough. “If you can get in the southern quadrant of the hurricane it tends to throw you out instead of suck you in,” she explained. ”So that’s why we ran for nearly three days, to get into the safe, semi-navigational area of the hurricane.”

But with the storm moving at about 25 knots, and the Hazana making only 12-14 knots, they were caught. “We were in the worst part of it. In the worst navigable area of the hurricane,” she said.

To this day, Ashcraft is not positive about what happened, but believes the Hazana was caught in a “pocket” created by a rogue wave that rolled the vessel completely. When it happened, Richard had already sent her below, where she hit her head and was knocked out for 27 hours.

When she came to, the sea was calm – and Richard was gone.

Ashcraft was left alone on a damaged boat, injured and hallucinating. She had just enough knowledge of seamanship to rig a replacement for the masts that had been snapped off in the storm – and then to navigate the remains of the Hazana to Hawaii.

It took her 41 days to reach the big island.

Writers Aaron and Jordan Kandell attend the World Premiere of ADRIFT at L.A. Live Regal Cinemas in Los Angeles, Calif., Wednesday, May 23, 2018.
Photo: Steve Cohn for STXfilms

Bringing The Story To The Screen

Screenwriters and producers Aaron and Jordan Kandell discovered Ashcraft’s book while researching another seafaring story idea. The film comes after five years of conversations with Ashcraft, and the brothers began writing the script for Adrift the day they were hired for another adventure at sea: Disney’s Moana.

Jordan Kandell noted a similarity between the two films: “The fact they’re strong women who go off on these incredible adventures on the open ocean is kind of a happy coincidence.”

While the adventure exerted a strong pull on the brothers, so did the love story of Tami and Richard. “There was something appealing of showing the cinematic scope of these two people having the most lush romance in the most paradise place on earth… and cross-cutting that with actual life and death stakes,” said Aaron Kandell.

Journalists as well as filmmakers, the Kandell brothers said they they try to be as authentic as possible in their projects. Ashcraft praised their efforts, saying the production was overwhelming.

She also called Woodley’s portrayal unbelievable. “She is so good!” Ashcraft said. “I love her vibe because… I’m a west coast girl and she is too.”

Shailene Woodley and Tami Oldham Ashcraft attend the World Premiere of ADRIFT at L.A. Live Regal Cinemas in Los Angeles, Calif., Wednesday, May 23, 2018.
Photo: Steve Cohn for STXfilms

She said  Woodley’s pairing with Claflin as Richard was perfect, adding, “It’s uncanny how much Sam is like Richard. His accent, his humor and actually how he kind of looks like Richard in a way.”

Ashcraft said she wept when she saw the film. “Even though I’ve been preparing for it for 34 years, it’s just nothing like actually seeing it,” she said.

After The Storm

Many people would avoid sailing after an experience like Ashcraft’s. She didn’t. “I couldn’t wait to get back to sea. I have saltwater in my veins,” she said.

Ashcraft got her captain’s license and made a career of sailing. “I love the solitude. I had that major head injury so it helped me to heal… instead of being into the craziness of society,” she said.

But she did admit to another fear from her ordeal. “The funny thing is I got a flying phobia from it!” she confessed. “I had to go get therapy for getting in an airplane.”

Ashcraft eventually settled in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. The Hazana was purchased, salvaged and restored, and now is kept in the Waikiki Yacht Harbor. The Kandells and Woodley went for a sail on the restored boat last month.

Adrift is now playing in theaters. Read our review here.

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