Red Sky in Mourning:
A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea

by Tami Oldham Ashcraft with Susea McGearhart


Hyperion, 2002. ISBN 0786867914.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 07/23/2002

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

The title is a paraphrase of the old saying, "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning," but the sky was gray and stormy when the Hazana capsized, throwing Tami Oldhamšs fiance overboard. Losing Richard Sharp was just the beginning of Tamišs forty-one-day struggle to survive. This is the story of how she overcame her intense grief and loneliness, found the will to go on alone and, despite her physical and emotional wounds, sailed the crippled Hazana over 1500 miles to safety.

The story begins on September 23, 1983, as Tami and Richard leave Tahiti for what they believe will be a side trip on their cruise around the South Pacific and New Zealand. A British couple has hired them to deliver their boat to San Diego while the couple flies home on a family emergency. What happens after Tami and Richard leave Papeete Harbor will have you absorbed until the last page.

Tamišs descriptions of her fear and despair are so real that you can almost feel these emotions yourself. Though you know that she will make it through, you keep reading to see how she does it and to be reassured that she finds happiness again.

The story moves back and forth between her early sailing days, her romance with Richard, and the journey that she ultimately survives alone. The idyllic scenes of their lovemaking on the boat and islands in the South Pacific make the final outcome especially poignant.

As they fight to sail through a hurricane, Richard sends her below deck, saving her life. The last thing she hears is Richardšs scream before she is knocked unconscious. When the storm has passed, Tami awakens to find that Richard is gone, the Hazanašs motor and radio are useless, and all the masts are broken. She manages to figure out her position at sea using the stars, a map and some plotting instruments. Then she rigs a makeshift sail and heads for Hawaii.

Alone and questioning her fate, she is answered by what she calls The Voice--leaving the reader to decide if The Voice is God, Tami's inner self, Richard, or the universe. The Voice ultimately talks her out of suicide and keeps her going on to find land or a rescue vessel. When she finds a box of cigars and a case of Hinano beer--Richardšs and her favorite--and goes up on deck to smoke a cigar and drink the warm beer, you know she has turned the corner. Somehow, this woman will survive.

It is not a direct path, however, from grief to hope. Tami slid into suicidal despair several times during her journey--even within sight of land at her journey's end. When she realizes the island within her view is not her imagination, her relief and joy break through on the page.

As a Japanese research vessel spots her approaching and tows her into the harbor at Hilo, Tami wonders who will meet her. The days that follow are full of interviews, Coast Guard investigations, and reunions with family and friends. In her attempt to regain a normal life, she looks for someone to untangle her matted hair without cutting it off--a job which took three beauticians two days.

For readers unfamiliar with sailing, there is a glossary in the back of the book. I must admit that I got tired of flipping to it for definitions of boat parts and sailing techniques, but providing definitions within the text probably would have taken away from the narrative tension. For instance, brightwork is the term for the unpainted, wooden boat parts that must be cleaned and varnished. I learned that people like Tami make a living doing this.

The writing overall is smooth and engrossing. The story provides a fascinating look at the world of people who live on boats and sail around the world for weeks or even months in search of adventure.

Perhaps most important, Red Sky In Mourning is a strong testament to the human spirit, the will to live, the voice within, and what one strong woman can do.

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