7 December 2017

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

Whenever Katie Gibbs tells me about a book I buy it the next day. She has single-handedly recommended me more books than anyone else in my life combined. She kick-started my obsession with Everest, long-term travel accounts, and pretty much any story about perseverance. Katie is an amazing storyteller and I could listen to her tell me the plot of any book for hours. So naturally when she mentioned Red Sky in Mourning I was already writing it down on my phone's notepad and planning my trip to Indigo the next morning. Red Sky in Mourning is Tami Oldham's account of her survival after her fiance is lost at sea after an unexpected storm.

Tami and Richard were both avid sailors and had spent years working on boats, both as sailors and as craftsmen. They agree to sail a couple's boat from Tahiti to San Diego as a way to make some extra cash, before embarking on a long trip sailing around the world. They're struck by a storm and after being knocked unconscious below deck Tami regains consciousness to find the ship half destroyed and Richard nowhere in sight.

I've always been pretty interested in sailing (of course not interested enough to actually give it a try myself) and this probably stems from my desire to be a marine biologist / love of the ocean. I love that sailing is so hands on. I have always been fascinated with lost-at-sea stories (In the Heart of the Sea) and am also obsessed with the documentary Maidentrip about a Dutch girl who became the youngest person to sail around the world. I honestly don't know why I am so interested in these stories ... part of me thinks it's because how unforgiving the ocean is and how little we know about it.

I mean, imagine the hell Tami goes through. You wake up and your fiance is gone ... you would hope he died instantly because after everything I've read I've decided that being lost at sea is probably the worst way you can go. It is slow and painful, you either starve to death or die of dehydration - a fact even more torturous considering you are surrounded by water. Meg and I always said we would just swim as far down as we could or at least just inhale as much water as it takes to burst our lungs. We do not have the survivalist gene.

Oldham and her fiancee Richard
There are some really powerful lines that show her grief. My favourite was when she is considering what rations she has and she thinks to herself: "Richard will be thirsty when I find him." How sad??? This is the stuff Didion writes about ... the magical thinking you are plagued with.

Tami ends up spending 30+ days at sea, using her own knowledge of navigation to try and aim for Hawaii. She has to ration her food and water, make repairs on the boat, and also grieve the death of the love of her life. That's what also adds an extra terrifying layer - not just losing your fiance, but having to endure the aftermath of the disaster ALONE.

One thing I liked about this book (because I am sick) is that she considers suicide at least three times after the storm:

I couldn't think clearly. My head throbbed and my body ached with every movement. There was nothing else I could think to do, short of jumping overboard and ending this nightmare. If Richard had beckoned, I would have jumped." 

The first one is obviously pretty heartbreaking ... she is so miserable and devastated over Richard's death that she just sits and sobs for the first handful of days. She starts to hear this "voice" that acts like her survival compass ... telling her to eat, drink, to get up and get to work. I would have told this voice to fuck off and then tried to hold my breath until I died. The voice does serve as a bit of comic relief to the narrative, and again this is best exemplified when she threatens to kill herself again:

'Man, I could get wasted on this,' I announced to no one. 'I bet if I drank it all, I could die of alcohol poisoning.'"

The voice asks "what would be the point?"

Shailene Woodley as Oldham in the upcoming movie adaptation Adrift, after spending an entire shoot having buckets of ice water dumped on her.

The thing I didn't enjoy about this is that I don't love a book that ends in any sort of Christian belief... At the end Tami does explicitly say she thinks God saved her, blah blah. Again, this isn't really for me but it doesn't take too much away from the book. I think at the end of the day tell yourself whatever you have to to endure whatever hell you've been through, so whatever.

She is an interesting person in that if you are looking for a strong, badass woman to admire she is certainly it. There is a part in the book where she talks about one of her earlier voyages and how the guy leading the expedition essentially got lost. She didn't know how to navigate at the time and decided on the spot she would never be put in that position again. She hated being helpless and immediately returned home to learn how to calculate your position at sea. This essentially saves her life years later.

When is this streak of the devil going to end? I didn't want to think of the devil - Satan. This was enough hell for me. But my imagination started taking over. I warily looked around and started shaking. I hugged myself, trying to stop the involuntary rattle. The devil was here, near, coming to get me ..."

Woodley as Oldham again, recreating the disaster that was Oldham's hair

Again, I liked this book because it does show you a real portrait of grief and its absurdities: how she believes she will somehow find Richard in the middle of the ocean after she drifted for ~2 straight days unconscious... My favourite was after she makes it to Hawaii and is rescued and her hair is one giant knot. These hairdressers tell her she will probably just have to shave it off and she immediately bawls her eyes out. She has already lost so much but she refuses to lose her hair. She ends up finding a group who spend three full days untangling her hair. This is so perfect to me because it is so weirdly human. It seems like such a small thing to care about but you somehow understand its enormity.

I will wrap up by mentioning that this is being adapted into a movie starring Shailene Woodley. You can see a lot of photos from her Instagram of them on set. I'm hoping it will be good, as there is nothing Meg and I love more than a good survival at sea flick.

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