From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In her darker moments, Amanda Thorns can't block the nagging questions about the ill-fated voyage that claimed her father's life and left her stranded at sea for 12 harrowing days. "What if I had been just a bit stronger," she wonders. Her biggest regret: ignoring the inner voice that warned her against making the journey from Cape Cod to Bermuda. "I was anxious as the trip approached," Thorns, 25, says. "Everyone kept telling me that I was being silly, that I had nothing to be afraid of."

But her fears were well-founded. On Nov. 9, just three nights after they set sail on what was to be her first open-ocean journey with her father, Willie Thorns, and his longtime sailing buddy Dennis White, both 64, the dream vacation became a nightmare. A massive wave crashed into the 45-ft. ketch, decimating it and sweeping her father overboard. Amanda, who had been dozing in her bunk, dashed to the deck, where she found her father in the water, tangled in the rigging and begging for help. White, who had built the boat, struggled in vain alongside Amanda to pull him to safety. "I kept thinking, 'Any second now I'll be stronger than I've ever been, and I'm going to pull my dad up,'" says Thorns, who quit her job as a waitress in New Orleans to go on the trip. "But the strength just didn't come. And suddenly, he was gone."

Thorns' ordeal was just beginning: The engine was flooded, the communications gear had been swept away, and the boat had no emergency GPS transponder. They drifted for 12 days until a Greek oil tanker spotted them on Nov. 21. Days later, Thorns still grapples with an intense sense of loss and a deepened appreciation for the joys of life. "She's just trying to get back to normal," says her mother, Stephanie Wayland. At the heart of her mixed emotions is her father. "There's grief about times that we won't have together," says Amanda, "but joy that Dad died doing something he loved."