The one permanent emotion of the inferior man
is fear--fear of the unknown, the complex,
the inexplicable. What he wants beyond
everything else is safety.
Captain John Ridgway was twenty-six and in the fittest shape of his life when he heard about David Johnstone's plan to row across the Atlantic. He responded to Johnstone's ad soliciting five other rowers for the project, but one brief meeting persuaded both men they could never make a go of it. "He was a big, bearded chap," Ridgway remembers. "A journalist. Quite overweight. I was proud of my fitness, and I didn't think this was somebody I'd want to row across the Atlantic with. So I decided to do it myself."
By Ridgway's thinking, the race was on--not because he wished to dominate or humiliate Johnstone but because he believed there was no point in finishing second in this event. "I was trying to make my name," he says freely. "That's why I was doing it. That's what ambitious people do. I was young and confident that I was as good as him, better even. I was trained in small boats, had taken classes in seamanship. I believed that if we lined up head to head, my boat would win."
For that to happen, he would have to hurry his preparations. Unfortunately, he had neither boat nor partner.
Several friends and companions declined his invitation to spend months with him in a bathtub-size boat. Undaunted, Ridgway pressed forward, finding a durable, rowable, affordable boat, a dory, and interviewing prospective partners. He consulted experts for advice on rations, medical equipment, clothing, and survival at sea. Experienced in small boats since he was a teenager, he was already well versed in navigation, signals, and seamanship.
Ridgway's commanding officer, who understood the lure of adventure, agreed to support the venture. "Without this the voyage could not have been made," says John. The Ministry of Defense granted him an unpaid leave from the Army for the duration of the voyage, unpaid because if Ridgway died at sea, questions might be raised in the House of Commons about public funds being spent on a suicide mission.
With seemingly no financial backing, Ridgway decided to bankroll the expedition himself. At least it would put an end to the wasted time and humiliation of seeking money from outside sources. With almost no assets of his own, he convinced his bank manager to authorize a L300 overdraft.
One evening the "Roundabout" radio program offered its quote of the week, from a Captain John Ridgway: "When asked why he wished to row across the Atlantic, he had replied, 'Because afterwards, when I come into a room, people will say there is the man who rowed the Atlantic.'" When Ridgway heard that, he smiled to himself and thought, "How foolish, and yet how true."
The hunt for a partner continued. Ridgway sought candidates exclusively within the Parachute Regiment, "because at least our minds would work along the same lines, and I could rely on a high level of steadfastness."
One afternoon, Sergeant Chay Blyth came into his office. "I heard you were looking for someone to go on this rowing trip, sir," he said, smiling.
"You're damn right, but I don't want any married fellow along, though."
"Oh well, I've talked it over with Maureen and she thinks it's a good idea, but it's up to you."
Ridgway had enormous respect for Blyth, whom he had known for eight years. They had been through more than their share of trials and tribulations together, including countless parachute jumps and the intimacy of sharing snow holes during Arctic training in Canada. Blyth had been his platoon sergeant, his friend, his teammate. Together they had won a challenging twenty-four-hour canoe race down the Thames, an event created by Ridgway for the Army. After capsizing and being counted out of the race by many, they paddled from last to first, during which Blyth had certainly shown his mettle.
Forty-three days before his scheduled departure date, Captain John Ridgway had found his man.
Chay Blyth grew up in a working-class family in Hawick, Scotland, "about as far removed from the sea as you can get in Scotland," he says, with a rich Scottish brogue. He quit school at age fifteen and took an apprenticeship as a frame worker in a knit shop. For three years, he was a capable, if not a devoted, worker, until he got the sack for striking a foreman. "I accidentally smashed a machine, as every apprentice does. Unfortunately, I'd smashed another one two weeks earlier, and so the foreman started harassing me. It was the fifties, and I was one of those chaps with fairly long hair and fairly tight trousers." He laughs. "I think they're called Teddy Boys today.
"Well, I wasn't about to be poked by anybody, foreman or not, so I biffed him. You can't have an apprentice biffing a foreman, can you? A week later I was in the Army."
It was there that he found his calling. Swiftly advancing to the rank of sergeant, he became an expert in survival. "Desert survival, Arctic survival, paratrooping," he says. "I was very gung ho, fit to a high calibre, but I had never been at sea before. In fact, I was the last guy you'd ever expect to go to sea. I didn't even learn to swim until I was twelve. Someone threw me in the deep end of a pool, and a local swimming champion hauled me out. 'Can you not swim, laddie?' he asked. When I told him no, he offered to give me lessons. I ended up training three times a day, eventually competing for the south of Scotland. Ever since, I've made it a point to encourage youngsters to try things they don't think they can do."
Ridgway and Blyth had several chats about sea adventuring, eventually concluding that rowing across the Atlantic would be, if nothing else, a ripping good survival exercise. "We were in it for the physical adventure," says Blyth. "Of course, we were totally naive. We had done some difficult canoeing, but it wasn't much against the Atlantic Ocean."
In fact, Blyth's only experience at sea was an English Channel crossing by steamer. But Ridgway wasn't worried. He knew Sergeant Blyth to be fit, responsible, and compatible. "We were both aware of the paramount importance of not falling out with each other in mid-ocean," says John.
Captain John Ridgway and Sergeant Chay Blyth were lean, tough, well-trained military men at the peak of their physical prowess. As paratroopers, physical fitness was their career. Although Ridgway had met Johnstone only once and his partner John Hoare never, he saw them not as adventurers but as journalists out to create a sensational story. This was in sharp contrast to the two military men, who saw it as a physical test, man pitting his wits against nature. It was just the sort of exercise they had been trained for.
As Ridgway would write in his autobiography, Journey to Ardmore: "After all the years of training, now there is reality, a chance to be fulfilled and make one joyous leap clear of time and the pettiness of life."
They were surprised to hear that Johnstone and Hoare had moved up their departure date by two weeks. Clearly, they wanted no part of any race. Ridgway and Blyth continued to hold out hope that the two boats would somehow line up in Boston and set off together. But then, on the voyage to the United States, David Johnstone was persuaded by the navigation officer to start from Virginia Beach instead of Cape Cod. Another complication was that Ridgway cut his foot, which led to severe blood poisoning. Immediately upon arrival in Boston, he was admitted to Chelsea Naval Hospital.
While he was flat on his back in the hospital, Johnstone and Hoare began rowing from Virginia Beach. For Ridgway, it was a real psychological trough in his life. The race was on, and he not only wasn't at the starting line, he wasn't even mobile. "Lying alone in my small, white hospital room, my feelings were probably not unlike those experienced in a death cell before the scaffold."
Part of his disappointment stemmed from the sincere belief that he had unknowingly spent his whole life preparing for this race. And now Johnstone and Hoare were already oar-deep in their adventure while he lay helplessly supine, with tubes running in and out of him like old memories...
Born on July 8, 1938, John Manfield Ridgway never knew his parents. From an early age he was in and around small boats, a better student at sea than on land. By age thirteen, he was trained in seamanship, signals, and navigation. At age fourteen, he was rowing forty miles a day to and from school. He sharpened his skills at Pangbourne Nautical College. At seventeen, he served in the Merchant Navy, followed by national service with the Royal Engineers and two years at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He rose to the rank of captain, and was commissioned into the Parachute Regiment.
In 1964 he got married and tried to make a go of it in northern Scotland for five months. Failing that, he returned to the parachute regiment in late 1964.
Ridgway was restored to health in time for them to shove off on June 4, two weeks behind Johnstone and Hoare. At 5:30 in the evening of June 4, 1966, they climbed into their boat, English Rose III, waved good-bye, and pushed off from Cape Cod. "This is the real thing, Chay," John shouted above the tumult. "From now on, every day will be an achievement."
Some of the people waded out in waist-deep water to shake their hands. Devotees? Rowing groupies? "The Coast Guard had predicted a 95 percent chance of our committing suicide," John explains, "and a lot of people wanted to be the last to shake our hands. Once you say you're going to do something, there's millions of people wanting to see you die."
They shot through the rapids of Nauset Inlet, Orleans, accompanied by a fleet of small craft. John, feeling the early rumblings of sea-sickness, hoped it would get dark before he was totally overcome.
After a while, the other boats returned to shore, and the rowers were left alone. A bird squawked in the distance and waves lapped against the boat, but otherwise all was quiet. "It had been great while it lasted," recalls John, "but then the cheering stopped, and tears came into the eyes, the corners of the mouth turned down, and the breathing became shallow." The disappearance of land, he suggests, was not as emotional as losing that last boat. "Part of you wishes you were going with them," he says. "And then you're left to yourself, with nothing but time to think about the Coast Guard's prediction that you have a 95 percent chance of dying."
Once they developed rhythm and routine, Ridgway and Blyth became an efficient rowing team. John is quick to point out that the military had trained them for just such efficient teamwork. Survival training in Europe and the Middle East had instilled in them a team spirit that served them well in the middle of the ocean. When one man was in the psychological doldrums, the other could usually cheer him up. They tried to adhere to a philosophy of altruism. "When in the depths of self-pity, we tried to look at what the other person needed: 'How you doing? Can I make you a cup of tea?' That sort of thing. The minute you can forget yourself, you're all right."
Blyth believes that an important ingredient in their success is that "John was an officer and used to giving orders, and I was a sergeant and used to taking them."
The first part of the row was tougher than they expected. They had to pass through the cold (48 degrees F.) Labrador Current before they reached the warmer (70 degrees F.) but stormy Gulf Stream. They expected to do the 150 miles to the Gulf Stream fairly quickly, but in fact it was a real struggle. Day after day, it was foggy and cold, with a surfeit of strong easterly winds that pinned them too close to the American seaboard for their liking.
At first, they rowed and slept as a team. But they soon learned that, even with their sea anchor out, the relentless Labrador Current undid much of their work each night. At the rate they were going, they figured English Rose III would reach England in January 1967. Unfortunately, they would starve to death around October 1966.
They set up a more ambitious schedule that put four oars in the water for twelve daytime hours. At different times every hour, the men would take five-minute breaks. At night, one rowed while the other slept, switching positions every two hours.
After a week of fog and adverse winds, they awoke to a clear day, and John decided to fix their position. He calculated latitude by sextant meridian altitude and longitude by the chronometer method. He knew he was a little rusty but was unprepared for his first sight, which placed them 700 miles inland in Vermont. It turned out to be a loose screw on the sextant; once fixed, his sightings were quite accurate.
It took them two weeks to reach the Gulf Stream, averaging a dismal 11 miles a day. Because their keelless, flat-bottomed boat didn't set very deep in the water, the rowers believed they would benefit more from favorable winds than from the famous Gulf Stream current. Unfortunately, the wind was more enemy than ally. Charts provided by the U.S. Navy suggested the number of July days with easterly winds was minuscule, but they faced headwinds an average of one day in four.
If that wasn't enough, a hurricane rolled in. On their transistor radio they heard that Hurricane Alma, the first hurricane spawned in the spring in sixty years was making its way up the Eastern Seaboard, expected off Cape Cod by the next morning.
At dawn they were startled awake by a huge wave breaking over Rosie, as they had nicknamed the boat. Faster than you could say "deluge," she was filled nearly to her gunwales with foaming sea water. Both men bailed hard for a quarter of an hour to rid her of standing water. Then another wave blasted them. "It is difficult to describe the experience of a hurricane in a small boat," John would write. "The sea becomes a giant switchback with moving hills and valleys, all covered with foam which looks rather like icing on a cake. The water comes in over the side of the boat, and it has to be removed with buckets and pumps faster than it comes in for longer than the storm lasts, or else the crew will drown. If the water ever succeeds in filling the boat right to the gunwales, then in those seas every bucketful removed will spill in again immediately, the water level inside and outside the boat being the same."
They were able to control the water with one person bailing and the other resting, until a big wave swamped them, forcing them both to bail and pump for ten minutes or so. The worst of the storm swallowed them for six hours and then spit them out. Afterward, cooking dinner in the gathering darkness, they felt cold, wet, but triumphant, almost euphoric. The first spring hurricane in sixty years and they had survived!
As they later discovered, Hurricane Alma left destruction in her wake. Sea water had seeped into the polystyrene ration boxes, through lids broken by their feet while trying to sleep in cramped quarters. They repacked what could be salvaged and threw out the rest. In all, they dumped a quarter of their rations into the sea. "It was a grim task to be throwing food away only a few hundred miles from America," they agreed.
In the middle of the Atlantic, good weather never stayed long. Illimitable blues could morph into unruly grays and blacks in a heartbeat. A few days after the hurricane, they were hit by a gale that was, in John's estimation, their sternest test yet. It was nearly dark and John had just taken the oars. Floppy-topped waves were attacking from all sides, with no order, and it was all he could do to keep the boat on course. Soaking wet and buffeted by gale-force winds, there was every reason for him to be afraid, as he had been before. Instead, he felt strangely elated in the face of death. Yet he was also calm and relaxed as he struggled to keep Rosie on a straight course before the waves. He could only do his best, he knew, and then it was out of his hands. If they were to die now, at least they had lived for a time free of the pettiness of everyday life. "I was conscious of a definite conviction that this moment was to be lived and enjoyed," he says.
The storm passed, taking elation with it and leaving depression in its wake. The wind died, the sea went glassy, and the sun burned down with a crackling intensity. Tired and depleted from battling the storm all night, they lacked their usual rabid persistence. They discussed their feelings, as they did every facet of life, eventually concluding that there was nothing wrong with them that a good westerly wind couldn't cure.
After thirty-two days at sea, they figured to use sixty-four gallons of water, but in fact they had used only twenty-five gallons. John concluded they were lugging thirty-five unnecessary gallons across the Atlantic. Chay argued that only a fool would throw drinking water out of a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. John, who thought they should dump the extra weight, eventually prevailed, though he felt more than a little apprehensive watching the string of yellow plastic containers bob away in the distance.
With each day they became more efficient. If a man wasn't rowing, then he was either cooking or sleeping. No reading, fishing, or any other activity not related to keeping the boat moving was allowed. At night, the changeover of the oars was done so that Rosie never lost her momentum. "We became obsessed with going steadily through the water," says John.
Sometimes at the end of a calm day, with the sun sinking into a western sea ablaze in colors, the feeling that they were part of the natural life of the ocean was almost overpowering. They were visited by birds, dolphins, whales, even a huge shark twice the length of Rosie. For John, it was a feeling quite distinct from sailing on a yacht.
On August 12, seventy days out, with diminishing rations and 900 miles still to row, they decided to divide their remaining food into thirty days of portions. They were a good deal smaller than the portions Mom used to serve, and would it be enough? They prayed they would meet a ship.
Rowing alone in the middle of a seemingly limitless ocean beneath a night looking like millions of jewels on black velvet, it was easy to imagine themselves as two little ants on a piece of a matchstick trying to cross a puddle to a rock, on which were crowded many other ants. With what purpose? they wondered. Had they been spared just to return and rejoin the struggle to acquire material things to impress their fellow ants? Surely, there was more to life than that.
They believed they must show personal improvement as a result of their trial. They vowed never to forget how they had felt during the hurricane. Maybe suffering was the greatest gift a human can be granted, John thought, for it opened one's eyes afresh and helped banish the worthless trash of life.
Such were the thoughts that played on their minds, especially at night. It was then that John was most certain of God's Presence "in charge of the sea and her storms, while at the same time preserving their lives." He and Chay had repeated metaphysical chats, vowing that if they survived, they would be more humble, tolerant, and appreciative of the gift of life. They owed this revelation to the adventure, the solitude, the time to think. For John, it went even further. The seed of his life work was planted: when he returned, he would spread the Word by founding an adventure school.
After two days of monochromatic rain, the day dawned clear, calm, and bright, a palette of yellows and blues. The men were having a sparse breakfast when suddenly they spied a west-bound tanker, only a mile away off their port bow. As she headed straight toward them, they waited anxiously, rising and falling in the gentle swell. Would the ship see their signal, a red anorak waving from the top of the thin telescopic radio aerial? Would they respond?
It was Captain Mitchell of the Shell tanker Haustellum who stopped for them that day. He threw down a rope ladder and the rowers hauled themselves up, wobbling on to her deck on shaky legs. A bo'sun stayed aboard Rosie to prevent her banging against the steel sides of the ship.
"What'll you have to eat?" asked a smiling Captain Mitchell, getting right to the point.
"Scrambled eggs," they answered as one. The highlight of their weekly menu was powdered scrambled eggs; now they could have the real thing.
"I'm bound for Venezuela," said the captain. "I'm afraid I can't stop long, but I'll have them load your boat with provisions."
"Thank you very much, sir. Who won the World Cup?" asked John.
"England, didn't you know?"
The rowers smiled at each other, wondering if they were the last Brits on earth to learn the results.
Even today, thirty years later, both men can clearly recall the taste of those scrambled eggs, the hot coffee, the toast and marmalade on that sumptuous, sunny day. They remember the calm, friendly efficiency of the British ship, and the tin of biscuits they clutched as they scrambled back down the rope ladder to their boat. The captain, who had been saving them for his wife, decided they needed it more.
Before parting, they confirmed their position--46.22N, 23.15W, 850 miles southwest of land's end. A crew member told them the newspapers had reported the Puffin seven hundred and fifty miles from Europe. It was the only news they were to hear of the other boat; if true, it meant she was a little more than a hundred miles ahead of them. Ridgway claims that he and Blyth shared the hope that the Puffin would land ahead of them. The ideal outcome, they decided, was for the Puffin to land first and for Rosie to finish in a slightly faster time.
After waving good-bye, they took a rough inventory. Rosie was a cornucopia of fresh fruit, bread, milk, eggs, sardines--"all the good things we had longed for." For the rest of the day, they ate and ate, restocking lost calories and revisiting nearly forgotten taste treats. That night John was violently ill.
They plodded on, only slightly less miserable than before resupply. Their oilskins were disintegrating along with their bodies. Besides backaches, swollen feet, and blisters, painful rashes caused them misery. In addition, John suffered from boils, an excruciating vestige of his bout with blood poisoning. He felt like he was dying, a little bit at a time. He wondered if they would reach land before his body completely wore out. That was the real race.
On August 27, they met a Finnish cargo ship, M.V. Finnalpino, bound for Montreal from the English Channel. The English Channel. The name sent shivers up their backs.
They were only 250 miles west of Fastnet Rock on the southwest corner of Eire, closing in on Ireland.
"One week, Chay. Fair winds and we'll make it in one week."
"Soon it will be a memory," he replied.
John smiled. That had been Chay's constant refrain, his version of "Keep a stiff upper lip," and it had helped them through more than one rough spot.
They began to see different birds--gannets, terns, and fulmars--which foreshadowed land. Another harbinger: vaporous jet trails pointing them toward Dublin's Shannon Airport.
One day, just as John was taking over the oars, he espied a faint grey line just above the horizon well to their left.
"There it is--land!" John said, as calmly as he could.
"Well, I'm not going to look now, not until we can be sure."
Ridgway believed he had sighted the Aran Isles off the west coast of Ireland. Their goal had been Europe, and Aran qualified. They turned north and rowed with renewed vigor, trying to reach what now appeared as a smudge before nightfall. Helped by a mounting southerly wind, they soon confirmed that the smudge was land.
They figured to pass through a quarter-mile gap between two small islands, then put in on the sheltered side of the westernmost island, which had a lighthouse. By the time they reached those islands, however, it was blowing a gale. The wind was carrying them so fast that they angled the stern toward the gap and used the oars just to balance the boat. By two in the afternoon, the wind was Force 9--severe gale--from the south. Looming before them, frequently blotted from view by rain squalls, huge rollers smashed against craggy cliffs, throwing up foam and froth. They prayed that there were no hidden currents that would drag them onto the rocks.
Nearing the land after ninety-two days, the soft green of the grass, framed by racing black clouds and white-grey seas, seemed to be welcoming us home. But between that soft green and Rosie lay the black cliffs laced with foam where the raging sea clawed in vain to reach the emerald carpet high above it.
A heady sense of pleasure overtook John, as he realized they were facing one of the supreme tests of their lives. He was confident they had done everything they could. In moments, they would know if they won or lost, lived or died.
Feeling like a cork in a street gutter after a storm, they shot through the gap and into the lee of the little lighthouse island. They believed they had to land on this island or be blown 10 miles beyond, on to the rocky coast of the mainland during the night.
There were two men from the lighthouse down on the shore, in a little cove on the leeward side. One of them ran to fetch the keeper, who appeared clutching his brass telescope. He was dressed in rough blue serge like the others. As the rowers hauled at the oars and tried to close on the men ashore, they noticed the men waving them away, toward the main island across the wind. They could not hear their shouts above the deafening roar of the wind and sea, but it was clearly too rough to land anywhere on the lighthouse island.
Darkness lay in wait, ready to pounce. Only three hours before nightfall, they made a decision to try and land in the shelter of the main island, protected, they hoped, by the cliffs rising 500 feet above the Atlantic. Before he could go on, though, John had to heed the call of nature, which had become an urgent scream. He abandoned his oars and went to get the bucket that served as their toilet. Meanwhile, the lighthouse keeper was still watching them through his telescope, and when he saw John leave his oars, pick up a bucket, and bend down, he assumed the worst.
"They're in trouble! They're bailing out! Radio for the lifeboat!"
After John finished with the bucket, he took up his oars, and together he and Chay tried to cross menacing rollers in search of shelter on the main island. The storm raged on, and the sea was roiled into a fury by winds that shrieked and howled like a haunted house. As the huge waves crashed into the rocks, the spray flew up, cascading over the tops of the cliffs. The rowers sang songs, including Barbra Streisand's "Second Hand Rose," to calm their nerves and divert their minds.
Nearing dusk, they still had half a mile to row into a stiff wind. They guessed that four oars rowing hard could do it in an hour. Before they could test that theory, a lifeboat appeared maybe 30 yards away, veiled by a curtain of rain. The rowers couldn't hear what they were shouting, but clearly they wanted to take them in tow.
Chay and I had lived in an open space twelve feet by five feet for a quarter of a year while rowing some 3,500 miles in a rather erratic course across the Atlantic. We were keen to finish the last quarter mile under our own steam.
"What shall we do now, Chay?"
"Just pretend we can't see them and keep rowing."
The lifeboat crew was clearly puzzled by their tactics. Finally, after twenty minutes of staring at the bottom of the boat, embarrassment overcame the rowers. They couldn't ignore the fact that those bold Irishmen had risked their lives to come out on this Edgar Allen Poe night--just to save them. The least they could was surrender.
So at 7:30 in the evening they boarded the lifeboat and watched as Rosie was tied to the stern. In the lifeboat cabin on the way to Kilronan, they chatted about the future. Assuming the Puffin had already landed, they imagined their own arrival causing a splash comparable to a grain of sand hitting the Channel. Because they had no money, John decided he would call his uncle and ask him to send plane fare.
The first hint they had of making a slightly larger splash was when they arrived in a little harbor at Aran Isle and, despite the late hour, the high winds, the slashing rain, a crowd had gathered under a single naked electric light bulb outside a warehouse just to see them.
An hour later, as they wolfed down mounds of stew, the phone rang. It was The People newspaper calling from London for John Ridgway. It seems, Mr. Ridgway, that during your voyage The People signed an exclusive contract with your agent. You are not to talk to the press. John agreed; from where he sat on a craggy, stormbound island, it wasn't much of a concession. There wasn't a journalist in sight.
As they later learned, the editor of The People (motto: "Frank, Fearless, and Free") had taken a chance and run a front-page headline, "THEY'VE MADE IT!" while they were still at sea.
Later we felt rather sorry for the girl reporter who had infiltrated into Red China to send exclusive reports on the purges by the Red Guards. Our story replaced hers.
While the rowers sat in front of a cozy fire, their wives, Maureen and Marie Christine, were stormbound on the Scilly Isles, having failed to reach them. Sitting in a cinema, they stared at the screen with unseeing eyes, their mind clawed by doubts about the tiny rowboat's ability to withstand the storm raging outside. In the middle of the movie, they were called to the phone. Upon learning that the men had landed safely in Ireland, they burst into tears. For Ridgway and Blyth, just hearing their wives' voices was a touch of heaven.
Next day when the wives tried to call back, they were told they were ninety-fifth on the list of callers trying to get through to the rowers. Because the Puffin had not landed, Ridgway and Blyth were now being honored as the first crew in the twentieth century to row an ocean. Telegrams flooded in from everywhere, including one of 130 words from the Chief of the General Staff of the Army. In the media rush to reach them, two people were killed (one fell off a boat and drowned, the other died in a small plane crash).
The rowers were flown in a hired plane to Cardiff and then on to Dublin, where they were feted and honored and interviewed by TV, radio, and print media until they were dizzy. One time, Chay, confronted with a barrage of microphones and cameras, brought down the house by saying, "You may have heard that I did all the rowing. This is not true. Captain Ridgway did do some rowing--when I was cooking!"
The festivities went on for months. At the end of February, the rowers and their wives attended a small cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. It was a dream come true for John, who had worshipped the Queen since his youth. She was a beautiful young lady then, appearing on the screen at the end of a night of cinema. She was usually in uniform, sitting side-saddle on a horse and taking the salute at a big parade. As they played the National Anthem, John would silently dare someone to move so he could attack them in defense of the Queen.
Now, years later, she was speaking directly to him. "Would you do it again?" she was asking.
John was ready for the question. "Only for you, Ma'am," he said with a slight bow, feeling a little like Sir Walter Raleigh.
"Oh, I wouldn't ask you do anything so foolish," returned the Queen, and for that Ridgway was unprepared.
After the capsized Puffin was found, the gripping tales of the two British rowing crews--one ending in death, the other in triumph--were splattered over the front page for weeks. "We got volumes of publicity," admits Blyth. "Front page for five days running. I think it's a big reason why so many ocean rowers (eighteen) have been Brits. There are plenty of other sea nations. Why haven't Portugal, Spain, or Japan provided any ocean rowers?"
Shay Blyth has definite--some would say extreme--views on the Puffin tragedy. "I wouldn't even call it a tragedy," he says evenly. "They made so many mistakes. The first one was publishing their plans, allowing others to dovetail right into them, which is exactly what we did. Then they changed their plans--and for the worse. We got the idea to leave from Cape Cod from them, but then they started from Virginia to be closer to the Gulf Stream. It was a mistake. They had to cover about five hundred miles just to get to where we started.
In Blyth's estimation, however, their biggest error was ignorance, not learning all they could about their specially designed, self-righting boat. As the rowers drank their fresh water, they were supposed to refill the tanks at the bottom of the boat with salt water. That kept the weight down low and the buoyancy up high. If the boat capsized, that balance of weight would help right it. "But the Puffin was found upside down," says Blyth, "so obviously they weren't refilling their tanks with salt water. They didn't stick to the plan. If they had, they might be here today."
Chay Blyth has a rather stoical philosophy regarding risk-taking. "You analyze the situation to the best of your ability, decide what the risks are and whether or not you want to take them. If you opt for the challenge, the adventure, and something goes wrong, you take the consequences. If you take the risk, be prepared to pay the penalty. The time to decide is before you go. Once you've decided, then bloody well get on with it."
As for the obligation of others to rescue them, the rowers shouldn't expect it, and they should make that patently clear to the world at large. "Having said that, I've been rescued three times. I didn't expect it, but was absolutely delighted when it happened. I spent nineteen hours in the water at Cape Horn in freezing conditions, and when a boat came for me, I was very pleased to see it."
Whereas Johnstone and Hoare were sponsored and did their row for fame and gain, Ridgway and Blyth had no sponsor and, at first, no thought of material gain. "We were just young paratroopers in it for the adventure," says Blyth. "For us, rowing the Atlantic was strictly physical. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with sponsorship. Sponsors have been around a long time. Take Queen Isabella, who was looking to top off the coffers, when along comes this sailor, Columbus, who says, 'I can find a new country, and in this new country there's bound to be gold. How about a few shillings to go across the ocean and find that gold?' That was early sponsorship. And what about the Great Canadian fur traders? None of that exploration would have happened if not for sponsors back home hoping to make money on their investment.
"To buy a boat takes a lot of money. Either your father's got it, or you go into debt, or you find a sponsor. In our case, John's family had money but he went into debt to pay our expenses. It was a shoestring budget. We did it all for about 500 pounds."
Blyth believes it was money that eventually severed their friendship. "We really had two relationships," he says. "We were great at sea, not so great once ashore. At sea, we benefited enormously from the basic discipline built into the row. I knew nothing about the sea. John had been yachting and was the expert--especially since he told me so."
Once ashore, money became a wedge issue. "In my view, John was incredibly tight and that certainly came between us." One day he suggested to Chay that there might be money to be made on the row.
"That would be nice," said Blyth.
"Well," said Ridgway, "since I'm putting up the money for the boat and gear, I should get a bigger slice of the pie."
"Sounds reasonable," he replied, trying to be agreeable.
They agreed to split any proceeds two-thirds for John, one-third for Chay. Later, when preparing their taxes, they both sent their records to John's accountant. "When it was time to pay the fee," Blyth remembers, "I wrote a check for one-third, but John said no, I owed half. He said I didn't have to use his accountant, and if I'd gone to someone else, I would've paid half. He was right, of course, but I thought it was stretching business a bit too far. After that, we never did any work together again."
Any illusions Blyth harbored about an enduring relationship with Ridgway were dispelled when, after sailing around the world in 1972, he was featured on "This is Your Life," and his erstwhile partner declined to make an appearance. "I'm not bitter," Blyth says believably. "If John and I were in the same room, we'd say hi. But if you had asked us before or during the row, we would have said we'll be buddies till the end of time. I guess it's rather like the Beatles--you grow up and go your separate ways."
Chay Blyth's way has been, in his words, "a Walter Mitty kind of life. Before the row, I was just a working-class guy who didn't know anything about anything. I was twenty-six, good at my job--being a paratrooper--but that was about it. After the row, I saw an opportunity to make a living in adventuring. Sir Francis Chichester had just sailed around the world with only one stop. I decided to do it with no stops."
Today, he heads a company that organizes and promotes sporting events. He employs twenty-three people, publishes a magazine, but is still focused unwaveringly on adventure. He runs the BT Global Challenge, an annual round-the-world yacht race. And in October of 1997 he will launch the Atlantic Rowing Race, a fleet of rowboats all trying to go continent to continent.
Thirty years after their Atlantic row, John Ridgway is living out the vision he conjured up at sea. He founded the John Ridgway School of Adventure at Ardmore, Scotland, which he still runs today. In 1977-78, with his wife and a crew of instructors from the Adventure School, he raced the school's 57-foot ketch around the world via The Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.
Chay Blyth is still asked questions about it, especially the big ones like why and how.
"Why did I do it? Because at the end of my days, I'm going to be lying in my bed looking at my toes, and I'm going to ask my toes questions like 'Have I really enjoyed life? Have I done everything I've wanted to do?' And if the answer is no, I'm going to be really pissed off."
As to how he got through it, he responds, "I'm not a religious person, but I prayed every day at sea. You see, long ago, I made a deal with God. When I'm at sea, he looks after me; when I'm on land, I give him a plug on the telly or in a book. So far it's worked."