Chapter Two – Ardmore adventure
In these Notes: John Ridgway and the Atlantic row; Sailing at Ardmore
John Ridgway and the Atlantic row
In 1971, fresh-faced but becoming independent and resourceful, I found a summer holiday job at the John Ridgway School of Adventure in Northwest Scotland—a direct contributor to heading off on The Aegre a few years later.
John Ridgway came to fame in 1966 when he and Chay Blyth successfully rowed from Cape Cod in the US to Ireland. The first trans-ocean row to be completed in the twentieth century. He and his wife, Marie Christine, went on to establish the John Ridgway School of Adventure based on the coast of the northwest tip of mainland Britain. A remote and wild place.
The rowboat, English Rose III, is kept at the Adventure School in a small shed. Its simplicity is startling. Built of plywood, it is a basic dory design, open and flat-bottomed, derived from the small boats used for cod and halibut fishing on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Dories were designed to be carried aboard a larger sailing vessel, nested one inside the other on deck, then offloaded once the fishing grounds were reached, and with one (or two) men aboard each, spread out to fish. They were remarkably seaworthy; they needed to be.
For more about dories, see John Gardner’s definitive book.
Today, ocean rowing in small boats is almost commonplace. Nearly all the world’s oceans have been rowed. There are even ocean rowing races. But in 1966, it was unheard of. There was no precedent apart from the 19th-century legends of dory fishermen like Howard Blackburn, losing contact with their mothership while fishing on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and turning up on the west coast of Ireland months later, more dead than alive.
To learn much more about dory fishing on the Grand Banks and one of its many extraordinary characters, see Garland J E, 1964, Lone Voyager – The Story of Howard Blackburn.
But since Blackburn’s time in the 1880s, no one was known to have rowed across the Atlantic, but then in 1965, Ridgway noticed an advert in The Times newspaper placed by a journalist, David Johnstone, for a partner to row the Atlantic. It’s not surprising it caught Ridgway’s eye. It was an outlandish idea. To row across an ocean? Three thousand miles in an open rowboat? By choice?
Ridgway and Johnstone met, but the burly paratrooper and the unfit-looking journalist quickly knew they couldn’t work together. And that was that.
However, Ridgway was inspired by the idea. He later told me, ‘I wanted to do something to throw myself clear of the dull mediocrity of life’. He decided to mount an attempt himself and recruited his Army Sergeant, Chay Blyth, with whom he had previously shared hair-raising adventures, to row with him. An unofficial race with Johnstone was on.
Ridgway needed a suitable boat. His first choice was a purpose-built vessel designed by Colin Mudie, as Johnstone had had built, but the cost, £2000, was out of his reach. He sought sponsorship from major newspapers, but none were interested in supporting such a foolhardy adventure and near-certain death. But then a friend from Ardmore in Scotland, a part-time lobster fisherman, suggested a replica dory being built by Bradford Boat Services in Yorkshire might fit the bill. Well, dories were good enough to fish on the Grand Banks… And best of all it was only £185. They had one in stock, too, and Ridgway immediately sent off a cheque.
Bradford Boat Service’s ‘Yorkshire Dory’ was a modern plywood interpretation of the classical Banks dory. 20ft long, it departed from the design of a traditional Banks dory in several ways, including having a small, raised deck at either end that contained buoyancy, making her unsinkable. Her gunwales were raised a further nine inches on the advice of the dory fisherman of Cape Cod to give her, in their words, ‘A Fighting Chance’. She had fixed bench seats for the rowers, no racing skiff sliding seats for them, nor any shelter from the weather as modern ocean rowing boats commonly do.
Ridgway and Blyth left on 4th June 1966 and, having no way of communicating with the rest of the world, disappeared from the public view until 92 days later, when they landed on the Aran Islands, just off the west coast of Ireland. They had rowed an estimated 3,500 miles. The next day, Sunday, September 4th 1966, their arrival was headline news in Britain. About how these two tough young Britons had beaten the Atlantic in a small open rowing boat. The plywood re-creation of a flat-bottomed fishing dory had proven remarkably suitable. It would become the basis for the design of many subsequent ocean rowing boats.
Ridgway and Blyth’s achievement was in stark contrast to that of the two other Britons. David Johnstone and John Hoare who had also set out from the US East Coast in a small rowing boat, Puffin, that same summer.
Johnstone had recruited Hoare as a partner and commissioned a well-known British boating architect, Colin Mudie, to develop a suitable, unsinkable, self-righting rowing boat. They left from the US 12 days before Ridgway and Blyth to do the same Atlantic crossing. But they were never seen again.
In the media, Ridgway and Blyth were the ‘winners’ and possibly the only survivors of what had become an unofficial race to row the Atlantic. Their book was soon out, A Fighting Chance.
The capsized Puffin was eventually sighted and picked up mid-Atlantic on October 4th 1966, by a Canadian warship. There was no sign of Johnstone and Hoare. However, Johnstone’s diary was found aboard.
Rather amazingly, forty years later, Puffin was restored, modified and successfully rowed across the Atlantic, see Puffin | River & Rowing Museum (rrm.co.uk)
Today, the rowboat English Rose III is kept in a small shed at Ardmore. Five years after the row, as an Instructor at the Adventure School, I stood before it while Ridgway pointed out various features he believed had helped him and Chay survive. The buoyancy in both ends, a simple near indestructible cooker, no holes in the hull, the flat bottom, everything packed in watertight containers, the plastic-coated sight reduction worksheet, and more. It all went into my head and ultimately contributed to The Aegre voyage.
In finishing this short piece about the early days of ocean rowing, I must mention Tom McLean and John Fairfax, who both subsequently rowed the Atlantic alone. Following Ridgway and Blyth’s doubled-handed success, the next challenge was to do it solo. Tom (‘Moby’ always spoutin’) was an SAS colleague of Ridgway’s, whom I briefly met when he came to see Ridgway while I was at Ardmore. Recently I came across a book about Maclean and Fairfax that looks like a good read see Completely Mad: Tom McClean, John Fairfax, and the Epic of the Race to Row Solo Across the Atlantic by James R Hansen.
You can read a review of Completely Mad here
Sailing at Ardmore
At the Adventure School, I regularly sailed in the small fleet of Mirror dinghies on Loch Laxford—usually a wild and windy place.
I also sailed on a slightly larger boat, Kirsty, which was said to be based on a Shetland boat. She was about 16ft long, double-ended, had few frames, and a Gunter rig. She was much faster than the Mirrors and remarkably seaworthy.
On my days off, I’d sail Kirsty alone and came to think I could take a bigger decked-in version just about anywhere.
Frequently, I would sail on the school’s small yacht, English Rose IV, a Westerly 30. Here is a 1969 brochure all about the Westerly 30.
English Rose IV had a bit of history. In 1967, before the first singlehanded non-stop round-the-world race, she was a new design the builders wanted to promote as a seaworthy small family yacht, just right for the expanding market for such yachts. It had twin bilge keels to sit upright on the mud on a shallow tidal mooring, a practical design, though some might have thought not the most suitable for racing or deep-water ocean sailing. But the manufacturer was keen to promote it and no doubt thought John Ridgway’s sea credibility was just what it needed.
John wanted to enter the solo, non-stop round-the-world race and needed a yacht. Any doubts about the suitability of the design for such a venture were overruled, and John, probably not having much choice, accepted their offer of a Westerly 30 on loan.
He chose to ‘start’ in this somewhat nebulous race from the Aran Islands in Western Ireland, where he and Blyth had landed after their 1966 row. There was considerable newspaper interest in this, and the Press hired a small fishing trawler to help them cover his start. With TV cameras rolling as they all headed out of the bay, it all went wrong, and the trawler and John’s relatively fragile fibreglass yacht collided, the trawler hitting the boat adjacent to the port shroud plates (to which the wires that hold the mast up are attached). Cracks appeared in the fibreglass decking around the shroud plates. But never one to give up easily, a furious John waved them away and headed on out to sea.
A few thousand miles later, sailing down through the South Atlantic towards the Cape of Good Hope, the cracks were growing, and John’s depression deepening. Slowly, he accepted that taking this yacht in this condition into the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean would be madness. He turned back north, feeling like a failure. He had never given up on anything before. He sailed to Recife in Brazil and loaded the boat onto the deck of a friendly British freighter to get it home. His round-the-world adventure was over, for now.
But somehow, after all that, he had managed to buy the yacht, and now, with decking and shroud plates repaired, she was a significant feature of the school’s activities. As I write in the book, sailing her, I imagined we were headed for the Cape Verde Islands, 2,000 miles to the south, rather than the cliffs of nearby Handa Island.
The Instructor community at the Adventure School was a stimulating, caring group from whom I learnt much about working with others in demanding conditions. Below is the instructor group during my first summer at the Adventure School. Rugged, interesting characters all. Mentioned in the book are Chief Instructor Richard Shuff (front near centre in red jersey), Jamie Young (back centre on our shoulders). Krister Nylund (end right) and myself (between Krister and Richard).
We worked hard every day to give our student groups the best adventure holiday ever.
I immensely enjoyed working at the Adventure School. It was in a beautiful location, and as I describe in the book, I learned a lot from John and Marie Christine, the other instructors, and my students.
The idea of sailing south in a small Shetland boat, like Kirsty, but bigger and decked in, was forming in my mind.
The Adventure School continues today under the leadership of John and Marie Christine’s daughter Rebecca and her husband Mark, see Ridgway Adventure
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