Wednesday, 11 March 2015

John and Marie Christine Ridgway: 50 years of living dangerously

The Wandering Albatross - woodcut, 1837. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
John and Marie Christine Ridgway sailed around the world in 2003-4 to raise international awareness of the plight of the albatross: 19 out of 22 species are threatened with extinction. 

"I love the whole idea that maybe, riding the westerlies, albatrosses circle the globe every two years or so, living for eighty years or more, quite independent of man." John Ridgway, 1996.

John and Marie Christine Ridgway: 
fifty years of 
living dangerously

Book-cover blurbs, manipulatively edited to highlight the kindest bits of reviews, do not usually make for inspiring reading. So it is refreshing when you come across one that is witty, vivid, and original. Here’s what the novelist Len Deighton wrote for the back cover of one book by the Ridgway family, Then We Sailed Away (1996): 

“Don’t do it. Don’t abandon the cats, the garden and your beloved home to sail round the world with your family and your daughter’s boyfriend. Don’t be battered to despair in a shrieking October gale before reaching the grey wastes of the North Atlantic. Don’t have your pocket picked in a Bolivian prison yard. Don’t finish a long day chopping your way through the Andes jungle, infested with fleas, devastated by diarrhoea, with your pack-horse running with blood from the nightly attacks of vampire bats, only to find a large tarantula in your bedding…” 

“Don’t do any of that stuff,” Deighton continues, “because John Ridgway, a resourceful adventurer with an amazing writing talent, has done it for you.” 

If that doesn’t pique your interest, I’m not sure what would. 

I know nothing about sailing, nor have I met any of the Ridgways, so this post is entirely based on a few of their books. Ever since I stumbled across a book called Amazon Journey (an expedition from the source of the river in the high Andes to its mouth in the Atlantic) in the late 1980s, the Ridgways have haunted my imagination. 

John Ridgway is someone who might have looked more at home in an earlier century, when the world’s wild places were still uncharted and inaccessible, before the tentacles of Google Maps started creeping into every forgotten dusty town and unvisited island, exposing all corners of the planet to the camera. He also sounds like one of those people for whom the phrase ‘good in a crisis’ was invented, and for people like this, when a crisis is not available, you have to go looking for one. 

After Amazon Journey, I read Road to Elizabeth (and re-read it several times), and then Marie Christine Ridgway’s No Place for a Woman. The places, journeys, and events described in these books are so far outside and beyond the experience of the average British family, and the images so powerful, that (for me at any rate) a walk in exposed country can trigger a ‘memory’ of marching across the empty Altiplano, and wooded hillsides can create pictures of the Ridgways hacking through 5,000 feet of precipitous, spidery thicket down to the Apurimac river. Even a gale blowing up the English Channel can recall Marie Christine’s terrifying account of battling through the Minch in mountainous December seas. 

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Force 9 gale in the North Atlantic: fairly ordinary weather 
for the Ridgways

I have never come across anyone else who has read these books, and only second-hand copies are available on Amazon, which suggests they are out of print. John Ridgway has an MBE, but never seems to be listed in those (fatuous) lists of ‘top 20 British adventurers’ that even respectable newspapers feature from time to time. His Wikipedia entry is surprisingly short. I found just one vintage ATV documentary on YouTube about the Ridgways, tracking their competition in the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World race (worth a watch, more on this programme later in this post), but that was about it. Mentioning John Ridgway to friends brings the response (if I’m lucky) of ‘oh, yes, he rowed across the Atlantic with Chay Blyth’. Which is true (92 days at sea, 3,000 miles in an open boat in 1966, through two hurricanes), but this improbable voyage of endurance was the opening salvo in an extraordinary life dedicated to the spirit of adventure. 

To recap, John Ridgway has, apart from writing 11 books, sailed non-stop around the world, then navigated it a further two times, been the first to cross a Patagonian ice cap, tracked the Amazon river from its source in the high Andes to its mouth in Brazil, sailed all over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, survived hurricanes at sea, calving icebergs, extreme altitude sickness, and dangerous rapids. He has been lost in uncharted tropical forest, evaded Shining Path terrorists, and - perhaps the hardest test – survived being repeatedly cooped up in yachts with other people for months on end, without privacy and in all weathers. Sometimes he has been accompanied by Marie Christine and their daughters, sometimes other sailors and explorers, sometimes he has gone alone. 

These were not lavishly funded expeditions, carefully scripted and narrowly focused, but explorations that seem to have been inspired by a passion for pure adventure, for its own sake. The planning was done, of course, but a sense of impatience and spontaneity is present in all the books, together with the feeling that the outcome might turn out to be entirely different from the original plan. 

The journey described in Road to Elizabeth is perhaps the the most striking example of this: John, Marie Christine, and Rebecca set out for South America to meet an old friend, Elvin Berg, who had been farming coffee deep in the Peruvian backwoods. After discovering that this friend had been murdered by terrorists, they located his daughter, Elizabeth, by slipping into the government-designated ‘emergency zone’, then decided to adopt her, eventually bringing her home to Scotland. 

These strenuous, exhilarating and risky expeditions were undertaken as ‘holidays’ from the Ridgways’ day job running their School of Adventure at Ardmore, in the remote wilderness on the farthest edge of North West Scotland. The school, founded over 50 years ago by John and Marie Christine Ridgway with little money, no house, no electricity (for 18 years), and a good deal of pioneering hard labour, became was a success and has attracted 20,000 visitors. It is now run by their daughter Rebecca, whose C.V. includes being the first woman to kayak round Cape Horn. 

Exciting lives, however, do not necessarily make for exciting reading, as the thousands of (usually) predictable and pedestrian travel blogs plodding around the internet make plain. Anybody with a bit of cash can travel, some travel far and dangerously, and almost all of them will try to write about it, but it is surprising how few can do so without boring their readers. 

The writing – both John’s and Marie Christine’s (I have not yet read Rebecca’s book) – is unfussy, unsentimental, driven briskly along by a sense of needing to get to the next place and keep to the plan, but they draw you into the emotional and visual landscapes of their many journeys, so you’re left with the illusion that you made the trip yourself. The tone is quite dry, avoiding the temptation to become confessional or self-consciously ‘hilarious’; you’re left to read between the lines and picture it for yourself – and the imagined scenarios can sometimes be pretty funny as well as unnerving. 

Perhaps the big difference lies in their ability to notice precise physical details about the journeys – wild animals, birds, trees, and flowers (always carefully named), landscape and its effect on mood, bouts of illness, snatches of conversation, endless tins of sardines, strange smells, stranger people - and to remember and convey how this felt and what else was happening when they noticed them: the physical reality of a remembered experience. 

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nothofagus obliqua - one of 36 species of nothofagus, a southern-hemisphere beech, observed frequently during the Ridgways' voyage along the coast of Chile in 1996.

John Ridgway has written that sometime during the extreme rigours of his original expedition rowing across the Atlantic, he found himself “deeply impressed by the permanence and the simplicity of the challenge posed by sea and sky. The artificial preoccupations of the world in which most people live were even more remote from my mind than from my body.” 

The decision to start the adventure school came from this - he wanted others to experience the immersion in the natural world that has become difficult for many people to experience. Apart from being exciting to read, the Ridgways’ books act as a gentle reminder that there is still a lot of wildness out there.

Photo: © Channel Light Vessel

*** *** ***

'Round the World with Ridgway': an ATV documentary available on YouTube

If you thought that reality TV was a new genre, watching this is something of of a revelation. Made way back in 1977-78, this film records most of the voyage made by English Rose VI in the Whitbread Round the World Race. 

With a crew of 13, skippered by John Ridgway with Marie Christine, it captures daily life on board the boat: the high spirits and grim humour, the setbacks and the exhilaration. It also documents the inevitable personality clashes, simmering tensions, and tempests that blow up among people living and working under pressure at close quarters (a living space of 10 feet by nine!) for months. All of this is exacerbated by the constant awareness of the camera crew recording everything. 

The film doesn’t show any of the crew in a particularly flattering light, and in that respect it foreshadows the reality programmes of recent years. But to balance this, there’s an impressive storm and unnervingly beautiful footage of sailing past crystal icebergs in the south Atlantic. 

Near the end of the film, there’s an odd time-warp scene where the crew are relaxing below deck, eating sandwiches, listening to the news on the radio, lost in their own thoughts. This informal, placid moment looks deceptively contemporary, like something that happened last week, but the voice on the radio is reporting the Amoco Cadiz oil spill, and a printing dispute at The Times. It is mid-March, 1978. 

Producer: Richard Creasey
Cameraman: Roger Deakins

Books mentioned in the article – available on order from the Ridgways' website and second-hand from Amazon. 

Amazon Journey (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972) by John Ridgway
Expedition to the source of the Amazon, and the voyage down it to the sea.
Also includes a strangely fascinating and detailed appendix, listing equipment, clothes and medical kit taken on the expedition – old fashioned puttees (there are instructions about how to put them on) are apparently effective for keeping snakes, ants, dirt, and worse from entering your boots. 

Road to Elizabeth (Gollancz, 1986) by John Ridgway
Extraordinary story of how an expedition to the Peruvian Andes led, via challenging terrain, danger, tragic news, illness, terrorist threats, and some happy coincidences, to the child who became the family's adopted daughter.
No Place for a Woman (Gollancz, 1991)  by Marie Christine Ridgway
My advice would be to read Marie Christine’s book after Road to Elizabeth. It offers a different and fascinating perspective on the couple’s story and how Elizabeth (now known as Isso) settled in Scotland after Peru (as well as nerve-racking accounts of exploring Patagonian ice in rubber dinghies). 

Then We Sailed Away (Little, Brown, 1996) by John, Marie Christine, and Rebecca Ridgway
John, Marie Christine, Rebecca and Isso on an odyssey in English Rose VI around the Caribbean, Galapagos, Marquesas, Chile coast, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and home via Tristan da Cunha, Brazil, and the North Atlantic. Written jointly by John, Marie Christine and Rebecca, it is particularly interesting on wildlife and plants found along the way.

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

(Photo: DickDaniels/Wikimedia Commons)

The beautiful Red-tailed Tropic bird

Other books  

A Fighting Chance (Paul Hamlyn, 1966) by John Ridgway and Chay Blyth

Journey to Ardmore (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971) by John Ridgway  

Cockleshell Journey (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974) by John Ridgway 

Gino Watkins (OUP, 1974) by John Ridgway

Storm Passage (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975) by John Ridgway 

Round the World with Ridgway (Heinemann, 1978) by John and Marie Christine Ridgway 

Round the World Non-Stop (Patrick Stephens, 1985) by John Ridgway and Andy Briggs 

Flood Tide (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988) by John Ridgway

Something Amazing (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993) by Rebecca Ridgway 

*More information about the books: 

*For the School of Adventure at Ardmore, click here: Ridgway Adventure


  1. I'm with you on this - bought seven copies of Marie Christine's book to give to daughter and nieces, as well as for myself of course, and read all the others. . Have walked to Ardmore twice, and, on the second occasion was lucky enough to meet John, Marie Christine and Rebecca. Seems incredible that their adventures seem to be overlooked.