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John Ridgway - Save the Albatross Voyage
© Jason Elsworth

An edited version of this article on John Ridgway and his Save the Albatross Voyage first appeared in New Zealand Wilderness Magazine.

The critically threatened albatross
Thirty-five years ago, John Ridgway set up an
adventure school in Scotland. The school was
based on three principles – self-reliance, positive thinking and leaving people and things a little better than you found them. He has spent his life of adventure trying to be true to these principles, walking his talk so to speak. Now, as he approaches the age at which most people are thinking about spending more time on the golf course, he is on a round the world voyage to do what he can to save the magnificent icon of the Southern Oceans - the critically threatened albatross. He is hoping to leave things a little better than he found them.

Wandering albatross
The early years

John Ridgway was born in England in 1938 and joined the merchant navy at age 17. He left London in
January 1956 on his first voyage, sailing to Africa. When he returned to England in May, however,
he decided that he had had it with the sea and left. A few months later he signed up for two years national service in the army and soon found himself in training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. At Sandhurst he decided to take up boxing, a sport carrying great prestige at the academy, and the decision proved crucial for his military career.

“There is a right way, a wrong
way and a Ridgway.”

His boxing prowess relied not on any particularly great natural talent, but on being fitter than his opponents and never giving up. It is this steely determination, combined with a stubborn streak and a desire to stand alone from the crowd that seems to have characterised much of what he has done with his life.  As he puts it himself, “there is a right way, a wrong way and a Ridgway.” There is also a gentle self-effacing humour in this statement, and a great sense of humour is the other side of his character that soon shines through when you meet him.

Ridgway made it to the Company boxing finals, where he lost, but was awarded Best Loser of the competition. The character he showed, however, helped get him into the elite Parachute Regiment when he left Sandhurst in December 1958.

Lets row across the Atlantic
Joining the Parachute Regiment was the start of a successful military career for Ridgway, but it was in 1966 that the opportunity he always believed would one day come his way, and that he had been waiting and preparing for all his life, finally arrived. In June of that year, whilst still in the army, he decided, along with fellow paratrooper Chay Blyth, to row across the Atlantic. Ridgway and Blyth set off from the East Coast of America, just south of Boston. Their craft was a modified, twenty-foot, open dory, called English Rose III. Three thousand miles and ninety- two days later they arrived at the Aran Isles on the west coast of Ireland. It was an incredible achievement.

Before Ridgway and Blyth left, the US Coastguard had publicly declared that they stood a ninety-five per cent chance of suicide. Ridgway and Blyth proved them wrong, but not entirely. A few weeks before Blyth and Ridgway left the US; another team of David Johnstone and John Hoare left from farther south in their boat Puffin. They never made it and Puffin was eventually found empty and adrift near the middle of the North Atlantic.

” That would be a very major thing,
probably the main turning event of everything.”

I met with John Ridgway on his boat in Wellington this January and started by asking him just how much an affect surviving rowing across the Atlantic had on the rest of his life. ” That would be a very major thing, probably the main turning event of everything,” he told me. “Because being plagued with self doubt and having very low self esteem [Ridgway says he has always felt insecure], very obviously not being blessed with a very tremendous intelligence or ability to remember facts.  Then suddenly you do something like that and everybody is interested in what you have to say now.”

A life of adventure
Rowing across the Atlantic started a life of adventure for John Ridgway. In 1968 he set out to be the first man to sail single-handed around the world non-stop, but failed when damage to his boat stopped the attempt. On his return though he left the army and made his long-term dream of living on the north west coast of Scotland come true; when he and his wife, Marie-Christine, moved to Ardmore. From this remote location - only reachable by boat - he and Marie-Christine founded the John Ridgway School of Adventure. They ran the school for thirty-five years; closing it each winter to spend their time away from the UK on numerous adventures. These adventures included canoeing 4,000 miles down the Amazon, sailing in the 1977/78 Whitbread Round the World race, making the fastest non-stop sailing passage ever round the world in 1984 - with Andy Briggs - and numerous other sailing trips.

How to make a difference?
The Albatross now brings him back once again to the Southern Ocean, so I next asked John why, with the many endangered species in the world, has he decided to devote several years of his life to trying to save the albatross. “I’ve been down here [in the southern ocean] for each of the last six decades and become very attached to the albatross,” explained John. “Because, if you can imagine, for thousands of miles of sea with five hundred miles all around you, you are the only boat for a lot of the time, so for the albatross we are the only show in town. It becomes a companion when you are alone on deck. We heard in 1995 that the albatross was coming under terrific punishment from long-line fishing,” continued John. “So I thought what could you do to help the albatross? I wanted to see if an individual could make a difference.”

It is a needless slaughter, euphemistically
called by-catch,
which is estimated to kill up
to 300,000 sea birds, 
100,000 albatross, each year.

Somebody really needs to start making a difference and soon. Long-line vessels, fishing for species like the blue fin tuna and the Patagonina tooth fish, use lines of baited hooks up to eighty miles long. Albatross, looking for an easy feed, take the baited hook before it sinks and are then either drowned or die later of their injuries. It is a needless slaughter, euphemistically called by-catch, which is estimated to kill up to 300,000 sea birds, including 100,000 albatross, each year. The slow breeding Albatross simply can’t cope with these sort of mortality figures and the latest measure of albatross populations, issued by BirdLife International in September 2003, shows that all of the planet's twenty-one species of albatross are now considered to be globally threatened.

The Save the Albatross Voyage
The Save the Albatross Voyage left Scotland in July 2003, sailing to Cape Town and then Melbourne, before arriving in Wellington 168 days later. A week after we spoke, John Ridgway and his crew set sail for the Falklands. From the Falklands the voyage heads to South Georgia and then onto Cape Town, before finally heading home to Scotland.

John’s voyage is entirely self funded and independent, but they are working closely with conservation organisations around the world.  The RSPB have been closely involved, especially Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB’s senior marine policy officer. John and Marie-Christine told me that Dr Dunn had been particularly helpful in developing their plans for the voyage.

During the voyage, and at each of the stopovers, they are doing everything they can to raise awareness of the albatross’s plight

As well as raising awareness, a petition, which is being coordinated by New Zealand Forest and Bird (New Zealand’s largest conservation organisation and a BirdLife International partner), has become central to what the voyage wants to achieve. The petition calls for all countries to work together to eliminate pirate. John and Marie-Christine, plus representatives of conservation organisations, will present the petition (which now has almost 90,000 signatures) to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in June 2004.

So why is pirate fishing such an issue? Pirate vessels are essentially unregulated fish poachers. They can operate because of loopholes in international laws that allow a fleet of more than 1,000 vessels to register under flags of convenience (FOC). Registering under a FOC means that the boats are owned in one country but registered in another, thus avoiding fisheries regulations. Pirate vessels are having a severe impact on the world’s over used fish stocks and, most crucially for the albatross, they have no intention of using any of the methods, including bird-scaring lines called tori, weighted bait, fishing at night, avoiding fishing during breeding season and not discharging fish waste, all of which are extremely effective in substantially reducing the numbers of seabirds killed by long-line vessels. With pirate vessels, however, the goal is not to try to persuade them to change their fishing practices, but to put them out of business altogether.

A collective international effort is needed to save the magnificent albatross and there is much to be done, but stopping pirate fishing would be a huge step forward. In a world where so many of us say, “well what difference can I make, ” John Ridgway and his volunteer crew are giving up their time to find out. They are hoping to leave things a little bit better than they found them.
Over 100,000 people, from 131 countries signed the petition asking the United Nations to stop pirate fishing to save the albatross.The petition was presented to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, by John Ridgway and representatives from BirdLife International, on 25 June 2004.

What can I do?
Many of the world's albatross and petrel species are threatened with extinction, mainly because of the impacts of longline fishing. If you want to do something to help sea bird conservation visit the website of  Forest and Bird.