In 1966 two British paratroopers rowed across the Atlantic in a 20ft boat. It would take the daredevils 92 days in some of the harshest of weather conditions.
The inspiration for this treacherous adventure came after 26-year-old Captain John Ridgway replied to an advert. Journalist David Johnstone was looking for rowers to join him in an attempt to row across the Atlantic. Ridgway didn’t see himself fitting in with the team so decided to race against them. All he needed was a rowing partner and a boat. Easier said than done.
A Race to Become the First
He organized an overdraft from his bank and convinced the British Army to grant him unpaid leave to take on the adventure. He sourced an affordable and reliable dory boat named the English Rose III. But he was still down one man. Despite trying to convince friends and colleagues to join him Ridgway was met with constant shakes of the head. With only a month to go before the big event was scheduled, he was beginning to lose hope. Then in walks Sergeant Chay Blyth. The 26-year-old Scotsman admitted that he had absolutely no experience at sea, but was up for the adventure. The two had been through high-level military training together including desert and arctic survival training and saw this as their ultimate challenge. The deal was sealed.
Meanwhile, Johnstone and his crew were about to beat them to the punch by changing their set off date to be two weeks ahead of theirs. Ridgway was helpless to do anything. He had cut his foot and was laid up in a Boston hospital.
4th of June, 1966
Two weeks behind their rivals they set off at 5.30pm on the 4th of June, 1966. The US Coast Guard had given them a 95% chance of death. One can only imagine what it felt like wrapping your hands around an oar and rowing day after day. The cold, the Gulf Stream current, the hurricanes, the endly ocean and the painful body aches. The men originally planned to row together and then sleep at night but the currents became a major set back. A rethink meant they would row together and then take turns rowing during the night. The first 2 weeks saw them row only 11 miles a day. Damn those headwinds. Then came Hurricane Alma the first spring hurricane in 60 years. The waves pounded the small craft and they had to constantly bail the water out to avoid sinking. By the time the hurricane had blown on through they had lost a quarter of their rations to water damage. Some time later they managed to get the attention of a tanker. The captain invited them on board. If ever there was a chance to call it quits it would have been now, I am guessing.
It was on the tanker they learned of two important things, firstly England had won the World Cup and secondly their rivals had survived the storms and were about 100 miles ahead. At least if they weren’t the first they might be the faster to row the Atlantic.
Back on their boat fatigue, blisters and the immense pain began taking its toll. Their bodies were all but worn out.
Land in Sight
As days turned into weeks the sea life slowly changed until they began recognizing familiar bird life. They were getting close to their destination, land. I couldn’t imagine their joy when they first sighted the little grey line on the horizon. They had made it to the Aran Isles. But the sea gods would not make their final stretch easy. A Force 9 gale whipped up from the South. Huge waves and squalls threatened to take them out so near to the finish. The lighthouse master eventually spied them and sent out a lifeboat crew. Despite the urge to row the last half mile to shore they accepted the help and boarded the lifeboat. The English Rose III had survived 3,500 miles of ocean and the two men had become the first to row across the Atlantic.
But what had become of their rivals? Sadly, the upturned 15ft Puffin was found in the mid-Atlantic in September 1966. The bodies of David Johnstone and John Hoare were never found.
Ironically the journey would also mark the end of Ridgway and Blyth’s friendship. The men refused to speak to each other after all the fanfare died down. The reason has never fully been disclosed. The pair finally buried the hatchet 43 years later in 2009, ending one of the longest feuds in British sport.
A stone memorial titled A Fighting Chance was erected on the Aran Islands in their honor.