Published: December 2008/January 2009Best of Adventure: Hall of Fame

Don't Fence Him In

From prisoner of Panama to power broker: Why Rick Ridgeway traded a life on the edge for a chance to reinvent the wilderness

Text by Mark Sundeen
Photograph by Robyn Twomey

It was a proposition that no daring young American could refuse: First, they'd buy 50,000 rounds of ammo. The year was 1971, and Rick Ridgeway was 22 years old. After nearly two years sailing the Pacific as a deckhand, he'd landed in Panama and met a pair of sailors from Maine who'd concocted a foolproof scheme. After they bought the bullets, they'd sail down the isthmus to Colombia and smuggle the ammunition into the Cordillera Central. See, the sailors had learned of a remote tribe panning for emeralds in the jungle highlands, and these gem hunters were in desperate need of .22-caliber hunting cartridges for their rifles. The young mariners would barter with the group for a fortune in precious stones, sail their schooner to Fiji, sell the emeralds to Hindu gem merchants, turn around, and—that's right—buy an island.

"Why don't you join?" said the captain. "We'll give you part of the island."

Ridgeway had been earning $400 a month aboard ship—cash, tax free, with no place to spend it—and he'd amassed a thick roll of hundreds. The rate of return was too good to pass up.

The three men ordered crates of ammunition from a target range outside Panama City. Most of the shipment would arrive in three weeks. In the meantime, they moored off an island to prepare their 85-foot schooner for the journey, trading what ammunition they'd been able to buy up front for food and other necessities. And just when things couldn't get any better, they did. Five American women arrived on the island for vacation and on a whim joined the crew.

A week later the sailors and four of the women left for the Canal Zone to buy food and supplies. Ridgeway stayed behind to paint the schooner with a girl from California who called herself Candy. Guns and girls, gems and jibs: Ridgeway was living the dream. Then a Panamanian military PT boat approached. Without explanation, the soldiers brandished their machine guns, boarded, and tore the ship apart. "Christ," Ridgeway said later. "They tied me to the mast and stuck a gun in my neck. Screaming and swearing. And when they couldn't find anything, they got really mad." Contraband or no, they hauled Ridgeway and Candy to jail.

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