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Growing Pains

Ridgeway hails from what may be the least adventurous place on the planet: Orange County, California. But in the 1950s Orange County was different. Ridgeway's father was a professional scuba diver, and weekends found them sailing to Catalina or the Channel Islands to test gear. Dana Point, now a prow of mansions, was then a wild coastline, and he remembers when Dad speared a cabezone and grilled it on a beach campfire.

But Ridgeway's pastoral childhood was fleeting. "I was about 11 when my dad split," he says. "I didn't see him for years, but I did get postcards. They were from some South Seas island: pictures of bare-breasted women with orchids in their hair." Ridgeway sought solace in the San Jacinto Mountains around Los Angeles, learning to climb in the Tahquitz Valley. "Those mountains were my salvation," he says. Ridgeway pored over the 1963 National Geographic account of the first American ascent of Everest, with a cover shot of Jim Whittaker taking the final steps toward the summit. "I wanted to be that guy."

In 1968 Ridgeway enrolled at the University of Hawaii, cutting costs by moving in with his ne'er-do-well father. That didn't work out. "Every night there were parties, hussies all over the place. I was no prude, but I was a serious student. I couldn't handle it. I met a guy who had an old wooden sailboat, and I told him I'd take care of it if I could live on it. That's what really launched my life as a sailor."

By then Rick had discovered another passion: writing. He had been captivated by the seafaring novels of Herman Melville and encouraged by a professor who recognized his talent. Three weeks shy of graduating, the fault line between wanderlust and intellect finally broke open: He was offered a job as a deckhand on a yacht. Torn between reading about South Pacific adventures and actually living them, he quit school and set sail.

Nearly two years later he arrived in Panama, setting in motion the scheme that landed him in Cárcel Modelo. Ridgeway and Candy were hauled to the prison's processing room in Panama City. Presiding over the cowering crowd was a fat police commander with a thick mustache and pocked face. Ridgeway knew he needed to win this ogre over. With his compact gymnast's build, Ridgeway was not then—or now—a particularly imposing fellow. No matter: He jumped off the bench, rushed to the comandante's desk, and slammed down his fist. "I need a room for two!" he demanded in Spanish.

The comandante took a long look, and cracked up. The whole room burst into laughter. The theatrics worked well enough to let Ridgeway and Candy skip to the front of the line, but it didn't win their freedom. Candy was taken to the women's prison, and Ridgeway was led to a holding tank with 60 other men, about half of them drunk. It was early in the evening, and already one of the drunks was moaning and wailing and cursing the guards. At two in the morning the guards stormed into the cell and hauled him out. Finally, Ridgeway thought. Now he could at least sleep. But he was awakened when the guards heaved the man back into the cell, beaten senseless with a rubber hose. The men tried to rouse him. They called for the guards, but no one came. Within the hour he was dead.

It was going to be a rough stay.

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