Executed Canadian hostage remembered as ‘smart, vibrant’ lover of sailing

John Ridsdel was an adventurer, a world traveller in love with the Philippines, his adopted country, and with the sea. He was happiest on the water, sailing from one exotic port to another for months at a time, making new friends, meeting old acquaintances, sharing meals, swapping sea stories, enjoying his semi-retirement.

And now he is gone, the victim of a brutal murder at the hands of the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

Six months earlier, just before his abduction on Sept. 21, the 68-year-old former journalist and mining executive was cruising aboard the 42-foot catamaran that he’d recently acquired. He was still getting used to handling her.

The Azizah de Niamkoko wasn’t as nimble as his other boat, a 47-foot monohull he’d put up for sale a week earlier at his home base in Puerto Galera, on the island of Mindoro, 130 kilometres south of Manilla.

“Piloting this thing feels more like commanding an aircraft than helming a sailboat,” Ridsdel quipped, on an Internet blog he kept and updated occasionally. “You look out forward to an expanse of deck and the only thing that seems missing is the fighter jet.”

The blog was an informal, sometimes biting diary of his sailing adventures. Ridsdel knew how to write; he’d been a journalist for many years, at CBC Radio and the Calgary Herald, among others, before moving into the oilpatch and then into the mining industry.

His work took him all over the world. Before he and his wife separated, they travelled and sailed with their two daughters, Breanna and Janis. Ridsdel was thinking about them while putting his new catamaran through its paces. “I recall Bree and Janis complaining you don’t get a ‘feel’ for the boat when sailing a cat(amaran),” he wrote, on Sept. 19.

It was Ridsdel’s last blog entry. He was kidnapped two days later, while docked at a small marina on Samal Island, about 840 kilometres from his Mindoro island home. A group of armed men rushed inside the marina and grabbed whomever they could. According to witnesses, Ridsdel ran from his boat and tried to help a couple under siege. The couple managed to escape but the thugs took Ridsdel and three others, including a fellow Canadian, Robert Hall.

On Monday, after being held hostage on another island for six months, Ridsdel was murdered.

In Canada, Senator Pamela Wallin turned on her television and saw images of her old mentor. “I’m watching the news right now,” she said Monday morning. “It’s horrific.”

Wallin had known Ridsdel for years. “He was one of my first bosses at CBC Radio in Regina, in the early 1970s,” she recalled. “He hired me to do the noon hour open-line show. The regular host fell ill, and he called me.”

She remembers Ridsdel as “a smart, vibrant human being, with a big heart.”

He was born in London, England. His mother was a nurse, his father a physician. Ridsdel came by his wanderlust naturally; his family left England and spent time in Durban, South Africa, before settling in Yorkton, Sask. That’s where Ridsdel spent his formative years.

After his stint at the CBC, he moved to Calgary. Bob Parkins worked with Ridsdel at the Herald in the late 1970s, and recalls him as a “very smart, cagey, good oil and gas reporter.” Herald staffers were surprised when Ridsdel left journalism to pursue a career in the oilpatch, joining Petro-Canada Inc., then a Crown corporation known around Calgary as “the enemy.”

Ridsdel managed public relations for Petro-Canada before taking other jobs that required him to live abroad, in some difficult places: Myanmar, Algeria, Pakistan.

He moved to the Philippines after taking an executive position with TVI Resource Development (Phils), Inc., an affiliate of Calgary-based mining company TVI Pacific Inc. After reaching the age of mandatory retirement in the Philippines a few years ago, Ridsdel continued to serve as a part-time consultant for TVI Pacific.

But he lived to sail. Ridsdel kept in touch with some of his chums back in Canada; Parkins recalls receiving his emails and newsletters, filled with accounts of adventure at sea.

“He was sailing around the world all the time, it seemed,” Parkins said Monday. “He was an enthusiast with everything he touched. He loved life. And that’s the most tragic part of this. This is a guy who enthusiastically went after life, and to have it ended that way is awful.”

Vancouver consultant Bob Foulkes met Ridsdel in the late 1970s when Ridsdel was hired to replace him as head of public affairs at Petro-Canada. They have been friends ever since. 

“I always admired John; he was a free spirit and he found a rich, full life in the bigger world outside Canada,” Foulkes said in an email. “He was also well aware of the risks he faced in making life choices and lived a well considered life knowing those risks. 

“I also know John would be appalled that his passing and the manner in which it happened would be used to close doors to international understanding, our relation to the Muslim community or our ideas about immigration. He embraced cultural diversity and international understanding and had immense pride in the roles his daughters were playing in their chosen fields.”

In a brief statement, his family says they tried to secure his freedom.

“Our family is devastated at the loss of our father and brother John Ridsdel, whose life was cut tragically short by this senseless act of violence despite us doing everything within our power to bring him home,” the statement said.

Ridsdel’s colleagues at TVI Pacific could not be reached for comment Monday, but the company issued a brief statement. “The TVI team is completely devastated to learn of John’s passing,” it read. “We are in profound shock, disbelief and sorrow to have lost our former colleague and close friend. John was a remarkable man and his gregariousness, warmth and wit will be sorely missed.”

National Post, with files from the Calgary Herald and Vancouver Sun

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