Cruising

Ronnie Simpson: Blue Water Warrior

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Maybe you've met someone and right off you thought, "I believe in this guy." That was Ronnie Simpson for me. Three years ago.  I had the advantage of knowing the story already, the badly wounded Iraq veteran who had sunk into a dark and possibly even dangerous place and then was lifted out of it by a sudden passion to learn this sailing thing and sail away.

Ronnie Simpson sold all that he had, and he went. But it was no cakewalk. After I had known him a while, when he was deep into his new life—the sailing life: boat abandonments, keel failures and all—he told me, “I have less than I’ve ever had, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

That was before he won his class with a gritty, herculean effort in his second Singlehanded Transpac race. That was before he created the first of his successful sailing clinics for wounded vets. That was before he committed himself to somehow racing in the 2016 Vendée Globe, solo non-stop around the world.

The last time I talked to Ronnie Simpson he told me, “The Vendée is a different scale, but the Transpac gave me the confidence that I can do this. I decided in that race that I was…not…going…to lose.” Lacking enough sunlight to power his autopilot, he hand-steered 18 hours a day and got the job done. He recalled, “Once, I overheard somebody describing me as a feel-good story, and that’s OK. I get that. But things have changed. Eight years ago I was getting shot up in Iraq, and I had never sailed a boat. Now I’ve achieved something. You can’t say I’m just a feel-good story anymore.”

As Ronnie was talking, I was remembering the time he made a 20-mile cross-bay trip from Alameda to San Francisco to address a group of sailing enthusiasts. He made the first part of his journey by urban public transport and covered the last few miles by skateboard, because his injuries impair his eyesight, and he can’t get a license to drive. “Eventually,” he admits, “I’ll go blind.” In the meantime, there’s a lot to do, and no, he’s not just a feel-good story. He’s that and more. Ronnie Simpson is a guy who got tickled by a wild hair, and he took off running, and he’s still running. He has that “I believe in this guy” effect on a lot of people, which is why it is not so hard to imagine seeing him lining up with the big boys when the next Vendée Globe sets out to sea from the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne. 

No one followed the events of the latest Vendée more closely than Simpson. And when I referred to race-winner Francois Gabart as “a rookie,” he was quick to correct me: “He may be a rookie in the Vendée, but he’s figured in transatlantic races like the Transat Jacques Vabre, and he doublehanded the Barcelona World Race with no less than Michel Desjoyeaux—Gabart was the protégé; he won the position through a selection process—and believe me, if I get there the circumstances will be very different, and the boat will be second-hand. But what I learned from doing two solo Transpacs and then going to the start of this last Vendée Globe and—as a journalist—interviewing every skipper in the fleet, is simply that they are, we are, all the same crazy singlehanders cut from the same cloth. Even the guys who have big sponsorship and are making a lot of money were humble and gracious and just excited to be doing the race. When they saw me, a young American, wanting to do their race, they were very open, encouraging.” 

Simpson is the ultimate poster boy for demonstrating what sailing can do to reinvigorate someone whose life has been torn apart, whether by war, accident or illness. Even someone severely disabled can sail a boat that is properly set up. Nick Scandone won a gold medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games while in the final stages of ALS, almost completely debilitated and taking nourishment intravenously between races. Both of Simpson’s outings in the Singlehanded Transpac have been sailed in the name of a nonprofit, Hope for the Warriors, which also is a partner in the four sailing clinics for veterans Simpson is planning to run during 2013. 

On their face, these clinics will be small, with five or six veterans in each. Add a support group, however, and figure in the logistics, add some extra activities, and it’s a huge undertaking. A few of the past participants have continued to sail, which we can take as a good thing, but that’s not really the point. One group included a blind man, a paraplegic woman, a man missing part of his skull (half of his body is paralyzed) and two whose wounds are primarily psychological. “I’m striving to keep this diverse,” Simpson says, “instead of merely accumulating as many wheelchairs or prosthetics as I can.”

Whether the problem is a broken body or a broken spirit, Simpson says, “The goal is to re-inspire.” Being on the water, in a new environment, breathing fresh air, discovering the motion and freedom of a boat can jump-start the process. Stateside after his Iraq tour, recovering in a military hospital, Simpson says, “I was surrounded by people who were messed up. The worst thing I saw was messed up people sitting around, shut down, with nothing to do.”

California native Jose Armenta had never sailed before, but had thought about it, before stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province and becoming a double-leg amputee. He found Simpson’s clinic easy to relate to (“Ronnie was combat wounded like the rest of us”) and Armenta kept right on sailing afterwards. “I have shoulder and leg limitations too,” he says. “I needed something I could still do, something with excitement and freedom, and that had been hard to find.” Now Armenta and his wife rent Capri 14s on San Diego Bay, and he looks forward to a special new pair of prosthetic legs not for walking, but for getting around the boat more easily.

One case Simpson likes to talk about is a fellow with post-traumatic stress disorder who attended the first sailing clinic, a man who had spent the last couple of years in his Oklahoma hometown doing not much more than staring at a wall. “The Veterans Administration pumps these people full of drugs,” Simpson says. “I’m opposed to that. Somehow, this guy found us. He had never sailed before.” Add time on the water, an evening at a Giants game, some heart-to-heart talks (“He had seen things no one should ever have to see”), and a month later there it was. “He was on Facebook,” Simpson says. “He had dusted off the Harley, and he was out there touring the country. He was back in the world.”

Simpson’s own re-inspiration was more random, but it was thorough. After enlisting in the Marines at age 18, the Georgia native took damage from an RPG outside Fallujah and was medevac’d out in an 18-day coma, limbs intact, with massive internal injuries. Then 19, his recovery was long, slow and will never be complete. Simpson in the flesh is energetic, athletic, engaging. Nothing on the outside now tells you how torn up he was inside. Once he was able, he did all the things a good boy is supposed to do. He went to college, got a job, got engaged, bought a house in Texas. But he was boiling inside. “I was selling motorcycles, and I was riding sportbikes, and a couple of events called to my attention that I didn’t seem to care whether I lived or died. It came to me that I was unhappy. I really hadn’t understood that.”

The young man was stewing along in that frame of mind, and who knows how long that might have continued or how soon it might have come to catastrophe when, one night, out of nowhere: “My brother called. He had read an article about some guys who sailed around the world. He thought that was awesome, and he said, ‘Want to do exactly that in five years?’

“I had never looked at a sailboat in my life, but I didn’t go to bed that night. I sat up till 0500 on the Internet, figuring out what sailing is. I walked through my house, and I didn’t want it. I went to the garage and looked at my bikes. I didn’t want them. I looked at my life, my fiancée, my future, and I didn’t want that future. Until that moment, I had never realized what a profound experience I had in Iraq. That was dawn, December 18, 2007. On the 23rd, I had a for-sale sign in the front yard.”

Next stop, San Diego. There Simpson bathed in the California sunshine, inhaled the salt air and bought a 1961 Pearson Bounty II, 40 feet long. He sailed a bit and then took off, only to be caught in a tropical depression that escalated into a Category 4 hurricane. The Bounty’s rudder snapped off, and that became a story in itself, trying to jury rig a new one, dealing with successive failures, being offered a lift on a freighter and feeling torn because the boat was everything Ronnie Simpson had in this life. Except his life. “I decided that I had nearly died once, and that was enough.”

He abandoned his boat, and that became a story in itself. The freighter clobbered the Bounty head-on, and Simpson wound up swimming for a life-buoy thrown from the ship and being reeled in. Once aboard, he discovered he was bound for Shanghai. “Yes,” he says, “I literally got Shanghai’d.” 

Then there was Ronnie in China, and that became a story in itself. He was broke, with a little pocket change coming in as a medically discharged Marine. So he bought a bicycle. After 9,000 miles, 21 countries and many variations of “this became a story in itself,” Ronnie Simpson completed his westward trip around the world and arrived again at the Pacific Ocean. As he pedaled onto the Golden Gate Bridge, he looked out to the sea that had claimed his first boat, and already he was dreaming of the next boat and competing in the Singlehanded Transpacific Race.

At that point, Simpson’s story was getting around, and he found he had people on his side: people such as sailor/Vietnam veteran Don Gray, who was so appalled at the puny little liveaboard that Simpson came up with that he offered his own boat as a loaner. Gray’s 30-footer had completed the Singlehanded Transpac once and the Bermuda One-Two twice. That improved the picture, and Simpson sailed well in the 2010 Transpac, but tracked too far north (your reporter sat at his computer yelling at Ronnie’s transponder blip to turn left, turn left, get south!) and he finished second in his division. 

On the trip home the keel fell off. 

I’ve been known to joke that I wouldn’t want to stand next to Ronnie Simpson in a lightning storm. He’s crammed a lot of drama into a short life. At this point he found himself with co-skipper Ed McCoy 800 miles short of the California coast, liferaft and ditch bag ready in the cockpit, “just trying to keep the heavy side down.” The boat’s cranky one-lung Yanmar was capable of four knots, most of the time, and a 728-foot container ship kindly rallied up and dropped extra fuel. That Simpson and McCoy actually reached the Golden Gate with the mast pointed up is a tribute to their skill and steely nerves, an absence of other choices, and the unlikely good fortune of having light air all the way for those last 800 miles. No less than four boats were out to meet, greet and escort Warrior’s Wish into San Francisco Bay at dawn. Two years had passed since Simpson put his house up for sale.

Simpson was soon crewing on race boats everywhere you looked, planning his next Singlehanded Transpac and organizing his wounded-vet clinics. He pulled in $40,000 from the marine industry and the Hope for the Warriors foundation, bought a 30-year-old Moore 24, and completely rebuilt it. With his friend Rubin Gabriel, he won the 2012 Doublehanded Farallones Race overall, only 56 miles, but it did blow 50 knots for a while. Of 58 entries, 14 started and eight finished. Three months later, the Singlehanded Sailing Society of San Francisco Bay was firing starting guns for the 2012 crossing to Hawaii, and Gabriel was at the helm of his own Moore 24. The two would compete against each other for the next 2,120 miles.

With his autopilot not doing the job, and trailing other boats much of the way, Simpson made the decision that is worth repeating here: “I decided I was 100 percent committed. I decided I was not going to lose.” And he didn’t let himself down, arriving exhausted from hand-steering, a come-from-behind winner. Once in Hawaii, though, he barely had time to catch his breath before he and Gabriel were teaming up again, this time to rescue a boat abandoned by a fellow competitor. Derk Wolmuth had developed a staph infection but had soldiered on, hoping for the best, until some 400 miles from the finish, when, he realized this thing was going to kill him, and that he had very little time or strength left to sound an alarm. Rescued by a commercial ship, he would not only survive, but his 31-foot Bela Bartok would be rescued, against great odds. 

Remember the ship that rammed Simpson’s old Bounty? Bela Bartok was luckier, met by a ship under the command of Tom Crawford, a sailor himself, who plucked Wolmuth from the water without harming hull or mast after directing the ailing skipper to set the boat on course with the wind vane, under jib only. With a transponder updating its position, Gabriel and Simpson set out to meet the boat at sea, board it and sail it in for Wolmuth’s sake. Not that they really knew the guy, but bonds run deep among solo racers. As with Simpson, this was Gabriel’s second solo transpac. “The first was about personal accomplishment,” Gabriel says. “The second was about being part of this group of people, this community of singlehanded sailors.”

Which brings us back to what Simpson said about the rock-star European solo sailors, “all cut from the same cloth,” and his multiple campaigns going forward, with Hope for the Warriors at center stage. Last year, the number of active-duty suicide deaths in the U.S. military outpaced deaths in combat, and PTSD cases among veterans rose to what ought to be a national scandal. Simpson’s efforts may not be enough to stem that tide, but he’s one man doing what he can, and if any sailor has a story that can connect with the American public, it’s Ronnie. “I’m building a grass-roots campaign to spread the word about wounded vets, and about the Vendée,” he says. “Ronnie Simpson Racing has a boat captain lined up, and a marketing plan and a project manager. When the time comes, I’ll choose a boat based upon my resources at the time. As long as I have a boat by 2015 I’ll be on the starting line. 

“There is no reason, no reason, no reason why Americans can’t embrace this race and be competitive. When I die I want people to say that I was the guy who changed the game and made ocean racing cool in the U.S.”

For more on Simpson’s Vendée Globe campaign, visit ronniesimpsonracing.com

Photos by Ladonna Bubak/Latitude 38

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