In the fall of 2007, Ronnie Simpson, an accidental Texan by way of Iraq, a motorcycle salesman and apathetic college student, came to the conclusion he did not care whether he lived or died as he disappeared down a highway in San Antonio on a speeding bike with the police in pursuit.
“I got away but I really, really pushed the limits,” Simpson said. “I realized I was willing to risk it all just to keep on living in that moment. I realized I was willing to die for something dumb.”
Only 22, he was already a medically retired Marine, having been seriously injured when the Humvee he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade June 30, 2004, while he was serving as an infantryman in Fallujah. He convalesced at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, the Defense Department’s largest hospital, and once he recovered, for no particular reason, he stayed in the area.
He enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio as a business major. He bought a house, using money the Marines paid him for getting wounded in the line of duty. He had always loved motorcycles, so he took a job selling them. He started dating someone, and on the surface, although he had permanent damage to one eye and was missing half of his left lung, he was living a nice, normal life.
Except that, “I didn’t seem to care if I lived or died. I stewed on it a little bit and decided I needed to make a pretty drastic change in my life.”
About that time, he read an article on the internet about a group of friends who had sailed around the world. Within a few months, he quit his job, sold his house, dropped out of school and, in March 2008, bought a 41-foot sailboat in San Diego. Simpson drove west with his motorcycle in tow and moved onto a full-keel, 1961 Palmer Johnson Bounty II with the goal of sailing it around the world by himself even though he had never sailed before.
“It spoke to me in a way that nothing had ever spoken to me before,” said Simpson, now 38. “I was seeking travel, I was seeking adventure, I was seeking sustainability, I was seeking being on the water, all the things that sailing offered. Immediately, I was really hooked.”
Within a year of arriving in San Diego, he attempted to set sail around the world before being foiled hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean by a broken rudder and Hurricane Norbert. His boat was knocked down twice and righted itself both times. Unable to steer, he weighed his options for staying aboard and reaching Hawaii but eventually conceded to a harrowing rescue at sea by a passing container ship called the Vecchio Bridge.
And that is how he lost his first boat.
Fifteen years and 140,000 nautical miles later, Simpson has yet to sail around the world, with a crew or by himself, although sometime early Sunday, soon after the sun comes up in Spain, he will try again. Simpson is one of 18 skippers in A Coruña, a port city in northwest Spain, who have started or will start the inaugural Global Solo Challenge, one of only three races in the sport that requires the winner to sail alone around the world.
He will race aboard Sparrow, an Open 50 built in 1994, now called Shipyard Brewing, after his main sponsor. The stern of the boat still bears, with affection, the hailing port “NAP TOWN,” where Simpson and the boat spent much of the past spring. Sparrow was donated by its previous owner, Whitall Stokes, to Annapolis-based U.S. Patriot Sailing, a nonprofit started in 2013 by Navy veteran Peter Quinn to help other veterans adjust to life after the military.
“Veterans often don’t have access to camaraderie with people of the same life experience,” Quinn said. “You’re suddenly separated from that community, dealing with issues of social integration. Sailing gives you something to look forward to every week, something you can do as a team. You have a purpose, people count on you, which is a big part of the veteran’s experience, and you always have something to learn.”
The cause is close to Simpson’s heart. In 2010, he raced the single-handed TransPacific race from San Francisco to Kauai, Hawaii, in a 30-foot boat called Warrior’s Wish that represented a wounded veterans group. He soon started his own sailing group in San Francisco called CORE (Coastal and Offshore Recalibration Experience), which endeavored to reduce suicide among veterans.
Shipyard Brewing will probably return to Annapolis after the Global Solo Challenge to live out its years as a training vessel for military veterans who want to learn to sail and race. Simpson will likely play a lead role in training U.S. Patriot members to sail the Open 50. First, there is the matter of sailing around the world.
Simpson is among four Americans entered in the race and the third-youngest skipper in the field (most are in their 50s and 60s). His boat is one of the oldest in the field, with most others built in the last 15-20 years. Under different names and with different skippers, his boat has circumnavigated the globe twice (both times in race conditions) and rounded Cape Horn three times.
“Ronnie is a different breed,” said longtime friend Ed McCoy, who has known Simpson from the day he arrived in San Diego in 2008 and sailed with him in September from Maine to the start line in Spain. “He’s driven to do this for sure.”
Less than 48 hours from his official start time of 9 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, Simpson had finished a grand farewell dinner and contemplated the weather. Winter weather patterns had arrived the last few weeks in northwest Spain, with one low-pressure system after another and constant rain. The forecast for Saturday called for a very heavy sea state with waves up to 20 feet, and winds of 40 knots gusting to 60, blowing right on the nose of the boat, the kind of conditions that could batter a boat’s rigging. The smart call: leave a day later when weather conditions were expected to calm.
“You can’t win a race on the first day,” Simpson said, “but you can lose one.”
The Global Solo Challenge is considered the most accessible and populist of the three solo races, open to boats of various designs and vintages from 32 feet to over 60 feet. Stops are allowed along the way, although time penalties apply, and sailors are allowed to use modern technology for navigation and communication. The smaller older boats deemed the slowest started early (in August and September); the faster boats such as the Class40s and Simpson’s Open 50 start Oct. 28. By Jan. 6, the last and fastest boats will have departed. The first one to return to the start line in A Coruña wins the race.
The Golden Globe, perhaps the most grueling of the three, won by Kirsten Neuschafer in April, and held every four years, is a reboot of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, in which Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail around the world alone nonstop. The current version of the race is restricted to older boats (no designs newer than 1988) of modest size (32-36 feet). No modern navigation aids are allowed.
The Vendée Globe, also held every four years with the next start scheduled for 2024, is a single-class race for monohulls in the Open 60 class. Modern technology is allowed, but stops are not. The Global Solo Challenge is considered “the amateur Vendée,” as Simpson put it, a precursor to competing in the Vendée Globe. Simpson has had his sights set on the race since the year he started sailing and plans to campaign for a spot in the 2028 race once the Global Solo Challenge is complete.
The 26,000-nautical-mile race follows an easterly course that keeps Antarctica to starboard, and the three great capes (Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin and South America’s Cape Horn) to port.
Modern technology has made ocean racing more spectator friendly. Simpson, who earned a degree in multimedia arts, plans to use a donated Starlink satellite dish essentially to broadcast his progress daily so anyone can follow his journey. Video cameras have been installed on the boat to provide an intimate view of his race. He hopes to maintain an average speed of at least 8 knots and 200 miles per day, to arrive back in A Coruña around March 2024.
Of the 56 skippers who initially entered the race, only 20 made it to the start line in Spain, and two of them dropped out at the last minute for various reasons.
“The hardest thing about the race,” Simpson said, “is crossing the start line. I feel very fortunate to be here. It’s also very humbling because a lot of boats that entered didn’t make it to the start.”
Simpson joined the Marines right after high school and was deployed to Iraq in early 2004 with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, a light infantry battalion of about 1,300 nicknamed the Warlords. The battalion is based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where Simpson did his basic training.
“At the time, I believed in the cause,” he said.
After his battlefield injury, he was placed in a medically induced coma for 18 days and spent 56 in the intensive care unit. Shortly after Simpson got out of the hospital, at age 19, his father died.
“My dad was the glue that held my mom together,” Simpson said, “so in many ways I lost her when I lost him. I was in a very challenging place in my life, and I lacked a lot of direction and guidance. I was making some reckless decisions regarding substance abuse, whether that’s alcohol or … other things.”
Since he discovered sailing, it has provided almost all the direction he had lacked in his life. He has sailed between the West Coast and Hawaii 19 times, either as a racer or a delivery captain. He sailed upwind from Fiji to Hawaii for 29 days in a Peterson 34, his longest solo passage, not for fun but to escape Fiji during the pandemic lockdown. His longest solo passage on Sparrow was 10 days, which served as his 2,000-mile qualifier – he left the Chesapeake, rounded Bermuda and returned to Maine.
For the past 15 years, sailing has determined how he spent his time, how he made a living (he has been employed as charter captain, delivery captain, rigger, race crew member and a sailing journalist), where he lived, who his friends and colleagues were, and very recently led him to meet the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with.
Simpson met Marisa Veroneau in the summer while Sparrow was undergoing repairs and upgrades in Veroneau’s hometown of Portland, Maine. She was asked by a mutual friend to take Simpson a care package at the docks of the Maine Yacht Center, where Sparrow was tied up. He was living on the boat. They were both dating other people at the time.
A few weeks later, she offered him the guest room in her house, giving them time for deeper conversations. In a poignant moment, the two realized that Veroneau’s late husband, Matt Abrams, a television producer who died of cancer in 2018 at age 37, had once worked on a feature about Simpson when he raced in the Transpac.
Her house became the crew house for the rotating cast of aides, advisers and friends who helped Simpson prepare for the race. Veroneau got to know all of them and listened to their stories. Although she grew up in Portland and spent most of her young adulthood in the Bay Area, she knew little about sailing. She bought “Sailing for Dummies” and read quickly. By the time Simpson departed Maine, he and Veroneau had become very close.
Hosting Simpson and his sailing cohorts was a “catalyst for me falling deeper in love with Ronnie,” Veroneau said. “Getting to know Ronnie through these different lenses, with all these people coming in, expedited my ability to get to know who he is.
“Neither of us are conventional people. We have a similar approach to life ... being open to things and being willing to go all in. Having gone through what I did with my late husband, and his experience in Iraq, he and I have that shared experience of walking that line of life and death.”
A marketing professional, Veroneau also helped him land a title sponsor mere days before he had to sail across the Atlantic. Shipyard Brewing Co. is the largest brewery in Maine.
Funding is essential for any sailor preparing to race around the world. High-performance boats need constant tending and maintenance. Gear and equipment frequently break or need adjusting. Simpson’s departure from Maine was delayed more than a week by a previously undiscovered crack in the post that supports his boat’s mast. The repair bill was in the five figures.
Until Shipyard decided to support Simpson’s entry with a $100,000 commitment, he had cobbled together donations of cash, lots of equipment and occasionally labor, celebrating each contribution before going back to hustling and worrying for more. Shipyard signed on as a torrent of big bills came due. Simpson spent about $40,000 within a few weeks of arriving in Spain on boatyard bills, safety gear, freeze-dried food and spare parts, among other things.
Shipyard Brewing is equipped with more than 1,200 watts of solar panels and a high-performance alternator to keep all of its electronics charged. In addition to the instruments and electronics, the boat has pumps for its two ballast tanks (a standard feature for high-performance racing boats), a water maker to turn seawater into fresh and an autopilot that will steer the boat for almost all of the journey.
“I’ve talked about it so much,” Simpson said. “You can’t really live it and know it until you actually live it and know it. It never really sinks in until you’re living in that moment.”
Weight is always a consideration in a race, hence the freeze-dried food. Simpson made a concession and packed a bottle of champagne, which he will uncork on New Year’s Eve, when he expects to be about halfway around the world.
This story has been updated with the correct name of the Coastal and Offshore Recalibration Experience.