With about 13,000 nautical miles down, and another 13,000 to go in a bid to race single-handedly around the world, sailor Ronnie Simpson is making a pit stop in the Australian island of Tasmania.
The decision was frustrating and necessary for the skipper of Shipyard Brewing, owned and backed by Annapolis-based U.S. Patriot Sailing, a group that helps vets reacclimate to civilian life through sailing.
Simpson, who was in a close battle for second place in the inaugural Global Solo Challenge, made the decision somewhere in the remote southern Indian Ocean as he faced multiple tears in his main sail and a compromised autopilot – perhaps the most important component for a solo, nonstop voyage.
Simpson, 38, is a long way from Annapolis, where he spent last spring with his Open 50 racing boat, which was then named Sparrow. The nearly 30-year-old ocean racer spent the summer in Maine getting fixed, upgraded and equipped for the race. Simpson set sail for Spain and the start line in September and crossed it in late October.
In the rush to get one of the oldest boats in the race ready, Simpson started the race less prepared than he wanted to be, a regret he expressed on his blog this month.
“I did my best, but there are details that got missed and under-addressed in preparing for this race,” he wrote. “So, you can understand my mounting frustration when I’m being handicapped in this race in many ways, due to somewhat under tested systems and suboptimal aspects of the boat that could have been greatly improved with more time, resources and development. Most of my challenges are very simple things, in hindsight – minor details – that are coming back to bite me.”
For example, his primary autopilot malfunctioned on the first day of the race. Simpson has used his backup autopilot virtually the entire race. The complex device does the tedious work of keeping the boat on course day and night. Hand steering the boat, even just during the day, is unsustainable for the four months or so required to finish the race as competitors pass the three great capes and circumnavigate Antarctica through the most treacherous ocean on the planet, the Southern Ocean.
Simpson will not be disqualified for making a stop but will incur a minimum 96-hour time penalty regardless of how long his repairs take. Repairing and reinforcing his main sail and replacing his autopilot will be the priorities in the city of Hobart, where he’s docked. He is in third place, about 400 nautical miles and two days of sailing behind second-place sailor and fellow American Cole Brauer. Simpson has a 14-day lead over fourth place, held by Italian sailor Riccardo Tosetto. Although Simpson will lose a lot of ocean miles with his stop, he likely will not lose his place on the leaderboard.
“The good thing is that I’ve got a good gap back to fourth place,” Simpson said in an Instagram Reel he posted Wednesday. “There’s a good chance I can do a pit stop and not even lose any position.”
The race has come with the expected drama. Longtime front-runner Dafydd Hughes dropped out in Tasmania after his autopilot failed. Another competitor, Ari Kansakoski, lost his mast southeast of South Africa and had to improvise a new mast to reach the nearest port. The race is a test of endurance not just for the sailors but the boats.
“Could I keep on pushing on and not stop?” Simpson said in his Instagram video. “Yeah, absolutely. A big part of this race is not just sailing fast but also exhibiting good seamanship.”