The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

Back in 2004, I was a .50 cal gunner on a Humvee, serving in the Marines. We got into a firefight just outside of Fallujah, Iraq, with RPGs, mortar fire and small arms fire started coming out of the tree line in the middle of the night. I literally thought I was going to die. With the butterfly trigger firmly down, I fired into the tree line at a cyclic rate to suppress the enemy. An RPG exploded just 1 meter away from me, and I was immediately med-evac’ed back to the states, in a medically induced coma. I ended up spending 18 days in the coma, losing half my left lung, sustaining a lot of permanent eye damage, shrapnel, burns, blown out eardrum, ruptured stomach, intestines, spleen, etc. etc. etc.

So I started recovering, and when home on convalescent leave to visit family only four months after my injury, my dad died of a heart attack in his sleep. It absolutely rocked my world; I was devastated. So I went back to Texas (where the military hospital is), and kept on living the life. Going to college and eventually getting medically retired from the Marines at the age of 20. (i was 19 when i got hit.) By the time I was 22, I was a senior in college, had a full time job selling motorcycles, had a house with equity in it, and a fiancee. I was very unhappy and had some personal issues that needed to be resolved. What really got to me was that I had a second shot at life, and I was blowing it. I had this breakdown and moment of realization that something had to give. So my brother calls me one night and says "wanna go sail around the world in like 5 years?" I said "sure."

Neither one of us had ever set foot on a  sailboat in our lives. I spent the whole night looking at cruising stuff online, and decided I wanted to go for it. 5 days later, I had a for sale sign in the front yard, dropped out of school, told the fiance (I’m single now), and told my boss i’d be leaving when my house sold. 3 months later it sold, and I found myself in San Diego on a 41 foot 1961 Palmer Johnson Bounty II. Sick-ass boat. Had solar panels, wind generator, water maker, wind vane, SSB, all the toys. So I learned about sailing, fixed up the boat a lot, partied a lot and then left Dago six months later to head to Hawaii, where my brother lives.   I was singlehanded (Ed McCoy from "Anarchy" was my mentor last year in SD. Don’t know if that hurt me or helped me….Just kidding. Thanks dude.)

So I had some problems, but overcame them as you do when you’re out there. On October 7, Tropical Depression 15-E started developing. The next morning it became Tropical Storm Norbert. Conditions quickly became 30 knots and really lumpy seas. No problem, just reef down, adjust vane, keep trucking. Things kept getting worse and worse. The storm intensified from a  Tropical Storm to Category 4 hurricane in 16 hours. A fully crewed, fully functional Outbound 46 abandons boat and gets rescued less than 50 miles from me on October 8. I keep trucking. So i’m trying to cook some food down below when my boat rounds up. What the hell? Back into the cockpit and I sheet out and turn hard to port. Nothing happens. Keep turning and turning. Nothing happens. LED headlight over the side and BROKEN RUDDER. Wind vane broke in half too. The rudder eventually left the boat entirely. I personally think I hit a whale or something that had come to the top. Meanwhile, NOAA reports said 50-60 and 10-12 meter seas which seems about right, I’ve certainly never seen anything like that before or since. 

So here I am, 800 miles from land with no rudder in a hurricane. I stay calm and try to fix the problem. Play with the sails, throw a bucket over, try steering with gale rider, try steering with a big ass knot of rope, etc. Try re-attaching my wind vane and using the small rudder on it, etc, for the next 13 hours. (That was a loooong 13 hours….) By this point it’s the next afternoon and the storm is moving on, but it’s still pretty rough. About the time I was trying to rig a bathroom door to the spin pole (it wasn’t going that well but sounded cool at first), I was informed over SSB that a freight ship could pick me up in 5 hours time. I was asked if I wanted to get picked up. I thought about it, and really didn’t think I had another feasible option, so I said yes. I had been knocked down twice, was running out of options and could not get the boat to steer. This meant that I had to leave my boat, and EVERYTHING I owned out in the middle of an ocean on my maiden voyage. It was extraordinarily difficult, but such is life.

5 hours later, the "M/V Vecchio Bridge" came to pick me up.

They hit my boat head on, ripping two shrouds out of the deck and breaking off a spreader. Bent the mast too. Then they almost missed me and had to use the thruster to move to starboard and bring my boat into their side. It was almost dark and my boat started drifting away again, so I just jumped in and swam to their little orange life ring. 3 heroic Phillippinos pulled me out of the drink, and to safety.  On the way up, my boat rocked and I took an aft mounted solar panel to the thigh. Biiig bruise. So I spent 12 days on a freight ship with 17 Philippino’s and 4 Koreans. Guys could not have been cooler if they tried. Very professional too. Much appreciation to Captain I/O Kyun and Fukujin Kisen shipping Co. On October 21, 2008, I arrived in Shanghai. (Yes, I literally got Shanghai’d). The US Consulate came and picked me up and dropped me off at an airline pilot’s hotel who had ironically been talking to me over SSB when I was making my distress call. (He had been flying overhead from Shanghai to San Fran on Jet Airways at the time).

I had no visa and could only stay in China for 24 hours. So I flew to Hong Kong and looked for a boat. I only had like $3,000 left to my name, so I settled on a mountain bike instead of a boat. I spent 2 months in Hong Kong just racing sailboats, working a bit, traveling China a bit, mountain biking and preparing for my next trip.

So on January 1, I left Hong Kong and cycled through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. 58 days and close to 3,000 miles. I couldn’t get a visa for Burma, so I flew into Calcutta, India and cycled across India for a month. 1,200+ miles. Pakistan was spiraling into a civil war and wouldn’t give me a visa, and Hitler, I mean, Ahmadinejad didn’t want anyone in the country coming up to elections, so Iran denied me a visa as well. I had to fly to Turkey. I really wanted to go to Iran though, so I booked the only flight from India to Turkey that had a layover in Tehran. I couldn’t leave the airport in Tehran though.

I spent 12 days in Istanbul, sightseeing and getting denied an Iranian visa again, so I started pedaling to England. I rode through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Holland, (I sailed from Holland to Belgium on a Swan 43. Friend from Hong Kong.) Belgium, and France. I boarded a ferry to Dover, England from Calais, France. 1 more day to London from Dover. Second day in London and my bike gets stolen.

So I bought a crappy English bike for about 200 dollars and threw my gear on. What was left any ways. I rode up to Mildenhall, England and hopped on a US Air Force cargo plane headed to California. (cheapest way for retired military to fly) So I arrive near San Francisco and go into the city. I spent the first weekend back home racing sailboats with Caca Cabeza and the Peckerheads (they’re on SA) before heading south. 1 final week cycling down the coast from San Fran to Dago, and I’m officially done. July 28, 2009 I finally made it home. 8,700 miles pedaled,, 800+ miles sailed, 1 boat lost, 1 bike lost, and about 21 countries that I visited. Pretty good trip!

2 days after getting home, (I had literally $88 left to my name when I got home), I got a job working construction at my old marina on Harbor Island, building new docks. Job ends in December. I was going to try to build a boat and race next year’s Singlehanded Transpac, but reality hit, and I just can’t afford it without outside funding. (I reallllly want a Moore 24…) So I bought a Cal 25 off of Craigslist for $1,000 to live on and cruise Mexico with. I hope to cruise Mexico for 2 months, leaving in January, and be back by March.

While on my trip, I just had this insane desire to sail and ocean race. That’s all I want to do, so that’s what i’m going after. I have been racing every weekend since i’ve been home.

Scot heard my story from my friend Ed and came and talked to me at the ISAF regatta. I mentioned to him my desire to race the Pac Cup, amongst other races, and he said he would try to help me out by getting the word out, which I hope this story does. 

I hope my future holds some major solo ocean racing in it, and in the meantime, I’m looking to do some major ocean races.  I may not have decades of experience, but I do have plenty of references and work my ass off on every boat I crew on.  So please check out my website and let me know if you’re interested in adding this ex-marine to your crew.
-Ronnie Simpson