SA’s favorite vagabond and war vet Ronnie Simpson checks in with a progress report on his Singlehanded Transpac preparations. Don’t forget to check out Ronnie’s page, and consider a small donation to help this incredibly hardworking dude get to the line in good shape next month.
There is exactly one month to go before the Singlehanded Transpac, and with my 400-mile solo offshore qualifier recently finished, safety inspection completed and paperwork filed, this whole "i’m gonna race solo to Hawaii" thing is starting to look more and more like a reality. It hasn’t been easy, nor has it been fun at all times; but that’s sort of the appeal to a race like this. No one plans a solo race to Hawaii, on a serious budget, because it sounds like it will be easy. It involves being broke, often frustrated and strapped for time, only to set sail, with the eventual reward of being cold and wet and run ragged with no sleep while eating freeze-dried meals out of a dog bowl and shitting into a bucket. Wow – it really doesn’t sound like fun at all when I put it that way! But that’s what I came to do: To race a Mount Gay 30 to Hawaii – alone.
Acquaintances and other well-wishers (I don’t believe that I actually have ‘fans’) keep asking me ‘what’s up, Ronnie"’ and ‘why haven’t you updated SA or your blog in months?’, and it’s true that I’ve been remiss, and for that, I apologize. The truth is that I have just not had a lot to say – my life has been all about replacing autopilot parts, adding necessary gear to the boat, learning her ways on daysails around the bay, and working with a charter fleet to help pay for it all. But lately, things have really started to come together, and thanks for all the interest.
It all started with the boat’s NKE autopilot not functioning properly from the time that I splashed the boat in late January at Bay Marine Boatworks in Point Richmond, CA. Trying to diagnose the pilot myself was getting nowhere, because after checking the whole system myself, I could come up with nothing. A month ago, a couple of NKE technicians were in town, so they stopped by the boat and brought a new compass with them, thinking that it was the problem. So we plugged in a new compass, and what do you know, the autopilot worked – but only briefly. I had a masthead unit that had shown intermittent periods of failure. I thought it was the masthead cable, as the unit would work sometimes and not work at others.
The boat’s owner and I had fixed a bad connection up there when we launched the boat in January, so I assumed the connection was failing again. So the day before Newport- Ensenada, (which I raced on Anarchist Griffintamer’s Tripp 40. Love sailing with you guys!) I climbed the rig and pulled the cable out and gave it to Fred King of Cal Marine Electronics in San Francisco, to repair. He repaired the cable, making it better than ever, while stronger, and with better connections than stock. He then tested it and gave it back to me when I got back from Ensenada. So I tested the cable, and the unit still didn’t work. We called NKE and arranged to purchase a new masthead unit. Overnighting it to California last Thursday, I installed it the day I got it. Like a rookie, I lost my chaser line down the mast when installing the new cable. 7 hours of cursing, rope blisters, and bloody knuckles later, I had my masthead cable down the mast. Rookie. That night, Bob Johnston, the SHTP race chair for this year’s race (and multi-time SHTP veteran), came to perform my tech and safety inspection. Having a seasoned guy like Bob do your inspection is great. He recommended different things I can do as far as organizing gear, tying things down, etc, but i’m mostly good to go.
With my 400 mile offshore qualifier coming up early Saturday morning, I had no time to spare in making my final, last minute push to get myself and boat ready for the weekend’s event. With my boat totally ready to go, I sailed over to Sausalito on Friday afternoon in a solid 20 knots of breeze, gusting to 25. I short-tacked up the Oakland Estuary, repeatedly crossing tacks with a large commercial tug. A short beat to weather across the South Bay, and then with a reef in the main and a #4 jib on, we close reached across "the slot", in between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, to Sausalito. The boat felt happy. She felt ready. The autopilot was working great and her bottom had been cleaned hours before. We settled in, and with iPod in full swing, we had a great sail over to Sausalito. It feels soooo much better to have a nicely working autopilot, although I still mostly hand-steered in the bay. I met up with 6 other SHTP guys and their boats at the marina, and we had a pre-game dock party, before the next morning’s early departure. It was really great to hang out with the guys that I will share my "tree time" with in Hanalei, and check out their boats. Competitors for the Singlehanded Transpac are such a great group, all with a shared dream. People who if I met on the streets, I would probably never end up getting to know. But what’s that you say, you have a cool boat and you want to single hand to Hawaii? We can talk the night away. And we did.
After almost no rest, my girlfriend dropped me back off at the marina at 3 AM. I cleaned up the boat, re-checked and packed everything, and got ready to go. I put on my foulies. I was nervous. I didn’t know how I was going to feel, but now I knew. The last time I ventured offshore by myself, I lost a boat at sea and ended up on a freight ship in China. I got quiet. I walked up to the other 4 skippers and told each of them "good luck, be safe." I hid the fact that I was incredibly anxious. We each cast off together. I put up the main as I motored out of the channel. The other boats were still getting their mains up and motoring when I began sailing. I called the boat’s owner very briefly and he just said "Ronnie, just go do it and have fun." With a healthy ebb, a full main and 10 knots of true wind, I slipped under the Gate at nearly 9 knots of boat speed. (Over ground, because of the large ebb.) My eyes got really messed up when I was injured in Iraq, to the point where i’m not supposed to drive a car, especially at night. A lot of people don’t know this, but my vision at night sucks, and not in that "my vision sucks" kind of way; more of the "leaving the Golden Gate at night with my eyes SUCKS" kind of way. I short-tacked to be ultra conservative of the land to the north, land to the south, and mile rock. I briefly sailed in the shipping lane to remain south of the potato patch, since it was a full ebb. I was well clear of all land as day just began to break, and could begin putting in some serious miles to weather with a full main and #4.
So far, so good. I had left the dock early and executed a safe, cautious, well thought out exit of what can be a dangerous port to enter and leave, especially at night. I was happy. The breeze lightened a bit, and I switched to the #2. Shortly thereafter, it filled back to a more steady 15 knots out of the WNW. Back to the #4, and we were sailing well, while making good boat speed. Things were going great. I, however, wasn’t feeling so hot. I was a bit sea sick. I’ve only been sea sick twice in my life. Make that three times now. One was because of gas fumes in my old boat, and another was because of severe inebriation in Ensenada last year before a return delivery. This one was because of no sleep, no real dinner the night before, no breakfast, and a lot of nerves. I forced myself to eat and began taking 20 minute cat naps, while maintaining a watch and trying to get to feeling better. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling much better. I was able to relax. Boat speed was still good and we were venturing further and further offshore. By the evening, I was already 100 miles WSW of San Francisco. I’m offshore. Solo. Awesome.
I didn’t freak out at all. My mindset and perspective on everything totally changed. I was very calm and told myself, "Now’s not the time for mistakes. Be smart." I made sure I was well organized and prepared for anything. Sail changes were ready. I stayed on top of my navigating, sail trim, battery charging, boat checks, sleep cycles and eating. I texted Don (the boat’s owner) "100 miles out. Doing okay." on the sat phone. A freight ship was off to port. They didn’t pose a threat, so I just watched them for a while. I enjoyed the night, sitting in the cockpit. I watched the white foam rush past, as my boat slipped through the pitch black water. It was cold out, but a nice evening. I kept seeing little bits of glowing green bioluminescence. I went down below to begin sleep cycles. The boat pounded over waves, as I lay on the cabin sole and listened to water rush past, with only a thin layer of fiberglass in between myself and the ocean. "God, i’ve missed being offshore. It’s good to be back." Another freighter was off to starboard. I made radio contact, and they advised that they saw me and did not need to alter course. I continued to stay fed and hydrated while maintaining rest cycles and a constant watch. I was in the cockpit, wide awake as morning broke. "Yes, a good solid 24 hours at sea. Things are going great," I told myself. The breeze began going light as the sun came up, and I switched to the #2 jib – our largest. With flat water and light breeze, we created some apparent breeze and kept our boat speeds up – until the breeze died.
Just before 9 AM, the breeze shut off completely. I made my first SSB radio check in with our official comm boat for the weekend, SHTP veteran Rob Tryon in his Valiant 32 "Feolena", who was anchored in Drake’s Bay. I also was able to talk to John from "Dream Chaser", a Valiant 40. My SSB reception and transmission was weaker than it should have been, though. Not too bad, but my install isn’t what it should be, something I will address during this final month of preps. Rob said the breeze should fill in from the South during the afternoon. With 0.0 knots of breeze, my main was up, jib was down, and I laid in the cockpit, watching the NKE display for any sign of life at the masthead. 1.3 knots got me all excited and the light jib went up. But it just flapped around, so I dropped it and tried to sail under just main. I did not want to sit still! .2 knots of boatspeed would have been worth the effort, but the breeze died to 0 again. In the early afternoon, as the gribs predicted, the breeze started to fill from the South, and 200 miles out, I could begin sailing back to San Francisco. With 5 knots from the South, I made 5 knots of boat speed on a reach throughout the afternoon and early evening. During the night’s SSB net, I reported a freight ship close to port – I had already made radio contact with them. They spotted me before I spotted them, and advised that they would alter course slightly to pass 1 mile to port of me. I must admit, it’s kind of an eerie feeling for me to talk to a freight ship on VHF 16. I vividly remember that night, 800+ miles away from California, when I was talking to the Korean freight ship captain who picked me up out of the sea. Regardless, all of the ships I had come across had been pros, including that freighter that took me to China.
The breeze freshened to 10 and clocked to the SE. I was now on a close reach, still on starboard, headed towards San Francisco at 7 knots. I had the autopilot steering on compass mode, as opposed to wind vane mode. This way, I could remain on a heading to the Golden Gate, while adjusting the sails to match my angle on the wind. At midnight, the breeze again increased to 15. I was blasting along, seeing 8’s on the speedo with a full main and #4. A freight ship was in the distance but was unresponsive, and I was gaining on them. By 3 AM, I was much closer and could identify that we were on the same heading. They remained unresponsive. I continued gaining on them. They remained unresponsive. I shined lights on my sails. I shined lights at them – no response. "Oh well, now we’re racing," I muttered. I hardened up and took their stern, clear by a half mile or more. I stayed hard on the wind, and moved to starboard of them, cracking off and picking up speed. I was pulling on them – hard. They were going 5-6, and I was going 8. By day break, I was miles ahead and they were disappearing in the fog. The pilot had been steering me beautifully, but I still felt inclined to hand steer for hours in the night. It was arguably the best night of sailing in my life. 15 knots on a close reach, while showing a freight ship my stern, some 100 miles off the California coast, while blaring Tool on the iPod. A lone dolphin streaked just to leeward, leaving and re-joining me for literally 2 hours. His body looked white like my wake. I think he was having as much fun as I was.
At my 9 AM radio check-in, it was blowing a full 20 and pouring rain. I was cold and wet, but still feeling great. My new Bluestorm foul weather gear and harness/ PFD is awesome, and kept me dry and allowed me to wear warm layers underneath. Even in pouring rain, I remained mostly comfortable. A single reef in the main and the boat was still trucking along. Comm boat seemed pleased that I was putting in so many miles in so many different conditions. I was excited, as it looked like I would be home by the evening. By 10, it was blowing 25 and getting rough. By 11, it was blowing 30 and rougher. With the second reef in, we pounded through a rough, confused sea state in some pretty snotty weather. It was uncomfortable, rough, cold, wet sailing, but the boat took it in stride, and my Mount Gay 30 "Warrior’s Wish" really proved herself to me. She pounded through the waves with no hesitation. Incredibly stiff and strong, she refused to let out a creak, groan or moan anywhere. I think she’s willing to rattle your teeth out before she’s willing to flex. Sydney Yacht built her in Australia in 1999, and let me tell you; they got something right with this one!
By 1 PM, we were passing SE Farallone Island. The breeze was still 25- 27 and the seas still very lumpy and confused. Shortly after the Farallones, I had my first real challenge in re-entering San Francisco Bay; crab pots. There was a mine field of yellow floating crab traps that extended for miles. I took the helm and hand-steered for my final few hours. Rolling in and over big waves, I often wouldn’t spot the crab trap until the last minute, requiring quick maneuvers, coming up and down repeatedly. I was 10 miles out and it was blowing 28-30. It’s generally blowing much harder in the slot than it is in the ocean, so I was ultra cautious and put in the 3rd reef, for the first time ever. "What if it’s blowing 40 in there?" After such a drama free 400 mile qualifying sail, I didn’t want any big problems at the finish; especially in someone else’s boat. 7 miles out, the breeze lightened to 25 – then 20 – then 15. I shook out reefs accordingly, approaching the Golden Gate in 15 knots with one reef in, still being cautious. There was a long line of freight ships off to starboard, and I was clear of the crap pot mine field, South of the potato patch, and lining up a good, well thought out approach. Rage Against the Machine was blaring on my iPod, and I was so pumped up on adrenaline that I pounded the windward lifeline stanchion with my first to the beat until it was red and sore. I was going to finish my 400 mile qualifier in fine fashion, and be qualified for the Singlehanded Transpac race to Hawaii next month – or so I thought! Once in the lee of San Francisco, by Mile Rock, the breeze died entirely – I mean less than 1 knot. As I approached the bridge, I drifted towards the South Tower, absolutely infuriated that my entry into the Bay was being ruined, and would be undeniably lame. I had to admit defeat at the last minute and fire up the motor just in case I needed to use it to avoid the Golden Gate Bridge. (I feel kind of lame writing this on a site that every racer reads, but hey, it happened.) I ended up getting 1 knot of breeze and some steerage and room without using the motor, but the Bay was glassed off in a way I had never seen. Without a whisper of breeze anywhere to be found, I was forced to fire up the motor again and tool home to Alameda. I called Don and told him how excited I was about the trip and the boat, and he was happy for me. Then I talked to my good buddy Ed McCoy, who will be my double handed partner on the delivery home from Hawaii. This is a fun, fast, solid boat and I can’t wait to share the experience with him, and have a whole passage to learn from him.
And that’s where we’re at right now. I’ve got a couple of problems that I need to address regarding some wiring issues and my SSB installation, but i’ve got Fred King from Cal Marine Electronics (415.391.7550) on my side, and i’m really confident that he will be able to help me get any and all electrical/ communication issues sorted. Ryan Nelson and the West Marine Alameda Rig shop have been a huge help to us. Ryan has helped end for end halyards, add new chafe covers to some lines and get a couple of new halyards. And whenever I need to work on my boat, I can just take it into work. I’m working at Spinnaker Sailing in San Francisco, with Drew Harper and Garrett Greenhalgh. Drew is a seasoned, West Coast solo offshore racer and Garrett races everything under the sun and has helped me with odd jobs, advice and oil changes. It’s always good when your boss and co-worker are stoked that you’re taking time off from work to go sail and race offshore. And as an added bonus, we get to race the shop Viper 640 in some Beer Can stuff! And the NKE guys were great, coming down and helping me diagnose and replace the parts needed on my autopilot. It’s a 5 year old system and has 6 ocean crossings under it’s belt, so it’s really not a big surprise that it has needed a few parts replaced and some new software, but now that it’s working, it appears to function flawlessly. So thanks to those guys for coming to my boat and helping me out. But the biggest thanks of all has to go to boat owner Don Gray and Hope for the Warriors. Don has been unbelievable. His boat, his support, and his help in repairing and equipping the boat have been invaluable. That guy has been my rock. Every time I call him in frustration, he just says "we’ll handle it." And we do. I couldn’t have imagined a better guy to team up with for a race like this, and I never imagined the kind of support from the overall community that I have been so lucky to receive.
When I race out of the gate on June 19, I am racing to benefit wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I am racing to raise awareness and raise money for Hope for the Warriors, a national non-profit who strives to improved the quality of life for veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much in their service to our great country. They are a truly great organization with a very worthy and honorable cause. As a wounded veteran of the Iraq war, this is a cause I very dearly believe in. Please take a moment to check out their website.
If you wish to follow my progress, you can do so at my own site, and of course you can check in here at Sailing Anarchy where I will be sending in reports throughout the Singlehanded Transpac. There is not a lot of time left and I do not have huge needs, but a few more dollars would help me provision the boat properly and finish off the few bits and pieces that remain. Any help is hugely appreciated, and you can donate at this link. And while my boat is going to look a bit like a NASCAR racer, there are still spaces left for corporate advertisers who wish to support us, so get in touch if it sounds like something your company would like to be part of.
Race starts in a month, and I promise to update you soon.