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inside game

Ronnie Simpson takes you deep inside his recently completed singlehanded race to Hawaii…

I’ve been meaning to write this article for close to two weeks now, but apparently racing to a tropical paradise doesn’t lead to productivity in regards to sitting in front of a computer…..

Wow. The Singlehanded Transpac is over. I mean, i’ve still got tons of work ahead of me with sailing to Oahu, doing some boat work and then sailing home to California, but the race part is officially over. This one thing that has occupied absolutely every single moment of my life over the past 8 months has commenced, and now all that is left to do is clean up and get on with life. Was it worth it? Oh hell yes. Was it everything that I thought it would be?

No, it was more. Was crossing the finish line in Kauai the single best moment of my entire life? Well, with 12 days to reflect on the race since I finished, I would have to say yes. For the first time in two years, I feel like i’ve resolved something within myself and taken care of some unfinished business. A dream has been realized and a goal has been reached. Just getting to the starting line included some serious last minute drama. 2 days before the start, all boats were required to be at the Corinthian YC in Tiburon for their pre-race final inspections. So I dropped off my key and left Marina Village Yacht Harbor for the last time. I planned to go to South Beach Harbor and do some boat work at Spinnaker Sailing, while my bottom got scrubbed. I started the motor and dropped the sails to enter the harbor, when the motor overheated. F—! It had never once overheated. In fact, the engine had been the only part of the boat to never give me a problem. The tiny Yanmar 1 lunger picked a most inopportune time to act up, as it is my primary means of charging….. Back up with the jib, and I was able to sail around, while trying to figure out what the problem was. A 5-minute check and inspection of the strainer didn’t diagnose anything, so I decided to just enter the harbor under sail. More than stressed and concerned, I went to work, pulling off the water pump cover, checking impeller, checking raw water intake under the boat, changing impeller, taking off water pump, checking water lines, strainer, etc. After every check, I would start up the motor, see no water being pumped and shut her back off.

Finally, almost at my wit’s end, I figured out that a very small fish had been sucked up through the grate on the sail drive, and been trapped in the 2 inches of black hose BEFORE the strainer. Lesson learned. Start motor up and everything works. Whew. Drew Harper and Garrett Greenhallgh of Spinnaker Sailing, my employer, gave me 2 sets of new Gill gloves before I left. This is your ridiculous shout out. Over to the yacht club with Fred King of Cal Marine Electronics on board, and the boat was safely at the yacht club in time, and all was good. Some news lady from Oakland came and interviewed a few of us for the Oakland TV News. She seemed far more interested in Abby Sunderland than the SHTP.

Oh well. I envisioned myself relaxing with friends and family my final 2 days, but yeah, not so much. Don Gray, the boat’s owner, flew into town at the last moment to look over the boat and see me off. Given my track record to that point, I guess i’d be a bit nervous too! The next day was full of skipper’s lunches and meetings, boat work and errands, final preps and final checks. I had been secretly fearing the race in the 2 weeks leading up to it, but now I just wanted to get started! That night I had a nice dinner with mom, my girlfriend and Don. I went back to my girlfriend’s place and didn’t sleep a wink. I was nervous again. Last time I tried to sail to Hawaii, it didn’t go very well to say the least. I finally woke her up and had her drop me off at the boat at 4 AM. I drank coffee, checked the boat and enjoyed some alone time. She showed up with breakfast and more coffee. Somewhere along the lines, I drank like 2 more cups of coffee. Mistake #1 of the race: I was nervous and drank a shit load of coffee. Note to self: Never drink like 37 cups of coffee before the start of a singlehanded ocean race again. I said all of my good byes and then waited for a boat to tow me out, as they did to all of the racers, since our transmissions and props were banded. Don, the boat’s owner, tells me to sail it out. I hesitated.

There were a lot of boats around and I normally don’t sail out of the slip. Only into it sometimes. "Come on you pussy", and he shoves the bow out. Thanks Don. Guess I better finish cranking up the main and sheet in. So I do, and i’m able to sail through the fairway, clear the dock, and ease out past the breakwater. At exactly that moment it hit me: i’m about to sail in the Singlehanded Transpac. I’ve left the dock, i’m sailing around the starting area, it’s blowing 30 in the bay and there’s a moderate coastal gale blowing off the coast. This is your dream. Do it. Eventually the race starts and I drift over the line, as Tiburon’s harbor is often a big hole. I got caught up in the moment and got a horrible start. I thought I would charge the line, but when the gun went off, I don’t even think I heard it. I was in la-la land. A few hundred meters later and I catch the breeze, which is a solid 25-30 knots in the slot. The boat heels over and i’m sailing, still in la-la land, when I hear Don yell "trim the fucking main!", from a photo boat. Oops. The race was ON from that moment. Bashing to windward, I had to tack 3 or 4 times just to make it out the gate. 4 boats came out to see me off, one of them being "Yukon Jack", our Santa Cruz 50 at Spinnaker Sailing. All of my co-workers were on board to follow me out the gate. That was very cool. Thanks guys.

Still blowing a solid 30, I tacked 3 more times and could clear land on a rhumb line course for Hawaii. With so much breeze to carry us offshore, I stuck to a rhumb line for the first day, as the high looked really well developed. It was a solid thrashing that greeted the entire fleet. Boats were reporting 40 knot gusts and higher, with seas more than 20 feet at times. I mostly saw 25-35, with about 24 hours where it blew a solid 30 the entire time. The sea state was certifiably massive, but in my opinion pretty organized, which was much appreciated. I quickly found myself with a tripled reefed main and #4 headsail. I had the storm jib on the ready if it started blowing in the 40s. It was incredibly rough and wet the first few days, and I managed to coat the cockpit with freeze-dried spaghetti, but I was gapping the fleet. Of course the 54 foot tri, "Hecla" was ahead, but I was leading monohull.

The Mount Gay 30 was performing beautifully. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I pushed very hard those first few days and it was paying off. Adrian Johnson on the Olson 30 "Idefix" was holding tough though and I plotted him at each check-in. I couldn’t back off a bit. But I was forced to. The wind shut off and "Idefix" caught and passed me, as he was south in different breeze. I then caught and re-passed him a day later, only to have him re-pass me at the next check (exactly halfway mark) and amass a 120 mile lead over the next 2 days. I had 4 consecutive days of less than 100 miles, as there was just no breeze to work with. 0 knots for hours on end at multiple times. Then beating into 3 knots of breeze from the SW, which slowly built to 15-18 from the SW. (seriously, beating in the trades????) Then 0 again. You get the picture. This was, for me, the most difficult part of the race. I managed to lead at the halfway point and then have everything start going to shit. At one point I had even been steadily gaining on the tri for consecutive radio checks, and now I was sitting in no breeze watching the fleet pull away.

To be continued…