Ronnie Simpson shares a truly inspirational story with us. This is the very definition of community service and it is moving. We hope you can help his tremendous efforts.
Last week in San Francisco, 5 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were brought in from around the country to participate in the first sailing clinic to be held by Hope for the Warriors and BAADS (Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors). With injuries ranging from a reconstructed knee to psychological trauma, paraplegia, blindness and being shot in the head, the group was a diverse collection of veterans consisting of 3 males and 2 females from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
With very limited sailing experience upon arrival, the veterans were given the opportunity to sail the waters of McCovey Cove and San Francisco Bay for 3 full days with a handful of them competing in several practice races, sailing alone in their own Access dinghies. The goal of the program is to help re-inspire these combat-wounded veterans and I truly believe that we did that. With 1 on 1 sailing instruction from an all volunteer group of diverse local Bay Area sailors, the clinic was an intimate environment where people could be truly touched and lives positively impacted. Kicking off on Wednesday, we all met for breakfast and headed straight to the dinghies.
After a full day of sailing two-up in the dinghies, we held a couple of practice races. Bryan the Marine and Jael the Air Force veteran both showed flashes of brilliance and speed. It’s truly inspiring to watch a first-time blind sailor “pick up a shift” and then watch another wounded Air Force veteran dial in speed and horizon job the fleet. Back at the dock after a full day of sailing, we packed it in for the day and had beer and food at the “Java House”, a San Francisco institution. After that, it was onto a Giants baseball game. The veterans enjoyed the game, but for me it was a major learning opportunity. Walking through a sold out major league baseball stadium with a person in a wheelchair and a blind man who has a seeing eye dog is another of those life experiences that creates a shift in perspective and changes how you look at life.
Leaving the ballpark, I offer to take the vets to a bar on the way back to the hotel. When deciding if we should walk or take a cab, our blind participant, Bryan asked “well, how far is the hotel from here?”. “About 2 miles”, I replied. “Well, let’s just walk then.” I held back my tears. Here is a blind Marine from Tennessee who is suggesting that we walk 2 miles at night across a large unfamiliar city. Humbled and inspired by his courage, I happily agreed and our rag-tag crew walked for more than 2 miles with Katie leading the way in her chair. In the end, we were all pooped and headed straight for the hotel, but I was touched by the experience. This is a group of men and women that can accomplish anything that they put their mind to. All they need is the inspiration. On Thursday morning, I received a phone call from Patrick, another Marine Corps veteran who was supposed to participate in the clinic. He has had both of his legs amputated above the knee and now walks on two prosthetics. Walking and carrying his own 60 pound bag, as a Marine with two missing legs will proudly do, he fell in the San Diego Airport and damaged one of his prosthetic legs. Unable to walk, he went to his doctor’s office to have it repaired but the broken piece had to be custom made out of carbon fiber so he was unable to attend the clinic. Patrick was upset but held his chin up high and I promised to get him to our next clinic.
While the other veterans were out sailing on Thursday, another participant showed up for the afternoon with his VA caregiver there to assist him. Enter Jordan Stevensson, a 26 year old Navy EOD tech from San Diego. Jordan took an AK-47 round to the head and then fell off of a small building in Afghanistan just 4 months ago. He survived a coma and is lucky to be alive. Still missing a piece of his skull, he wears a helmet as his brain continues to recover. Jordan has no use of his right arm yet, so we positioned him to drive with his left. An avid surfer and kiteboarder in his current home of Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA, this was Jordan’s first time in a sailboat since childhood. Shortly after loading Jordan into the dinghy, we turned downwind and began sailing out of South Beach Harbor. With Jordan driving the boat and myself trimming, he said to me “I’ll beat this. I have to. I’ve got 30 pounds of motivation. He just turned 3.” “Are you married?”, I asked. “Yes. She just filed the separation papers”. Jordan is a combat-wounded veteran.
These are the real-life issues that confront these individuals. And sailing can help them. Sailing in McCovey Cove for over an hour, the other sailing dinghy headed in and it was just Jordan and I being trailed by our 10-foot inflatable “crash boat”. Jordan reveled in how good it felt to be out of his hotel room. He says this as we’re reaching back and forth across the small cove situated next to AT&T Park, home of the Giants. I vividly remember the feeling of being stuck in a hospital room in 2004 after getting wounded in Iraq. I spent 2 months in there. McCovey Cove began to remind me of a hospital room. “Let’s get out of here”, I said to Jordan. He happily agreed and we broad-reached out of McCovey Cove and sailed alongside the breakwater for to the Harbor. The crash boat driver yelled “Where are you going?”. “Jordan wants to sail to the Bay Bridge”, I replied. Jordan laughs “thanks for throwing me under the bus.”
Just before we reach the Bay Bridge, the America’s Cup monohull “USA 76” came broad-reaching past us on a starboard tack headed south. Jordan immediately sports an ear-to-ear grin. “We’re almost out of gas, I really need to get back” the chase boat shouts. And so we head in. With Jordan relaxing, i’m short-tacking the dinghy up the fairway and back to the dock. “I think this is the best day i’ve had since I got shot in the head”, Jordan says. Instantly brought to tears, I luff up the boat and savor the moment with Jordan; both of us soaking up the warm Northern California sun. Back at the dock, I ran to my cruising boat and changed out of the sailing shorts that I had been wearing all day. While sailing, Jordan had asked how he could get a pair of “those sweet shorts”, and he looked about my size, so I happily gave him the shorts. “That’s one of my favorite pairs, you better wear them.” Again ear-to-ear grinning, he confidently states “I promise.” Two days later, I received a message on Facebook from Jordan: "Thanks for the clinic. I realized that I have a new passion in life and it’s sailing!".
Later that evening, Drew Harper (aka Schoonerman on SA) took the whole group of veterans, volunteers and several friends and family out on his 84-foot steel schooner ‘Bay Lady’ for a sunset cruise around the Bay. With music, beer and an upbeat attitude we cruised around the Bay under full sail listening to music and enjoying the sights and breeze that only San Francisco in the springtime can offer. After the cruise, the whole group went to local Mexican hotspot “Tres”. Again blown away by San Francisco’s humility and generosity, we were the recipients of a complimentary round of high-end Tequila shots which made for quite a well-deserved and meaningful toast. On Friday, it was a final day of sailing the dinghies under more beautiful sunshine. Some of the guys were tired from the exhausting sailing schedule and intense sunshine, so we opted for a long lunch break. Taking a long walk with Army veteran Mike Welch, we had a moving conversation dealing with past issues and discussing how to further transition back into a fulfilling life, post-combat. Back at the marina to enjoy our burritos, Katie exclaims “I want to ride your skateboard”. Never one to deny someone a new experience, I put the board next to her chair and she immediately crawls out of the chair and onto the 4-foot long skateboard. Positioning her legs straight out in front of her, she donned a pair of sailing gloves and began pushing herself around, just using her hands. The look on her face was undeniably happy and by the end of the session, she was using her weight to carve nice little turns, left and right, back and forth.
Back to the boats, we went for a quick sail before transitioning into the evening’s activity: a South Beach Yacht Club Friday night beer can race. With the custom-modified Wyliecat 30 “Uno” and the J/120 “Desdemona” showing up and generously offering rides to veterans, we loaded up Katie onto the Wyliecat and Bryan and Jael onto the J/120. Mike hopped on my Moore 24 and we were off. Again treated to a spectacular evening of sailing, the veterans were amazed at the action and intensity of crewed racing; the starts, tactical challenges, mark roundings and gybes. My all-veteran crew of volunteers was truly honored to have Mike join us on the race. We had profound conversations and were touched by the opportunity to help make a difference in the life of a fellow veteran. On a week where the entire San Francisco sailing community was mourning the loss of 5 sailors, it’s quite serendipitous to think that five more sailors were just being born. Beginning with combat-wounded veterans who had all proudly served our country, we ended up with five sailors who were shown a different way of life: the sailor’s life. We hung out in the sunshine, enjoyed San Francisco, sailed our asses off and even got in a race and a couple of parties. Introducing wounded veterans to sailing is a truly worthy cause. They need this. We need this. I had originally planned to hold additional clinics in September and October, but now i’m thinking we need to add one for June. It seems I owe a particular Marine in San Diego a sailing trip and I’ll be flying to San Diego on Thursday to speak to another group of recently-wounded Marines.
These clinics cost money and we are funded entirely by private donations. Our last clinic was executed with a modest budget and did a great job of getting a new program off of the ground. Help us grow. Help us make this bigger and positively impact the lives of more veterans. To make your charitable donation, or if you are a wounded-veteran, please email me for more information. This clinic was truly a team effort and I would like to thank all of the people that helped make it possible. Thanks to Hope for the Warriors, the BAADS organization, Drew and the staff at Rendezvous Charters, Sail California for their donation, Bay Marine Boatworks for donating a haul-out that we raffled off as a fundraiser, PredictWind who donated a 1-year subscription that we also raffled off, South Beach Yacht Club, Alameda West Marine for their donated sailing gear, racing crews of "Uno and Desdemona" and the San Francisco sailing community for their support and generosity. And lastly, thanks to all of the volunteers that showed up to support this and make it happen. You all know who you are and I appreciate and love every single one of you.
Fair winds and following seas,