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pass it on

I remember the first time that I went sailing. It was on an overcast grey day in San Diego Bay in early 2008. Giddy with excitement upon arriving at the marina and boarding the boat, I quickly stowed my gear and took my place as crew in helping us disembark from the dock. As we left the protection of the harbor, we hoisted the sails and shut off the engine. A cool fresh breeze filled the sails, heeling the boat and silently pushing us toward open water. As I felt the boat power up for the first time, I was captivated by the serenity and raw power of a boat, under sail, purposefully accelerating to hull speed. Forever etched into my mind is the sound and sight of that 40-foot boat elegantly slipping through the water, creating a white and frothy bow wake against an otherwise undisturbed sea. I looked out past the confines of San Diego Bay and Point Loma and felt an undeniable urge to set to sea. It was this newfound dream of setting to sea that grounded me, inspiring me to strive for greatness and once again realize my true potential and purpose in life. Having been nearly killed in Iraq and then wandered around the world, lost and homeless on a bicycle, it was this direction and purpose that I sought. Over the past four years, I have lived and breathed for the sport and it has now become my lifestyle, my hobby, my passion and my career. Because of sailing, I have tasted both triumph and defeat, but it is the sport itself that has kept me moving forward.

I am a wounded veteran of the Iraq war and sailing saved my life. Now it is our goal to use sailing to change the lives of other wounded veterans.

Two weeks ago, Hope for the Warriors and BAADS (Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors) teamed up to hold our second wounded veteran sailing clinic in San Francisco, CA and by all accounts, we’re achieving our goal of changing lives through sailing. Flying the veterans out from Southern California and Washington, we conducted the clinic at Pier 40 South Beach Harbor in San Francisco. Using BAADS’ Access dinghies, we taught the guys how to sail, using the protection and sights of McCovey Cove and AT&T ball park as a back drop. With a building breeze throughout the course of the day, the participating vets were having a blast, challenging themselves and becoming competitive with one another. After a full day on the water, we road-tripped up and over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods National Monument in Marin Country. The guys loved the peace and beauty offered by the magnificent great redwoods, greatly enhanced by volunteer Walt’s brilliant two-hour tour.

Days 2 and 3 were full-on with half days of sailing preceding afternoons and evenings of America’s Cup action and hospitality. Thursday afternoon after lunch, Team Oracle gave us a tour of the base at Pier 32, just before the afternoon’s racing had begun. It was a special and meaningful opportunity to be able to introduce these five heroes to sailing and then watch them react as just a day later they were being allowed full access to a cutting edge AC 45 racing catamaran. Watching China Team’s wing get stepped and then seeing boats begin to leave their moorings marked the next activity for us; an evening charter to watch the AC45 fleet racing!

Drew Harper of Spinnaker Sailing generously took us on a 3-hour cruise on his beautiful Santa Cruz 50 Yukon Jack. With 20 knots of breeze and a building ebb, we had a ripping sail over towards Sausalito before broad-reaching back over to the city front to watch the racing. With unobstructed views and a stereo blaring the race broadcast, it was all smiles and gasps as the fleet of AC45’s rounded the windward mark near us and then accelerated downwind at an awe-inspiring clip.

After a full day of sailing that focused on basic tactics and strategy, including several practice races, we moved onto our final activity of the week: a Team Oracle base tour at Pier 80. The vets’ faces again lit up at the sight of the AC 72, explanation of the science behind the wing and the crash course in America’s Cup history. By Friday night, the guys were absolutely on cloud nine with a quite notable, and touching, level of inspiration and positive energy. That night, we quite possibly made history by being the first military veteran group to dine at an all-vegan restaurant. Yep, we’re doing things a bit differently here in Nor Cal and it’s working. It’s changing lives.

The morning after the clinic ended, one of the vets, Doc, stayed in San Fran to go surfing with Walt and I. I watched Doc pump his fists, silhouetted in the rising morning sun, as he caught his first-ever surf on a perfectly peeling swell at Pacifica. I laid in the water on my board, choked up a bit, as I had been dozens of times during the week. Doc is a recipient of not one, but two Purple Hearts in Iraq, so to see him surf his first wave and then ecstatically paddle back out was both touching and inspirational. That night, Doc accompanied us on a 32 footer to a raft up behind Treasure Island.

The following day, I was again touched as I logged onto Facebook and saw that one of our participants changed his profile picture to show him sailing a small keelboat. Marine Corps doghandler Jose Armenta, a double above-the-knee amputee, had never sailed before he attended our clinic. The day after he flew home from San Francisco however, Jose rented a sailboat in San Diego and took his wife sailing. To see that image of Jose grinning ear to ear with one hand giving a thumbs up, and the other clutching the tiller of a sailboat is an image that has now been burned into my memory and my heart. Jose relayed to us that he now has a new dream of racing sailboats, and so it is with much gratitude that Hope for the Warriors has sponsored him in a paralympic development regatta next week in San Diego, again using a boat from BAADS. Jose has been inspired. Let’s keep the flame burning and allow the sport to change his life.

There are a million touching moments and stories from these clinics, but the point is, the program works. I can tell you first hand about the therapeutic, inspirational and healing benefits of teaching wounded veterans to sail. For 2013, we are scheduling at least four sailing clinics, up from two this year. Not only in San Francisco, but ideally in Newport, RI and other markets. At Hope for the Warriors and BAADS, we are both 501c3 non-profits that rely on private donations and the generosity of others to be able to conduct these clinics. Please feel free to contact me directly or visit Hopeforthewarriors.org to make your online donation. Please enter “Wounded Veteran Sailing Clinic’ in the comment box.

Many thanks to everyone who volunteered and contributed towards this clinic, and to the gracious heroes that participated in the clinic. But special thanks are in order for key volunteers Walt Kotecki and Don Gray. You guys are both true friends and i’m honored to work with you on this project. BAADS volunteer Jeff Breen has been a huge part of this program from Day 1 and we’re honored to share these experiences with you and your staff. Key donors for this clinic include SA editor Scot Tempesta, Quantum Sails Pacific rep Jeff Thorpe and the Knights of St. John/ St. Francis Commandery, so massive thanks to all of you for your support and generosity to the cause. And a million thanks again and again to Team Oracle for 2 days of hospitality, Drew Harper, Garrett and Stacey at Spinnaker Sailing San Francisco and rockstar AC photographer Jen Edney, who donated her services on Day 1 to score some killer shots. Just know that I love and appreciate all of you, so thank you again from the bottom of my heart. Our first clinic for next year will be in the spring in San Francisco, followed up by a spring clinic in Newport, RI. Please take a look at the video of the clinic.

Fair winds and following seas,   – Ronnie Simpson.