Sometimes sailing is more than a sport. It can also be a way of life that heals and saves. Last year, I came across the story of Ronnie Simpson, a Marine grievously wounded in Iraq in 2004, who was racing in the Singlehanded Transpac. I got in touch and it turned out he had quite an epic tale to tell. So I wrote it up in Outside.
Here’s the intro:
Ronnie Simpson ambles up from the docks of the Stockton Sailing Club. At 25, he is whip thin and browned by the Northern California sun. His hair is close-cropped, and he’s wearing his preferred uniform: boardshorts and a faded sailing T-shirt. He’s in Stockton to take possession of a 28-foot Albin Cumulus sailboat that he just bought for $2,800, with money borrowed from a friend. The boat is called Chippewa, and the cockpit is strewn with tools, gear, and empty beer cans. A dark scrim of weeds encrusts the bottom, but beneath the grime you can see the shape of a blue-water pedigree. Ronnie is taking Chippewa down the San Joaquin River to San Francisco Bay, to the Marina Village Yacht Harbor, in Alameda, where the boat will become his new home. As soon as he feels it’s ready to sail to Hawaii and beyond, Ronnie Simpson will do what he does best: take off and see what happens.
Ronnie looks like any boat bum who works odd jobs on the waterfront. He’s always up for a party or a deal on Craigslist, and he’s not averse to drinking beer within an hour or two of a late breakfast. He has a laid-back, renegade charm and tells stories as easily as he draws breath. He makes friends wherever he goes, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the girlfriends (“she was soooooo hot”) who’ve wandered into his life. It wasn’t very long ago that he had just $15 to his name.
But Ronnie is not an aimless vagabond. To understand this, you need to take note of the long, moon-shaped scar under his left arm, which arcs around his rib cage from pectoral to scapula. You need to observe the seven-inch vertical scar that bisects his stomach, deviating only slightly around his belly button. You should also take in the coin-size cicatrices that pepper his torso, pale blotches against the dark of his skin, and try to imagine the searing heat that branded him. Ronnie served as a marine in Iraq, and on the night of June 30, 2004, at age 19, he almost died.
How he got from there to here is a wrenching story, of how war takes human beings, breaks them into little pieces, and gives them two choices: surrender or fight. Unlike many veterans, Ronnie eventually found a way back from his life-threatening injuries, enduring a long hospitalization, the death of his father, and a few years of soul-numbing suburban striving before the accidental discovery of sailing and adventure helped him to reinvent himself. It was an odyssey that almost killed him more than once, but in the end, it also saved him. “I have never been so broke in my life,” he says. “And I’ve never been happier.”
You can read the rest here.