The Long Way Back: The Resurrection Of Ronnie Simpson

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.

Ronnie Simpson in Point Richmond, California, in November (Photo by Alex Tehrani)

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.

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Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum And The Death Of Dawn Brancheau

My effort to trace the marine park experience of Tilikum the orca, in order to try and understand how his life life led to the death of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer, is now out in the July issue of Outside. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Tilikum as
Image via Wikipedia

Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.

“Every safety protocol that we have failed,” SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion. “That’s why we don’t have our friend anymore, and that’s why we are taking a step back.”

Dawn Brancheau’s death was a tragedy for her family and for SeaWorld, which had never lost a trainer before. Letters of sympathy poured in, many with pictures of Bran­cheau and the grinning kids she’d spent time with after shows. The incident was a shock to Americans accustomed to thinking of Shamu as a lovable national icon, with an extensive line of plush dolls and a relentlessly cheerful Twitter account. The news media went into full frenzy, chasing Brancheau’s family and flying helicopters over Shamu Stadium. Congress piled on with a call for hearings on marine mammals at entertainment parks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation. It was the most intense national killer whale mania since 1996, when Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was rescued from a shabby marine park in Mexico City in an attempt to return him to the sea. Killer whales have never been known to attack a human in the wild, and everyone wanted to know one thing: Why did Dawn Brancheau die?

The story tries to answer that question. Hope it succeeds, at least in part.

There are a number of elements to the tragedy that I did not have space to fully explore. In the coming weeks, I’ll get into some of them right here, with the help of some of my expert sources. So please stay tuned…

In the course of reporting the story I developed enormous respect for the intelligence and complexity of orcas. Here’s a beautiful video that captures some of their majesty:

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