Making it to the starting line of a nonstop global circumnavigation is never a simple matter, no matter who you are and where you come from. But for Ronnie Simpson, who on October 28 will join a handful of other sailors leaving A Coruña, Spain, for their start in the Global Solo Challenge, it will be a particularly sweet and charged moment.
Sweet, because he has worked on a dream and a shoestring for so long and has seen his efforts come to fruition, making it to the start with a solid sponsor for his Open 50, Shipyard Brewing, and with more than 140,000 hard-earned ocean miles in everything from a Moore 24 to a 72-foot ORMA trimaran. Charged, because for this medically retired U.S. Marine, wounded in Iraq at just 19 years old, solo sailing has proven to be a life-saving path that feeds his inner fire, and he hopes this race can launch him to a Vendée Globe campaign, his ultimate goal.
“In my mind, all I have to do is get the boat well prepared, get on the start line, start the race, and go sail a good race and prove that I’m a viable candidate to go to the next level,” Simpson, 38, said from A Coruña in early October where he was engaged in final prep work. “There’s only so much I can control. I can’t control the weather others may have, or potential speed advantages they may have over me. All I can control is what I can control.”
This is the inaugural Global Solo Challenge (GSC), whose goal is to provide a more affordable, doable round-the-world solo nonstop competition for sailors. It falls somewhere between the extremely expensive and professional Vendée Globe, sailed in purpose-built IMOCA 60s, and the more amateur Golden Globe Race, sailed in production boats between 32 and 36 feet designed before 1988. The course starts and ends in A Coruña, taking the sailors east about the globe via Cape Agulhas (South Africa), Cape Leeuwin (Australia) and Cape Horn (South America).
Competitors can sail in anything from a classic, full-keeled, 32-foot cruiser to performance boats including Class40s and Open 50s and 60s. They can be professional, full-time sailors, like Simpson and the only female entry, 29-year-old American Cole Brauer, who is racing a Class40 called First Light, or amateurs like 63-year-old Dafydd Hughes of the UK, who is sailing Bendigedig, a 1971 S&S 34. In part, this is also a decision by the race organizers to encourage sailors to not build new boats, but rather to repurpose and upgrade older boats, helping keep the race’s carbon footprint low.
The key to keeping the race competitive is a staggered start format based on the boats’ ratings and projected speeds—in other words, a pursuit race. Slower boats start first; Hughes, for instance, started on August 26, while Simpson and the majority of the fleet start on October 28. The final start will be Volkan Kaan Yemlihaoğlu on his Open 70, Black Betty, on Jan. 6, 2024. All are expected to converge back in A Coruña for a finish by mid-March, and the first over the line wins.
Unlike the Vendée and Golden Globe, competitors can use weather routers, and some outside assistance is permitted. Skippers may pull into port and get help, if needed, and they may be in constant contact with shore teams.
“The GSC may be a competition for some, but it is primarily a platform for participants to accomplish a dream many sailors share,” race organizers said in a press release. “The race format allows sailors to take part in an ambitious singlehanded circumnavigation while benefiting from the solidarity and camaraderie that comes from being part of a global event.”
Simpson arrived in A Coruña in late September after a boisterous transatlantic crossing from Portland, Maine, with crewmate Ed McCoy (he’d already completed his solo qualifiers). Shipyard Brewing, a 1994 Open 50 designed by David Lyons, has raced in two BOC Challenges, once as Newcastle Australia under Alan Nebauer and then as Balance Bar under Brad Van Liew.
“It was a challenging trip but definitely it was a good shakedown,” Simpson said. “There was a lot of swell from a lot of directions…we had cyclones and hurricanes all around us all the time. We were like this little dot in between a bunch of purple swirls all across the Atlantic…We broke a VHF antenna at the top of the rig, we were pounding the boat so hard.”
He arrived with nearly five weeks before the start to bring all the safety gear up to requirements, make repairs, adjustments, and modifications, including adding a fourth reef in the mainsail; he’s sailing under a new suit of Elvstrøm sails.
It has been a long road to get here, one that can be traced to Simpson enlisting, at age 18, in the U.S. Marines to fight in Iraq. By 19, he was wounded in an RPG attack outside Fallujah, med-evaced out, and spent 18 days in a coma with massive internal injuries. In a 2017 story in SAIL called “Blue Water Warrior,” Kimball Livingston wrote: “Simpson in the flesh is energetic, athletic, engaging. Nothing on the outside now tells you how torn up he was inside. Once he was able, he did all the things a good boy is supposed to do. He went to college, got a job, got engaged, bought a house in Texas. But he was boiling inside. ‘I was selling motorcycles, and I was riding sportbikes, and a couple of events called to my attention that I didn’t seem to care whether I lived or died. It came to me that I was unhappy. I really hadn’t understood that.’ ’’
Sailing first entered the picture when his brother called him one night to tell him he’d read about a race where people sailed around the world. That lit the fire, and since then, in a sailing life that has been a wild but still focused ride, Simpson has dedicated himself to making it to the starting line as contender in a solo round-the-world race. Among other achievements, he’s sailed in two singlehanded Transpacs, winning his division in one, and sailed an engineless Cal 2-27 from Washington State to New Zealand.
Simpson and his Open 50 came together in August 2022 when owner Whitall Stokes, who had sailed the boat 20,000 nautical miles including singlehanding from California to Maine via Cape Horn, chose not to pursue his own GSC campaign and loaned Simpson the boat. Simpson worked tirelessly to prepare and seek support for a campaign, finding it in small but dedicated doses from individuals and organizations including U.S. Patriot Sailing, a nonprofit that supports veterans navigating the transition to civilian life, rehabilitation after injury, and the challenges associated with combat deployments.
“Sailing is something so foundational in my life and therapeutic in my life, and U.S. Patriot Sailing is impacting a lot of veterans’ lives through sailing,” Simpson said, adding that his circumnavigation will represent the group and, he hopes, raise awareness of its work.
While refitting the boat this summer at Maine Yacht Center, Simpson landed a title sponsor with Portland-based Shipyard Brewing.
“I was touched by Ronnie’s story and his experience of being wounded as a marine in Iraq and coming back to find peace and healing through sailing while working with U.S. Patriot Sailing,” Fred Forsley, Founder and CEO of Shipyard Brewing Company, said in a press release. “Our family ran the Gray Manor Boarding Home for Veterans in Gray, Maine. We helped vets returning from World War II and always believed that giving people a purpose was so important to healing and rehabilitation.”
Shipyard Brewing had also supported Bruce Schwab in his 2004-05 Vendée Globe campaign when he became the first American to officially complete the Vendée, which Forsley said “lined up” with Simpson’s GSC campaign.
“You can feel Ronnie’s energy and passion for this project, and we’re excited to support him,” Forsley said, adding that watching Simpson “and the Shipyard Brewing Open 50 set sail off the Portland Head light was a moment that will stick with me forever.”
Simpson said he’s deeply grateful for the company’s support and belief in him.
“It’s a very humble campaign, and it’s been a humbling experience,” he said. “But it’s coming together, and we’re going to end up on the start line with a good boat and good sails, and hopefully I can do everyone proud.”
For more information and to track the race, visit globalsolochallenge.com
For more about Ronnie Simpson, read Kimball Livingston’s profile of him in SAIL “Blue Water Warrior” Click here.