Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Opportunity for Wounded Vets to Learn to Sail

I had the pleasure to chat with Ronnie Simpson recently, after discovering that he needed help with a fundraising mission. There’s a lot to know about Ronnie, most of which was beautifully captured by author Tim Zimmerman in an article published by Outside Magazine January 2011*.

Simpson is holding the first clinic teaching wounded veterans how to sail, in San Francisco on April 18-20. He’s recruited ten wounded veterans from around the country and will use a fleet of six ACCESS dinghies that belong to the Bay Area Association for Disabled Sailors (BAADS), as well as some smaller keel boats from Spinnaker Sailing. Over three days he’ll introduce these guys to the sport of sailing culminating with the South Beach Yacht Club’s Friday night race.


Simpson is a wounded veteran of the Iraq war. The 27-year old was wounded in combat in 2004 and eventually medically retired. Now an aspiring solo ocean racer, he’s completed one Single Handed Transpac and a couple of Transpacs. He recently won the Double Handed Farrallones Race with crew Ruben Gabriel, in class and overall, on his Moore 24 (with a mere 50 knots of breeze in the pre-start), and again this summer he’s doing the Singlehanded Transpac - on his Moore 24.

Simpson claims that sailing has pretty much saved his life, a life that at 19 years of age he wasn’t sure he wanted after returning severely injured from Iraq.

Hit by a rocket propelled grenade, his injuries were mostly concussive related to the explosion. Both of his retinas were detached - his right retina has a large tear in it and both cataracts were replaced. He took burns to his face and upper body. He was in a medically induced coma for 18 days. He broke every rib on his left side, and had to have half of his left lung removed with surgery. He suffered ruptured intestines and spleen, and if that wasn’t enough, sustained temporary brain damage.

For young Simpson, the worst was that much of his eye damage was permanent.

“My eyes are pretty bad,” he says, matter-of-factly.

His discovery of sailing came literally at a moment when he’d reached an all-time low in 2008, long after his return to civilian life. His brother called and suggested that they buy a boat to sail around the world. For whatever reason the vision set with Ronnie and he instantly began researching sailboats. He’d previously never set foot on a sailboat.

He was living in Texas at the time but decided to move to California and buy a cruising boat. He sold his house, broke off an engagement, quit his job, dropped out of school, moved to California and bought a Palmer Johnson Bounty II, a 41 foot full-keel fiber glass boat built in the early 60s.

Figuring he could learn on the go, he quickly took on the challenge of sailing solo to Hawaii but in hindsight agrees that first big trip was overly ambitious. He lost the boat one third of the way between California and Hawaii, not long after he bought it.

“It was a bit too much for me to handle,” Simpson admits. “I was single-handing and a cat 4 hurricane was about 100 miles away. I was in about 50 knots of breeze in 30-40 ft seas. The rudder was ripped out of the boat. I ended up stepping off the boat and getting onto a freight ship.” Lesson learned the hard way.

Today Simpson lives on a cruising boat in Alameda, California, with his Moore 24 tied up on the same dock. His sailboat racing is sponsored by Hope For The Warriors (HFTW), an east-coast based non profit that aids veterans returning to civilian life. It’s the first time the organization has been involved with sailing.

Simpson’s working not only to raise awareness for HFTW, but also for the bigger cause that he’s championing - introducing wounded veterans to sailing.

The benefits? Sailing is inspirational and that’s what returning vets need, Simpson said.

“I’m passionate about sailing and I want to use this tool to inspire these guys,” he said. “I don’t care if they ever take to it but my goal is to inspire these individuals through sailing to not give up and that they can lead fulfilling, rich lives.”

Simpson said that with the advances in medical technology, a lot of guys who would have died in previous wars - like the Vietnam War - are now living but with significantly worse disabilities and injuries than ever before.

“I lived in a dormitory full of these guys awaiting my own medical retirement,” he said, “It was heartbreaking to see because they start out as a fit 19-20 year old young man, go to war and come perhaps still only 19 years old like me, but they are burned, they are blind, it’s very depressing.”

Simpson also considers that the rate of suicide, drug/alcohol abuse and homelessness among veterans of foreign wars is exponentially higher than the rest of society because there are so many hurdles that vets face.

“They basically give up on life,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is say is, “so you have no use of your legs but you’ve got one good hand so let’s put a tiller in it and teach you how to sail. Then after sailing, let’s get them back to the yacht club for a beer and celebrate with friends. Let’s show these guys that they don’t have to give up and they can still achieve extraordinary things. They just have to be inspired.”

Simpson needs help to cover expenses for his first clinic April 18-20, starting next week in San Francisco and would appreciate any help with fundraising. He plans to hold a clinic in Seattle in September, and again in San Francisco in October. He’d like to see these become an annual event. If you can help out, please contact Simpson at

Simpson will be speaking/fundraising at the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show, Saturday April 14, 11:45am.

* Great read:

Simpson's website:

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