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If Hollywood made a movie about Ronnie Simpson’s life—and some director with a sense of adventure, empathy and accomplishment should do exactly that—it’s difficult to determine who would play the titular role. A younger Brad Pitt might’ve pulled it off; Ethan Hawke could deliver the necessary intensity; Matt Damon would probably get the nod from today’s ranks of leading men.
But the fact of the matter is that only Ronnie could star in an epic Ronnie biopic. He is nothing less than an American original: a Marine Corps veteran who was nearly blown to smithereens in the first Iraq war and later found solace, healing and purpose in sailing. Now, at 37, he hopes to up the ante and become America’s top single-handed offshore racer. He wants to compete in the sport’s showcase event, the nonstop Vendée Globe solo around-the-world race, which sets forth from France in 2024.
This I learned last fall when he sailed into Newport, Rhode Island, on a well-traveled Open 50 war horse of a yacht called Sparrow. He plans to compete on that boat in another nonstop solo marathon: the Global Solo Challenge, which will start from Spain this fall. But Ronnie is clear that it’s merely a steppingstone, one he hopes will attract a title sponsor for his ultimate goal of competing on a world-class Open 60. “I’m rolling the dice here in a really huge manner,” he told me. “If doing [the GSC] on an Open 50 was the endgame, I probably wouldn’t be here. I consider this my shot for the Vendée. I don’t know why I’m so driven to do that race, but I wake up every day, and I want to do it, and I go to sleep every night, and I want to do it.”
I’ve known Ronnie for several years, in a professional sense, as his former editor at Cruising World magazine. His most remarkable article was called “From Fallujah to Fiji,” a detailed account of a decade-long odyssey that began with his enlistment in the Marines, just days after graduating from high school. Then came the day in Iraq when his Humvee fell under attack and he was seriously injured. While recovering, he learned online about sailing, and he purchased a 41-footer, which he later abandoned at sea in a Pacific hurricane. He then picked up the pieces after his rescue, and he purchased a succession of small boats that he raced alone to Hawaii and rambled across the Pacific to Fiji, becoming a professional sailor, rigger and delivery skipper. Ronnie notched over 130,000 nautical miles and gained the skills necessary for a Vendée campaign.
Ronnie was preparing to return to Fiji on his recently purchased 43-footer to relaunch a charter business that had become a COVID casualty, generating the funds to bankroll his own Vendée project. That’s when his friend Whitall Stokes offered up Sparrow, a two-time veteran of round-the-world races, for the Global Solo Challenge. Ronnie sold his cruiser, set up a GoFundMe page, launched a website (ronniesimpsonracing.com) and sailed to Newport to begin his quest.
That is where I joined him on a breezy afternoon with a pumping southwesterly on Rhode Island Sound for his ongoing shakedown sails. “Learning,” he said, time and again, tack after tack, spray flying, as we put the boat through its paces. “We’re doing a lot of learning here today.” Clearly, he was in his element.
Yet the question remains: Will Ronnie Simpson fulfill his dream of being on the Vendée starting line off Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, on November 10, 2024, to test himself against the planet’s best single-handers? If any story deserves a happy ending, Ronnie’s does.