By Ronnie Simpson
Ronnie Simpson, sailing on a Moore 24, finished first in his division in his second Singlehanded Transpac. Simpson was sponsored by Quantum Sails. Here Simpson describes the challenges and rigors of the 2,120 nautical-mile crossing.
Ronnie Simpson. Photo by Peter Howson.
So my second Singlehanded Transpac is in the books. I battled boat problems, weather problems and an intensely competitive fleet, but in the end managed to come from behind and snag the class win. This race required an incredible effort and it's with a lot of gratitude and humility that I write this article. Here's how it went down on the Moore 24 "Hope for the Warriors/ US 101".
The race started on Saturday June 30 in Tiburon, CA. It was another beautiful, sunny summer morning and while I should have been excited, I was secretly a wreck. Part of me was scared to death about heading out into the Pacific on a tiny Moore 24, while another part of me was lost in thought and reflection as June 30 is the anniversary of my Iraq injury; always an emotional day for me. I put on my sunglasses to hide the forming tears and played Rage Against the Machine on 101's stereo to hide my emotions and fear. My good friend Phil MacFarlane shoved me off the dock and I sailed around in the pre-start area with the rest of the fleet. There were to be 6 boats in my class: a Pogo 2 Mini, 2 Moore 24's, an Express 27, an Olson 30 and a Hobie 33.
I was completely disorganized and still lost in thought when the race started. Bang! The gun goes off and it's on. Jerome Sammarcelli on the Pogo 2 "Team Open Sailing" took the pin end on a port tack and dominated the start. He's the most accomplished buoy racer in the fleet and it clearly showed. I made a quick tack and hid the fact that I was completely zoned out to take 2nd off the start. Jerome's Pogo 2 was shockingly fast upwind with good point and began pulling away. Moments later, the defending race champion Adrian Johnson rolled me to leeward with his Olson 30 "Idefix". I quickly tucked in a reef as the breeze built to 20 knots. The Moore 24 "Rushmoore" and the Express 27 "Taz!!" were both well behind me, as was the Hobie 33 "Turbo Camper". The Hobie quickly waterlined me while I played cat and mouse with the other Moore and the Express. They both got me. I don't know what my issue was, but the first few miles of the race were not my best sailing. I sailed out of the Golden Gate Bridge in last place in my class.
Waiting for the Weather Shift
Emerging from the dense fog that shrouded the iconic bridge, the fleet found sunshine on the other side, now a few miles offshore. The Open 50 "Truth" rolled by and shortly later, I crossed tacks with Ruben on "Rushmoore". With light SW breeze predicted into the evening, my Commander's weather routing had me heading north at the start and avoiding making too much westing until the wind shifted to NW. On a port tack, I found myself literally sailing up the coast, making a lot of northing. Ruben tacked away and I crossed 2 boat lengths in front of him after 4 hours of racing. It was going to be a loooong race against my good friend and occasional DH partner Ruben and his Moore 24. Settling into the light conditions, I split my time between port and starboard until the shift came. The weather changed from sunny to pea-soup fog and clouds. The only scary moment of day 1 was when the Wylie 31 "Moonshadow" popped out of the fog on port and I was on starboard. It was a close crossing and served to get my head in the game and wake me up.
Quantum Headsail Configuration: The "Blast Reacher"
The breeze continually built out of the NW and I was able to begin cracking off a bit. On Day 2, I found myself in the back of the fleet, but I wasn't too concerned about it. The Moore 24 is a downwind surfing boat with only 21 feet of waterline, so I knew that going upwind and reaching at the start of the race would be the most painful part. I was more concerned on how I did in relation to the other Moore 24 and the Express 27 as they are very similar. "Rushmoore" put 3 miles on me during the first day, but as we moved into the "windy reach" section of the race, I was able to put 10 on him during day 2. When Quantum and their West Coast rep Jeff Thorpe designed my sails, they specially designed my #1 and #3 jibs to have two clew patches. By hooking into the higher clew patch and reefing the foot and leech, I was able to effectively have a Jib Top (reefed genoa) and a blast reacher (reefed #3). I never had the conditions for the JT to work quite right, as it was either light enough to use the full genoa or heavy enough to where the blast reacher was faster. The blast reacher ended up being very very fast and has become one of my most common headsail configurations. This sail was extremely effective on the Moore 24 and I started making huge gains on "Rushmoore" and "Taz!!".
Day Three: Battery Woes
By the time that we got to day 3, I was having some very serious problems. The sun was still not out and my batteries were almost totally depleted. Problems would soon begin a "snowball" effect where little issues would roll together with other little issues to become big issues. First, I was out of power. As a result, I had no weather data. I had an SSB radio modem and laptop onboard but not enough juice to use them. Then, I had issues with my autopilot. I invested in a brand new B&G H3000 set up for the race and up until this point, it had been great. Unfortunately, I had an issue with the rudder reference sensor and was not able to get the system working again. It's unfortunate that I have to write this because all of the B&G guys have been so stellar with customer service and support. I installed the entire autopilot system VERY last minute due to various reasons and this race to Hawaii was the very first time that I had taken the system out of the Golden Gate. I was not able to diagnose the problem at the time and to be honest, I didn't put much effort into it as I realized that I had errored in equipping the boat with a hydraulic drive and solar panels only. Lesson learned, when you install the single most important system on the boat, don't do it at the last minute! The problem ended up being a loose wire on the rudder reference sensor. I don't know how it came loose, but it did. Completely my fault, sometimes I feel like my own worst enemy. Like I said, it didn't matter because I couldn't power the hydraulic drive anyways. I was quite mad at myself for being so unprepared and behind the 8-ball in my race efforts. For future races, i'm going to ditch the hydraulic drive and probably get a new Jefa electric drive from PYI. (What's that saying, "Live and learn?".)
And so Day 3 began the "dark" period of my race. Hand-steering with all of the electronics turned off became the flavor of the day for days 3-5. I received no weather reports, no position reports or fleet updates, and made no check-ins. With the Yellow Brick trackers that the fleet used, I would not be penalized for not checking in, so I was stoked on that at least. My Commander's Weather routing had been spot on up to this point, so I continued blindly following it. I navigated with a handheld GPS in the cockpit and managed to hand steer for just over 60 hours in a 72 hour period. That is a 20 hour a day average. This was one of the hardest physical and psychological challenges i've ever endured and I finally hit my breaking point on day 5. I dropped both sails and drifted for 4 hours to sleep. I had to. I had collapsed in the cockpit and was looking up at the masthead as the boat was rounding up and my new Quantum spinnaker was flogging itself in the rigging for a period of minutes. I dropped the sails and went down below to sleep. Instead, I cried like a little girl. My psychological threshold for pain had been crossed and I was shattered. Days 3-5 were like pure torture for me. Hand-steering and waiting for the sun. My batteries were toast.
Day 6: Batteries and Spirit Rejuvenated
It took me a few hours to rest and relax a bit and say "F this- i'm not quitting". Back to the cockpit for more hand steering and on Day 6 I was rewarded for my perseverance. The sun came out. I have never been happier in my entire life to see the sun than on Day 6 of this race. My morale and energy went through the roof and I began enjoying myself. With my batteries charging, I was able to use the tiller pilot into night #6 and carry the kite all the way through. During that day I figured out that I could wire my B&G computer to the Raymarine computer using the NMEA 0183 interface. By doing this, I was able to then go to the cockpit and re-calibrate my Raymarine system. Bam! Now I had wind data going to my Raymarine brain and could effectively steer to apparent wind. Things were looking better on "Hope for the Warriors/ US 101" and I was re-inspired to get back into the race.
On the topic of electronics, one thing that worked amazingly well was my DMK box from DMK Yacht Instruments. By wiring the box up to 12 volt power and the NMEA out port of my B&G computer, I had my GPS position and all of my instruments (Wind speed, angle, boat speed, depth, etc etc) wirelessly linked to my iPad. I had everything turned off most of the race, but by having all of my data linked to the iPad, it made it easy for me to navigate precisely, figure out perfect gybe angles and tactics, etc. Having the DMK box and full instruments turned a simple iPad into a full-on big boat style information center. This is a huge advantage on a small ocean racing boat.
Still in the Hunt
On Day 7 I received my first position report since Day 2. I was still in it. I had put tons of miles on the Moore and the Express and was about 100 behind the Olson and Mini. The Hobie was further ahead, but doing quick math, I still had a shot to get on the podium if I sailed well and limited how many miles those guys put on me. It was also on Day 7 that I got enough charge in the batteries to send an email and download a GRIB. My comm gear worked great and I got the one single GRIB of my race. Commander's Weather had still been spot on and I had nailed all of their waypoints in keeping myself on track. It was not until after viewing the day 7 GRIB that I deviated from their plan and soaked down low and eventually gybed to get into better pressure. With the location of the Pacific High, the breeze went very easterly very early. This created a heavy port-pole advantage that drove the whole fleet south and created an interesting tactical scenario. I was a bit freaked out about this whole southerly slide that the fleet was making, so I tried to limit it and began gybing to starboard on any shift that I could find. By doing so, I mixed in more westing than most of the fleet and effectively stayed on top of the Pogo 2 and the other Moore. My goal in this was to be able to make long-term investments on starboard pole so that I could reach a lay line before them and consolidate my gains as they had to take an increasingly less favored hitch onto starboard later in the race. As the race progressed, we hung tough in the little Moore 24. The breeze remained light- mostly 12 to 15 in the trades and this was surprisingly a good thing for us. The Moore was able to begin surfing in lighter breeze than other boats and we were able to hold onto some miles and minimize our losses when compared with the bigger boats. As the race began to move into the home stretch, the name of the game was saving my time and merely limiting how many miles the bigger boats gained on me.
Budgeting the Energy
Just staying in the race became increasingly difficult as I was becoming incredibly sleep deprived and worn down from hand steering. This passage was quite cloudy most of the way and I was still having serious energy problems. My solar panels were not able to keep up with my demands and my batteries had less storage capacity than I had originally thought. In an effort to keep things as light as possible, I had gone with the smallest lithium battery packs I could legally get away with. My bank was 120 amp hour of storage and I thought I could discharge them 80% and therefore use 96 total amp hours. Unfortunately, at 72-74 amp hours drawn, the voltage was dropping below 11 and things stopped working. In addition, I calculated that I would be able to generate 6+ amps of power with my 120 watt solar set-up. In reality, I was making 4.4 amps at maximum under full sunlight and it seemed like 2-3 amps most of the time. I had budgeted that I would be able to generate 40-50 amp hours or more per day but in reality I was netting around 20-25 amp hours on a good day, which consisted of hand steering from sun up to sun down with all electronics turned off. This 14 hours straight per day, plus a few hours in the night time made for what I have estimated to be an 18 hour per day hand-steering average over the course of the entire passage.
Once getting deep into the trades, I was shocked to find that it was still mostly cloudy with periods of day time sunshine and lots and lots of squalls. This race was my 5th Pacific crossing in the past 3 years and by far the most squally, so that was interesting to note. I originally thought that this year would be less squally than past years as the Pacific Ocean was said to be 1 degree cooler than normal on the surface, but that wasn't the case. I can remember several times looking behind me to see blue skies and no clouds and then 10 minutes later being in a squall.
Dodging the Weather
Day 10 was when I started making moves. It took me the first week and a half to come to terms with the journey. By Day 10 I had simply come to accept that I was mostly hand steering to Hawaii. Once my mindset and mentality changed to accommodate this, I was much happier and more efficient at sailing the boat. Around this time though I began experiencing many different swells moving in and out of the race course. A tropical storm and a hurricane formed south of the fleet and threw up all kinds of weird swells. The very interesting part was that a different swell would move in for what felt ilke 30 minutes to an hour and kill all of my surfs and then the swell would leave and the typical Easterly trade wind swell would line back up. An hour later, another hurricane induced southerly component would move back in. It was just weird and extremely difficult to deal with, but the Moore performed flawlessly.
On Day 12, I spent the entire day in squalls and entered the night down 66 amp hours. This meant I had less than 6 hours to use before I hit 11 volts. Using the tiller pilot for less than 3 hours, the batteries were flat by 2 am and I was back to hand steering. Having steered 21 of the past 24 hours, I collapsed in the cockpit around 0650 and dropped both sails. I had hit my breaking point again. I went down below and laid on the starboard berth. I told myself that I was going to get some sleep and wait for the sun to come up and then start sailing again. Within 10 minutes I became extremely angry with myself for giving up on the race and forced myself to go back into the cockpit. I re-hoisted the main just after 0700 and the spinnaker less than an hour later. Still running on no sleep, I left the electronics off all day and hand steered to my biggest day of the trip at that point.
Heading to the Great Reward
The breeze built into the low 20's and the swells built in accordance. We were ripping along with my Quantum S2 downwind runner, but the breeze went a bit forward. My bearing to Kauai was 250 and I was pointing more like 260. I thought that the breeze might stay this direction until the finish, so I decided to swap kites and reach up 10 degrees higher to try and lay the mark. One of my biggest fears in this was not laying the island and having to finish on a jib reach. So I threw up the S3 reacher kite that Thorpe designed and HOLY S— the boat took off. The Quantum reaching kite is such a money maker on the Moore 24. I went fast enough on day 13 to take a few miles from the Mini, stay even with the Olson 30 and pull a lot of miles out of the other Moore. It began looking like I would pull it off and finish 2nd in class behind the Hobie 33.
That night was my happiest of the trip. I had hand-steered for 35 out of the last 38 hours and passed two boats in the class rankings. I wrote in my log "I am very happy right now. I have been tested, I have been pushed, I have had to fight, and now I feel like I'm headed to a great reward." My batteries had a charge and I was entering the night. I needed rest very badly and the tiller pilot kept wiping out with the kite up, so I decided to play it smart and pole out a #3 jib and run deep. With 18-20 knots of breeze I still averaged 8 knots VMG over the course of the night and got a full 6 hours of sleep. I was able to turn down the response on the pilot to 3 and conserve energy even further. I woke up every hour to check on things, only to go back to sleep. It was like pure bliss to a tired single hander. Breeze and swell stayed up and I was re-hoisted before sunrise. After 12 more hours of great breeze and solid hand-steering, I could see the island of Kauai.
What Would Jeff Thorpe Do?
I knew that I had made up a lot of time over the past 60 hours and that the finish would be close. Having passed the Mini and the Olson, I had a taste for blood. I wanted the Hobie and the class win. I was pushing as hard as I possibly could and sailing the boat fast. We had constantly accelerated to the point where I was unsure of my math and decided to stop doing math in my head and just keep on pushing. As the breeze continually backed, I evaluated my approach and gybe angles. It was very tempting to soak low and lay the mark but it was slow so I continued reaching up just enough to initiate surfing. I knew the finish would be a bit tricky and i knew that every second mattered. Every wave mattered. Every degree on the compass mattered. I kept asking myself, "what would Jeff Thorpe do. Where would a big boat navigator gybe?". I gybed once to starboard in the Kauai channel and then back to port while just north of Kiluea Light on Kauai. Both gybe angles were perfect. I had set myself up to come ripping into the finish in flat water, sitting on a full plane at 9-11.5 knots of boat speed. The breeze went further forward near the finish, which I had anticipated. Pole on the headstay reaching, I crossed the finish at 9:30 pm local time. Robbie Gabriel (Ruben's wife) was the one who would finish me and we had a great conversation on the VHF. She is also a Moore 24 owner. She was commenting on how good I looked coming into the finish and the funny thing is that we both just talked about how great Moore 24's were. I was also incredibly happy when crossing the finish line, but not just because of finishing. The last 80 miles were probably the best singlehanded sailing that I have ever done.
Just after the finish, I doused the kite and sailed upwind into Hanalei Bay under just a main. It was over. The race had ended. Finally. My good friends Rob Tryon and Ladonna Bubak came to greet me in the committee boat. We exchanged pleasantries over the VHF, and after not seeing another human for 14.5 days, the first thing that I said when seeing Ladonna was "did I correct out? Did I catch the Hobie?". No one knew, as they hadn't done the math yet. I found out two hours later that I had corrected out and won my class by 1 hour and 34 minutes. It was my happiest and proudest moment as a sailor, even better than winning DH Farallones overall this year. (My first offshore race win on my own boat).
While I am extremely happy to have come from behind to win my class, this passage was not easy and not a lot of fun. It's great in hindsight, and the memories are great, but this was a hate mission. People keep asking me about the passage and all I say is "This passage was the single hardest thing i've ever done. Period. Harder than Iraq, harder than my bike trip and harder than losing the keel." The physical, mental and psychological challenge of hand-steering at race pace for 18 hours per day over 2 weeks, with several 24 hour days was very difficult. Rewarding, yes, but very very difficult. Greater than the reward of getting a class win is the reward of self confidence. During this race, I was forced to dig deep. Very deep. I reached a level within myself that I did not know existed and right now I feel like I can do anything.
The Quantum Advantage
So that's it. The race is over and we got a good result. While I had a lot of problems, I can say that the boat itself worked very well. I'm a huuuuge fan of the Moore 24 and am absolutely in love with the boat. In addition to the boat, my sails were incredible. Quantum and Jeff Thorpe designed and built me such a good offshore inventory that I can't even describe how much of an advantage this was. Hands down, I would not have finished as fast without the new Q's. Thorpe wrote an article about offshore sail inventory and selection for "Sailing World" magazine a few months ago, and to have an industry leading professional design you a custom inventory and then advise you before the race is invaluable. It was a dream come true, really, and in the end it helped me win a race. Another key to success was my routing. The guys at Commander's Weather were so accurate it was scary. US Sailing generously donated a set of polars to Commander's and the guys at Commander's generously donated their services before the start. By doing what Commander's and Thorpe told me to, I sailed almost a perfect route, given that I had just one single grib file during the whole race. So this good guidance on weather routing was absolutely key to my success, so thanks to all of those guys.
For the Love of Sailing
I am so grateful to be here and so incredibly happy to have my little green boat anchored out in Hanalei Bay, Kauai. I want to thank my title sponsor "Hope for the Warriors". Not only did they help fund much of this campaign, but they have endowed me with the ability to help raise money and awareness to teach wounded veterans how to sail. This is huge. I've been so blessed in so many ways and i've found happiness and success in the 8 years since my combat injury. I only hope to continue to use my involvement with Hope for the Warriors to help other veterans discover sailing and their own happiness and success.
In addition, Quantum Sail Design Group has been absolutely incredible. Jeff Thorpe, Jennafer Anderson, Bill O'Malley and Ben at the Richmond loft are not just sponsors, but now they feel like family. No one will ever realize how much of a team sport solo sailing can be, but that was my support crew. West Marine Rigging Service has now sponsored me for 3 consecutive years and campaigns and they continue to be a great help to me. Ryan Nelson the Alameda rig shop manager has been not just a sponsor, but a true friend. He employed me for a year, taught me to spice and rig boats and this year helped me in every facet of running and standing rigging. GU Energy sponsored me for the 2nd straight year and hooked me up with tons of product. In a race where I had to hand steer 18 hours per day, their ultra endurance gels and drink mixes were a huge advantage. They're not just caffeine and sugar packets, they're real sports nutrition made for ultra marathon runners. I had a nutrition briefing with Brian Vaughan and he taught me how and when to use their various products to increase brain function. It was a bit serendipitous that I had the problems that I had and therefore was able to really use the product for it's purpose when highly sleep deprived.
In addition, Forespar, B&G Marine Electronics, Marina Village Yacht Harbor, Bruce Schwab Rigging and Systems, DMK Yacht Instruments, Cal Marine Electronics, Delphi Group and Bay Marine Boatworks helped out this year. So a massive thanks to everyone who helped me out this year. We pushed hard, we achieved a good result, and I am incredibly grateful to all of you that helped. On a personal note, I want to thank a lot of friends for helping me but especially Walt Kotecki and Adam Correa. I can't drive because of my vision, so Walt drove me to Santa Cruz multiple times to pick up rudders, booms, boat parts, etc. Adam loaned me a sat phone and an SSB ground plane, as well as holding the back side of a wrench whenever I needed. It is this whole support unit that made all of this possible, so again, massive gratitude to all of you. There are a million others that I don't have space to mention, and please know I love and appreciate you all.
I'm sailing the Moore to Oahu next week and racing the Kauai Channel Race on August 10. Leaving on a delivery from Kauai to Seattle on August 15 and then working on a wounded veteran sailing clinic for October in San Francisco. So needless to say, i've got lots of sailing coming up. Stay tuned….
I still need to raise about $5,000 towards our next wounded vet sailing clinic. Online donations can be made at hopeforthewarriors.org. Just make sure to add "Ronnie Simpson- Wounded Vet sailing clinic in the comments section".
Hope for the Warriors/ US 101 out.
Ronnie Simpson website: www.openbluehorizon.com