From Fallujah to Fiji

Ten years after an Iraqi firefight nearly cost him everything, a former U.S. Marine winds his way along an uncertain solo passage down the Pacific trades.

The goal was to sail farther. Since I'd discovered sailing, that had always been the goal. On my first-ever sunset sail out of San Diego just a few years earlier, I'd felt a slight but noticeable tinge of disappointment when the skipper called to come about and head back to port. This desire to keep going and explore what's over the horizon is what first drew me to voyaging; the thrill and adventure of going to sea and navigating in harmony with nature are what's kept me hooked. In the seven years since that inaugural daysail, the waters of California, Hawaii and Mexico have become my home, while roaming across the oceans of the world remains my destiny. In the early summer of 2014, when I sailed my engineless Cal 2-27, Mongo, out of Hawaii's Hanalei Bay, on the island of Kauai, and pointed her bow south toward American Samoa, I felt like I'd jumped off a cliff and ventured into uncharted territory. It was the rush that I craved. A solo, engineless passage of the northeast trades, the doldrums and the equator — and then negotiating the islands and reef-strewn waters of the South Pacific — was a challenge and experience that I'd been anticipating for a very long time.

Little did I know that my planned destination of American Samoa wasn’t in the cards. But something better was.

During the course of the voyage that did unfold, I would also experience an important anniversary. Precisely 10 years earlier, serving in the U.S. Marine Corps near Fallujah, Iraq, I’d nearly lost my life in a rocket-propelled grenade blast aimed directly at my Humvee. It put me into a medically induced coma and very nearly cost me everything. It was probably the reason I was here, alone, in the middle of an ocean — and very much alive.

Once underway, reaching south across stiff and consistent east-to-northeast trades was a wet and ­uncomfortable proposition. My small, dodgerless boat's companionway leaked prodigiously every time a wave broke against the hull, spraying water all around the cabin and dousing ­everything below. In stark contrast to the mostly downwind sailing from Seattle to San Diego, and to cruising to and around the Hawaiian Islands, Mongo was now forced to put the bow up whenever possible to counteract the strong easterly wind and current set, and in anticipation of a big southeast wind shift, or header, once we crossed the equator and entered the South Pacific. Deeply reefed and with my Navik windvane, named Francois, engaged, the small Lapworth-designed sloop threw down consistent 120-mile days in challenging conditions as we descended south.

I frequently looked up at my shiny, refurbished mast and wondered when something was going to fail. Three months earlier, I’d dropped my previous spar — and nearly lost the boat on a lee shore — when a five-month-old rigging component failed. My “new” mast had been lying in a field, where it had spent the past decade after being salvaged from a Morgan 27 that had broken free from its mooring and been destroyed on a reef in Maui. Now the spar was pounding its way south in its first grueling bluewater test. Every time I looked up from my bunk in dread, to see the rig pump and the leeward shrouds go slack as we slammed off a wave, I recalled actor Kurt Russell’s mantra in the title role of the movie Captain Ron: “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if I dismasted again. It was a constant psychological struggle; the thought consumed me. Dropping a rig on the way to Hawaii or in the South Pacific generally means setting a jury rig and sailing somewhere accessible while getting blown downwind. Doing so between Hawaii and the Samoas would mean traveling literally thousands of miles to nowhere at 2 knots.

If I was lucky.

Like Mongo's new mast, a decade ago I too had been salvaged, after a firefight that I barely survived. Before going lights out, I had been a .50-caliber machine gunner, a Marine Corps infantryman based near Fallujah, at the time the world's deadliest place. Business was booming, but so was everything else, and as a result, the rate of turnover in my line of work was high.

On June 28, 2004, a new Iraqi constitution was signed, two days ahead of schedule, to secure the nation’s sovereignty and signal that the U.S.-led coalition had won the war. The very next day, insurgent leader Muqtada al-Sadr put a bounty on all our heads, and several of the bloodiest days in the Iraq War ensued. The day after that, while providing convoy security down the main supply route, called “Tampa,” the normally dark tree line became illuminated with a flurry of small-arms, rocket and mortar fire. “Contact right!” someone yelled. I swung my .50 around and engaged the enemy as a volley of three rockets closed in on my Humvee. The first two missed the mark — one went high, the other low — but the third struck near enough to its target that my war was over.

A little over a year earlier — on March 19, 2003, to be precise — I was a high school senior in Atlanta, Georgia, working the dinner shift as a waiter at a family steakhouse. Things were slow that night. The United States had begun its invasion of Iraq, and most Americans were home glued to their television sets, not thinking about T-bones. Eight weeks from graduation, I too watched as America went to war, ignorant of the ramifications that the offensive would have on my life and my country.

I’d skipped the SATs to race a triathlon. Chasing trophies meant more to me than college acceptance letters; I hadn’t given much thought to what I would do after high school. At 18, raised in a conservative household in a deeply red region with a war hero grandfather, I was still pissed off about 9/11 and fully believed in the cause of the Iraq War. So when George W. Bush offered me the chance to pick up a gun and travel halfway around the world to fight in a desert to defend the homeland, I bought it hook, line and sinker, and signed up the next day. I wasn’t messing around, either; I was going to war. Semper fi: I’d joined the Marine Corps infantry.

Nine days after high school graduation, I shipped off to boot camp in Parris Island and the intense heat of a South Carolina summer. Eighty-nine grueling days later, I had earned the title of U.S. Marine. After attending the School of Infantry in North Carolina and becoming an 0351 Assaultman specializing in shooting anti-tank missiles and rockets and rigging explosive charges, in November I shipped off to “the fleet” and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines in Camp Lejeune. The battalion had been deployed during the invasion earlier in the year, and was nearly stripped bare before returning. After coming home, many had chosen not to re-enlist and immediately got out. In came a few hundred fresh, young and willing bodies, mine included. Soon enough, we had our ­orders: “2/2” was headed back to the desert. In late February 2004, a week after my 19th birthday, we deployed. In just over nine months, my journey from a Georgia high school senior to a combat Marine in Iraq was complete.

Iraq was a twisted, nonstop adventure every single day. Like ­long-distance sailing, it often involved long periods of calm accentuated by moments of sheer terror. But it was never boring. My CAAT Red platoon operated “outside the wire” almost daily in a group of seven Humvees: on patrol, chasing bad guys, providing security, running important people around and trying to help out the ­community.

At the outset we’d seen significant combat in Al Mahmudiyah, and when things got bad in Fallujah in April, we relocated. Shortly after playing a key role in the first Battle of Fallujah, we were moved back out into the countryside and proceeded to almost completely clean up a small town, Al Zaidan, in the month of May. Things were happening almost too fast to process, until the country imploded again in late June.

Which is when I got hurt.

On June 30, 2004, I lay in a coma in Iraq, my prospects and future very much uncertain. Looking back, it all seems so distant, foreign, wrong. On June 30, 2014, Mongo and I continued our South Seas voyage. All I could think now was, give me war or give me sailing; I'll take the boat every time.

Making 6 knots in steady easterly trades, Mongo raced along on a fast reach on a course heading almost perfectly due south. A large, nearly black squall system quickly developed and overtook us, blanketing the sky from horizon to horizon as it began to rain. We'd entered the intertopical convergence zone, or ITCZ. One of this voyage's biggest unknowns was about to be revealed.

Sailing across the doldrums was something I had both feared and been fascinated by since I’d discovered the sport. When following round-the-world races like the Vendée Globe, it’s not uncommon to watch boats ­separated by mere miles experience entirely different conditions; some boats slip past untouched, while others get stuck in a vicious cycle of frequent, violent squalls with sail-shredding gusts, followed by little to no breeze whatsoever. Getting parked in the ITCZ as I approached the equator was one of my greatest fears; the sooner I escaped, the better.

As it happened, in just one exhilarating night in the doldrums, I got a taste of everything, from being fully becalmed to ripping along in 25 knots, from a slight drizzle to a heavy downpour. I worked hard and put in a good night of sailing, quickly reacting to every change in the breeze with the constant shaking out and tucking in of reefs, and multiple headsail changes. Ignoring my daily ration of two beers, I turned up the stereo and hand-steered Mongo naked through the hot and humid night. Witnessing one of nature's greatest displays, I watched in amazement as frequent lightning strikes illuminated both sky and sea, though none seemed to actually strike near our position. Exactly a decade after being comatose, I was as alive as I'd ever been.

By the next morning a light easterly breeze had filled, and I could re-engage the tiller pilot to begin napping after the long, intense and sleepless night. Powerful but brief, in retrospect our doldrums adventure was little more than a long overnight squall. By afternoon the skies cleared entirely, and I was again reaching at hull speed, now with the windvane steering, efficiently cranking out the miles made good to Samoa. Slowing down to just one sub-100-mile day of 93 miles made good, Mongo barely missed a beat and was back up to a steady 120 miles per day in no time, closing fast on the tiny central Pacific atoll of Palmyra, with Samoa another 1,300 miles away. If my luck held, I thought, I could do the entire passage in 18 days.

Ten years earlier, after 18 days in my medically induced coma, I came to — in Texas. For the next 40 days, in intensive care and through several surgeries, my body began getting its individual systems up and going again, one by one. Ultimately, from a physical standpoint, I escaped with a few burns and permanent eye damage (I can’t legally drive a car), and I’m down half a lung. Most of my friends would also suggest that my traumatic head injuries had grave impact and made me a crazy solo sailor. Jokes aside, between my experiences in Iraq and the sudden death of my father four months later, the intense stress of it all made 2004 a pretty hectic year for me. I had some issues that needed resolving.

Three years later, that hadn’t changed. I was still living in Texas, but I needed out. Unfulfilled in life, I was rolling the dice in ways they should not be rolled. Then, one night, I discovered sailing on the Internet. Within 90 days I’d dropped out of college, quit my job, sold my house and, for $30,000, bought a 41-foot bluewater cruising boat in San Diego and moved aboard. I was 23 and had never before set foot on a sailboat, but I was resolved to sail around the world.

Six months later, I set off singlehanded for Hawaii, and sailed into some pretty severe weather on the outskirts of an October hurricane. After breaking my rudder, I was rescued 800 miles offshore. (Yes, I am that dumbass you may have read about in the online cruising forums.) A freighter dropped me off in Shanghai; I quickly moved to Hong Kong to regroup and find another boat, but with just $5,000 to my name, I settled on a bicycle.

I rode that bike through more than 20 countries in Asia and Europe before returning home to San Diego. During my journey, I began following the legendary Vendée Globe race and spent 9,000 miles in the saddle reflecting on life, collecting experiences and contemplating future goals that centered around solo ocean racing.

I returned from my adventures a bit older and wiser, but with far less money. With just $88 left by the time I arrived in California, I crashed on a friend’s couch and started working construction. Within two weeks, for a thousand bucks I’d acquired a Cal 25 that I planned to campaign in the 2010 Singlehanded Transpac Race from San Francisco to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Sailing website Sailing Anarchy ran a story about me, and I was contacted by a Vietnam veteran who offered the use of his 30-foot racing boat for the event, and the support of a wounded-veteran nonprofit group called Hope for the Warriors.

Eight months later, I was indeed on the starting line of the solo Transpac Race, which I completed in 15 days, 6 hours to secure second in my class. Further inspired to one day sail in the Vendée Globe, I worked as a rigger and mounted another campaign for the 2012 Singlehanded Transpac, this time on a Moore 24, aboard which I won a very competitive division by just an hour and a half. As part of the effort, I helped found a program in San Francisco to teach wounded ­veterans to sail, and hosted four clinics in 2012 and 2013, which I plan to continue in the future.

I had sold my 28-foot liveaboard cruising boat just days before the start of the 2012 race to help finance the project, and began living aboard the Moore 24 once in Kauai, which was not a sustainable situation. A month later, I skippered an Island Packet 380 from Kauai to Seattle. After 23 days at sea, I arrived on a Sunday, got paid $5,000 on Monday, and on Tuesday purchased a Cal 2-27 from Craigslist Seattle for $4,000.

Enter Mongo.

From her humble beginnings as a weekend daysailer in Tacoma, Washington, Mongo was slowly and ­methodically prepared for a trip across the Pacific. In Seattle, she was rigged with a tiller pilot and spinnaker. Off the Olympic Peninsula, her diesel engine blew up and was later sold and discarded. A windvane and solar panel were added in Oregon, followed by more refits in San Francisco and San Diego, by which time she was ready for some serious ocean sailing on a very small budget. When $2 million for a used 60-foot Vendée racing yacht in France began to seem highly unrealistic, I got itchy feet and untied the dock lines of my engineless Cal 2-27. I was ready to go for a long sail.

As I glanced at my mast, my heart sank. The new spar I had installed in Maui had been moving slightly on its step, and was now broken in two places at its base. Three hundred miles of sailing in the Hawaiian Islands and a thousand-mile reach to Palmyra hadn’t exposed any weaknesses, but the windy 500-mile beat across the equator had. Two large stainless-steel hose clamps from my onboard spares kit would provide additional support for the cracked spar and hopefully prevent further damage. With a bit of luck, fair weather and smart sailing, I reasoned, I could get Mongo to Samoa in two more days — just two days before my girlfriend, Rebekah, was to fly in from Kauai.

The forecast didn't hold: 200 miles north of Samoa and beating into gale-force southeasterlies, Mongo charged into and over the rapidly building seas under triple-reefed main and storm jib, seemingly motivated by a safe harbor just 48 hours off the bow. In these appalling conditions, I sat by the mast with one hand on the deck-stepped spar to feel for movement, meanwhile gazing aloft to watch for the rig pump. Each time the boat landed with a bang, I shut my eyes and held my breath, convinced that the mast was about to come down. It was too much to bear. I had to do something, I reasoned, to improve my odds of keeping the rig standing. Inaction was not an option.

Down came the storm jib to dampen the pace and ease the pounding. With our boat speed cut in half and our l­eeway doubled, Mongo was pointed farther west, well to leeward of the Samoas. Mother Nature had forced our hand.

Cracking off for Fiji and now sailing under storm jib alone, Mongo recorded her two fastest days of the passage — 135 and 136 miles — wildly surfing down huge quartering swells as she broad-reached and ran before the strong winds. With small turns of a knob on the self-steering gear, Francois steered Mongo through the South Pacific like a slot car, sailing within sight of Samoa's tall peaks and just south of Wallis and Futuna, eventually putting Fiji on the bow. With strong, consistent southeast trades, even under greatly reduced sail, Mongo knocked out the extra 800 miles to Fiji in under a week, sailing north and to leeward of the expansive island nation and its many reefs. Turning the corner and heading south again past the Yasawa Islands off northwest Fiji, I began lining up our approach for land.

As I sailed toward the pass in early morning, Fiji’s largest and most populous island of Viti Levu lay before me, silhouetted by a brilliant rising sun. All the questions and doubts that had consumed me a short week ago, while still north of Samoa, suddenly seemed to have answers. The satisfaction and raw elation of making landfall after an epic 28-day solo passage far outweighed the negatives. The journey revealed far more to me than the small engineering defects in a new mast; in fact, it had confirmed and reinforced why I live my life the way I do.

A decade after trading my name for a service number and becoming the property of a government that’s happy to habitually sacrifice its young for the continued perpetuation of the military industrial complex, I have chosen to escape the madness — taking the world in at 5 knots. Today, Fallujah has again fallen, ISIS has risen, and the bang of the war drum can be heard even from tiny Pacific atolls. The machine continues running.

As a veteran from a war-weary ­nation where 22 of my brothers and sisters commit suicide every single day, perhaps more in my generation could benefit from the ultimate freedom and profound healing that come from setting full sail across the endless ocean. This dream of sailing my own boat to the South Pacific has now become a reality and a life-affirming experience that I will cherish forever, though the goal to sail farther will always remain. What lies over that next horizon? I fully intend to find out.

Following his voyage to Fiji, Ronnie Simpson sailed Mongo onward to New Zealand, where he sold the boat and then returned to the U.S. He's since purchased a Cal 2-29 called Loophole and is living aboard in San Francisco

At the conclusion of his epic voyage from Hawaii, the author enjoys a daysail in clear Fijian waters aboard his Cal 2-27, Mongo.
Ronnie’s journey from Fallujah to Fiji began after high school, when he joined the U.S. Marines and fought in Iraq as a gunner on a Humvee.
Afterward, he eventually found his way to Asia and took off on a 9,000-mile bike ride, with a stop in India.
During that adventure he began dreaming about solo sailing, which led him to the starting line of the 2010 Singlehanded Transpac Race from San Francisco to Hawaii.
He also became involved with wounded veterans groups and toured the Oracle Team USA compound during the 2013 America’s Cup.
Later, he hosted clinics to teach wounded vets to sail.@ Jen Edney / Team J.P. Morgan BAR
His latest adventure took him almost due south from Hawaii to Fiji.@ Jen Edney / Team J.P. Morgan BAR
Mongo departed from the Hawaiian island of Kauai on the epic voyage south.
The skipper goes aloft aboard his engineless Cal 2-27 for one final rig inspection.
Before all was said and done, the spar would be the source of some very anxious moments. At the outset, the trade-wind sailing was sweet and fast, with Mongo reveling in the conditions and consistently throwing down 120-mile days.
Approaching the intertropical convergence zone, or doldrums, intense squalls began to appear on the horizon.
But Mongo made it through unscathed after one exhilarating, memorable night of challenging sailing. A damaged mast meant altering course from Samoa to Fiji, and the sunrise was terrific on the final day at sea.
Smelling the barn, Mongo leans into a steep heel, hard on the wind, at the conclusion of the voyage to the Fijian island of Viti Levu.
Once there, it was time to again pull the rig for more repairs to the deck-stepped mast, which had inflicted some severe psychological stress after crossing the equator.
Whether catching waves off Namotu or taking newfound friends on daysails through the islands, we found Fiji was a great place to relax and unwind after the nearly month-long voyage from Hawaii.
Though small, Mongo proved able to accommodate newfound friends for daysails.
Nestled between a big catamaran and a palatial powerboat ** , Mongo was a diminutive craft that had nevertheless traveled far and well. Three months later, she was on the move again, this time to New Zealand.