A Global Solo Challenge racer with strong ties to the Chesapeake Bay has just been rescued about 600 miles off the coast of Argentina, after his boat was dismasted with a looming storm on the radar. A Pakistani vessel managed to reach him before weather conditions worsened.
Captain Ronnie Simpson was one of 16 entrants in the Global Solo Challenge, a 26,000-nautical mile round-the-world circumnavigation that started off the Galician coast of Spain. Simpson was racing on Shipyard Brewing, an Open 50 that had been in Annapolis during the summer of 2023 and was fitted with Elvstrom sails by Chuck and Bill O’Malley of Chesapeake Sailmakers.
“We’ve worked together for the last 18 months,” says Chuck O’Malley. “His plan was to bring the boat back here, and make Annapolis home base. It’s heartbreaking to hear he’s been dismasted.”
As of 9 p.m. EST on Feb. 11, Simpson was set to finish third in the race, having rounded all three capes and beginning his trek up the eastern coast of South America toward the finish. Weather was not cooperating for Simpson, however, who passed Cape Horn on Feb. 2 fighting winds in the 50-60 knot range. While he was hoping to be out of the worst of it, unfortunately things did not get any better.
In a Global Solo Challenge blog post dated Feb. 10, Ronnie wrote, “Even when rounding the Horn, I muted my celebrations because I knew I was going to be facing something that no one else in this race has faced; a huge 40+ knot northerly shortly afterwards. That blow has now become a general theme in my ascension of the Atlantic. Perhaps I will celebrate my Horn rounding when I finally reach the Trades and escape this cruel and dreadful place.”
Simpson opted to hug the coastline as he made his way north, considering the low-pressure systems to the east. With the wind coming out of the north, the coastline did give him some respite from the worst of the wind, but the geography of the Andes Mountains made things shifty and unpredictable.
Simpson began his move eastward toward the Tradewinds, hoping to keep the boat moving fast enough to avoid the worst of the weather patterns. Sunday night, as he was sailing at 9 knots under three reefs and a storm jib, the boat was launched off a wave and landed particularly violently in the trough.
“I heard a bunch of big parts falling on the deck, and that was the mast,” he said in an Instagram live Monday morning.
Simpson was hoping to salvage the mast and jury rig the boat to get him back to the Argentinian coast, but the volatile sea state was throttling the mast against the boat’s hull. Fearing that the mast could eventually puncture the hull, and unable to salvage the rig, he was forced to cut the mast free.
While Shipyard Brewing did not suffer damage to its hull, keel, or rudder, Simpson did not have adequate fuel aboard to make it back to the coast, particularly since it meant sailing directly into the wind and against current. At roughly midnight EST, Simpson activated an EPIRB, deployed a drogue, and alerted the coast guards of both Argentina and the United States to his position, requesting rescue.
Global Solo Challenge Race Organizer Marco Nannini, an accomplished circumnavigator himself, understands that these things do happen. “The boats are prepared properly, but materials fatigue over time, and racing around the world is a long time for those materials,” he says. “Ronnie knew that he was sailing an older boat (Shipyard Brewing is a 1994 model), and he had been very careful and the last few days, sailing conservatively to avoid the storms. He had been extremely prudent, cautious, and followed all the principles of good seamanship.” Shipyard Brewing was thoroughly prepared and had been inspected as recently as Hobart, when Simpson made a quick stop for repairs. Nannini says that he was in a place on the course that has historically been challenging for sailors due to the weather and the wear on both the sailor and the boat, and Simpson was experiencing some of the worst storms possible.
“As organizer, we can’t stress how every decision is made by the skipper,” Nannini says. “They’re on the boat, in the conditions, and we’re in front of a computer. The skippers are best-placed to assess the situation. And we 100% trust Ronnie’s decision in this situation.”
Nannini’s first move was to contact the next competitor, Andrea Mura, who was three days behind Simpson. Mura came on standby, but with the approaching storms Simpson was between a rock and a hard place. Several container ships were in the area, but none answered hailing from Simpson or the Coast Guard. Shore teams managed to connect with the land-based ownership group of Sakizaya Youth, a Pakistani-bound bulk carrier in the area. Sakizaya Youth managed to turn around and head toward Simpson, maintaining 14 knots downwind to Simpson’s 2 knots upwind.
Simpson has been regularly updating his social media, posting videos of the wreckage and his current plans. He made it safely onto the ship, leaving his boat behind. In a video he shot as he waited for his rescue, Simpson got emotional.
“It’s really not how I wanted this race to end and really not how I wanted this boat to end,” he said, but felt he made the right decision for safety’s sake.
“It’s not even bittersweet it’s really just all bitter…but maybe it’ll make sense someday,” he said.
The dream Simpson has been working toward for years is ending only three weeks from the finish.
“Only 180 people in history have completed a circumnavigation involving the three Capes,” says Nannini. “Over 6000 people have summitted Mount Everest, and we’ve seen more than 600 astronauts head into outer space. The fact that this feat is so difficult means that these accidents do happen. Skippers understand this, and the way they handle it is testimony to their great skill and determination.”
You can follow Ronnie Simpson’s latest first-hand updates on his rescue at instagram.com/captainron_official/.
For more on the Global Solo Challenge and the competitors still in the race, visit globalsolochallenge.com/.