Refitting the Open 50 Sparrow: Ronnie Simpson’s Journey to the Global Solo Challenge

©Ronnie Simpson

The world of solo circumnavigation is not for the faint of heart, and American entrant to the Global Solo Challenge (GSC), Ronnie Simpson, knows it all too well. As he delves into the extensive work necessary to refit his trusted vessel, ‘Sparrow’, we gain a glimpse into the trials and tribulations these boats endure in their preparations for a global voyage. Indeed, the meticulous upkeep required to keep these racing yachts reliable and seaworthy reveals a tale as compelling as the races they embark on.

‘Sparrow’, an Open 50 designed by David Lyons and launched in Australia, was built with a single purpose: to compete in the 1994 BOC Around the World Race. She passed that test, and many more, including the 1998/99 edition of the Around Alone Race, and an additional journey Around Cape Horn. But these journeys were not without challenges: dismastings, a lost rudder, and hard-won seamanship awards paint a picture of high-seas drama and incredible resilience.

Fast forward a few years, and ‘Sparrow’ underwent significant transformations under new ownership: a carbon mast, new deck, advanced electronics, and more breathed new life into this seasoned racer. The previous owner, Whitall Stokes, clocked over 20,000 NM, including a rounding of Cape Horn. But, while some refitting was completed, ‘Sparrow’ needed further work to meet the rigorous standards of the Global Solo Challenge, leading to her being initially loaned, then generously donated, to Ronnie Simpson and US Patriot Sailing – a charity that offers sailing opportunities for Service Veterans.

Stepping into the shoes of Sparrow’s new captain, Ronnie discovered a robust platform that demanded extensive preparation for a circumnavigation. From replacing worn-out chainplates, and rebuilding a knock-ridden diesel engine, to repairing non-functional wind instruments – Ronnie was up against a multitude of maintenance issues. But that didn’t deter his vision to personalise ‘Sparrow’ to his standards.

©Ronnie Simpson


These challenges were just a precursor to Ronnie’s main sea trials, training, and a necessary 2,000 NM qualifying sail for the GSC. With winter work behind him, including a sponsored engine rebuild and chainplate replacement, Ronnie was ready to face his trials head-on. He also dealt with various upgrades, from hydro-generator servicing to installing advanced navigational and telecommunications systems.

Come spring and Ronnie was equipped with a fresh set of sails from his sponsors Elvstrom as well as furlers from Facnor and Profurl. It was time for the first solo sea trials on ‘Sparrow’ and for Ronnie to attend the various Safety courses that are required to enter the GSC.

Ronnie then set off sailing southeast from Maryland, just outside Washington DC to Bermuda, around the island, and a return journey up to Maine thus completing his 2,000 NM qualifying sail. He was satisfied with his hard work and successfully tested his Starlink telecommunications system and the integrated software that he will be using on his laptop during the circumnavigation. The only hiccup, a failing radar system, is currently being addressed in Maine.

©Ronnie Simpson


Next on the docket: a full refit. Ronnie has been engrossed in maintenance work at the Maine Yacht Centre, with ‘Sparrow’ perched on a cradle and her mast lying nearby. Minor hull cracks were addressed, new anti-fouling was applied and rigging was serviced. The area below the waterline was painted with Sea Hawk Bio COP anti-fouling and the freeboard was professionally vinyl wrapped in a light gloss grey.

In addition to these upgrades, an advanced NKE GyroPilot 3 autopilot computer has been installed on ‘Sparrow’, serving alongside the older GyroPilot 2. Furthermore, Ronnie’s collaboration with sailing legend Bruce Schwab has resulted in an overhauled charging system equipped with a new alternator, lithium batteries, and advanced management systems.

Despite the weight of these tasks, Ronnie found an ally in Chris Passas, a fellow enthusiast he met at the Annapolis Boat Show. Chris, a master carpenter, lent his expertise to Ronnie for two long weeks, assisting in the refit and agreeing to act as Team manager for Sparrow Racing.

With the refit nearing completion, Ronnie’s future plans include updating the mast and running rigging, finalising the complex electrical systems, and testing out the new sails. Then comes the ultimate task: sailing ‘Sparrow’ across the Atlantic Ocean to A Coruña, Spain, in preparation for the GSC.

With its staggered start system, the GSC poses another challenge for ‘Sparrow’. As a fast contender, Ronnie’s start will be one of the last ones, with the departure scheduled for October 28th. But, as we’ve seen, Ronnie and ‘Sparrow’ are no strangers to challenges, and we can’t wait to see them tackle this one.

©Ronnie Simpson


For an in-depth article on Ronnie Simpson’s 2,000-nm GSC qualifying sail aboard his Open 50 ‘Sparrow’, please click the following link: