They call him “The General” because…well…he is a general. But he has more sea miles than a putting green full of admirals. He has done the Singlehanded TransPac from San Francisco to Kauai 12 times, which is seven more than his nearest rival. And he almost always finishes near the front.
I first met Gen. Ken Roper shortly after I had completed the 1990 Single-handed TransPac myself. We were at the Tahiti Nui bar having a deep, philosophical discussion on the merits of Mai Tais. Ken was arguing that a Mai Tai was only truly superlative if it inspired one to sleep on the beach. When I dubbed this the “passed out on the playa test,” his laughter told me we would probably become friends for life. My instinct was correct.
Ken commanded three separate combat units during his two tours in Vietnam. He flies both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and it is nearly impossible to know the guy without thinking of the Robert Duval character in Apocalypse Now. (You remember the maniac who blithely strolls through camp while it is under attack, disregarding the danger and mayhem around him?)
Of the 18 or so boats that did the race that year, only three of us were lunatic enough to also sail singlehanded back to San Francisco. Lunatic Ray left Hanalei Bay a day ahead of Lunatic Ken. Although we only had VHF radios, we set up a few times when we would try to reach one other.
Just before sunset on the fourth day, the propagation gods smiled upon us, and I heard Ken respond to my call. We both scanned the horizon but could not spot each other. So next, we compared estimated positions. That would be “Estimated” with a capital E, as this was before the widespread arrival of GPS. Even though we were both fairly wizardly with our celestial skills, my modest goal was always to be “accurate within a few miles.” Working out a rendezvous point when your base data is downwind of marginal is quite a challenge. But we agreed on a lat/long target and vectored for it.
After the rigors of our Ouija board navigation, Ken treated me to a spontaneous VHF serenade. Suddenly, blasting out of the radio came the unmistakable sound of the “Ride of the Valkyries.” I grabbed the microphone and hollered to my mid-ocean friend, “Charley don’t surf…Charley don’t surf!” We both laughed heartily, but for this Vietnam Vet it released a flood of memories that then escorted me into the night.
Amazingly, the next morning I spotted Ken’s Finn Flyer 31, Harrier, only about a mile off the starboard bow of my lovely Golden Gate 30, Aventura. We knew that with our different boat speeds, our rendezvous wouldn’t last long, so we arranged via VHF to take some photos of each other and to exchange gifts.
I bequeathed The General a stash of “art magazines” and he tossed me a true treasure: the last of his canned bacon. We sailed 15 yards apart for half an hour, laughing and solving the world’s problems, or perhaps just laughing at the world’s problems. Then he powered up his little mini-Swan and I watched from the cockpit of my mini-Hinckley as he eased away.
Rather than succumb to the melancholy of ships passing in the day, I headed for the galley to cook up my gift. It was my first encounter with canned bacon, and there would not be a second. “Canned salt with nearly invisible, minuscule slivers of pork” would have been a more accurate description. It took an entire bucket of clean mid-Pacific water to separate the embalmed bacon from its saline casket.
When it was finally sanitized enough for the skillet, it didn’t really cook, it sort of vaporized. But the little bacon-like shards that emerged were supremely delicious. This got me meditating on how magical my sea gypsy life is. With its roller-coaster blend of ordeal and ecstasy, I discover time and time again that out here, in this elemental realm of sea and sky, my experiences are both magnified and magnificent.
Ray Jason, author of Tales of a Sea Gypsy, and longtime SAIL contributor, is currently based in Bocas del Toro, Panama aboard his 30-foot sloop, Adventura