Most people prefer sailing from California to Hawaii in a luxury cruise ship, but not General Harry McKenzie Roper Jr.
He takes his own boat, a 31-foot Finn Flyer, and sails the 2,120 miles from San Francisco, Calif., to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii, all by himself as a contestant in the Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht race. He has entered the biennial event 12 times and usually receives a trophy, granted to the top three winners in their classes.
“Ken,” Roper’s lifelong nickname, became a sailor after spending 25 years in the Army as an aviator and engineer following his graduation from West Point.
“I just wanted to be in the Army,” the North Myrtle Beach resident said. “It’s not dull.”
An Army brat himself, he had big shoes to fill since his father was a general. He lived up to the task. He served in Germany and Korea, commanded three combat units in Vietnam and had numerous other assignments in the U.S. and around the world and achieved the rank of general.
“I got to command good units,” he said. “American soldiers are fantastic. They will do whatever has to be done.”
Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from Cal Tech and a master’s degree in business administration from Auburn. He began his sailing hobby in 1971 when he bought a boat in California and began logging miles. By 1983 he bought a Harrier and sailed the Singlehanded TransPac, as it’s called, for the first time in 1984. Mexico, Tahiti, Bora Bora and other French Polynesian islands have been intriguing ports of call for him, and Porter said he has sailed 130,000 miles.
Sailing isn’t his only passion. After retiring from the Army in 1977, he became scuba diving certified, and just to be well rounded, he added ham radio operator to his list of accomplishments.
What’s the fascination with these pastimes?
“Adventure,” Roper said. “I like to see new things and do new things.”
Nancy, his wife of 61 years, prefers terra firma but will sail with Ken short distances, such as the two dozen miles from Harrier’s homeport in San Pedro, Calif., to Catalina Island. Their daughter Lou Roper, who lives near her parents, shares her father’s love of sailing while daughter Lee Roper, a Texas resident, goes diving with Ken.
To share his enthusiasm for sailing, Roper set up a camera in Harrier and took a home video as he crossed the Pacific during one of the Singlehanded TransPac races. He played the video and explained the details of the trip: equipment he needs, communication with race officials, what he eats, how he spends the time.
The race is limited to 21 days, and Roper’s best time was in 1994 when he completed it in 14 days, one hour, 30 minutes. In 2004 he came in third overall. At 83, he holds the record for the past several years of being the oldest person in the race.
He explained that boats in the race range from 20 feet to 60 feet or larger. Each participant has a handicap, and the formula to determine the winner is to take the actual elapsed time and apply the handicap to get the corrected time. Big boats don’t usually win, he said. He remembers one year when a 60-foot boat set the record for elapsed time but came in last after the handicap was included.
“I’m never afraid during the race,” he said, but he does remember one squall that hit during the night with 60 mile-an-hour winds and waves “up to the mast. That was scary,” he said. “I do a lot of reading,” he added. “Junk mostly. I was saving Louis L’Amour for my old age.”
What does he think about during this multi-week excursion all by himself?
“Going faster,” he said. “It’s an athletic competition, and you have to stay on it. The whole name of the game is not to get tired because then you make mistakes and it gets dangerous.”
He’s less animated when he speaks of scuba diving, and said he dives to see wrecks rather than reefs.
“A reef’s a reef,” he said, explaining he has no desire to dive the Great Barrier Reef and his favorite location for diving is New Guinea because there are ship wrecks and downed aircraft from World War II and other war history there. “It’s the epitome of a dive destination,” he said. “It’s one of the most fascinating places because it’s unspoiled and not overrun by tourists.”
He hopes he and his daughter Lee will take time to dive off the coast of Florida near Pensacola where ships were intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef.
He said he’s running out of ideas for adventures, but he plans on taking a hot-air balloon ride and visiting South Dakota, the only state he’s never seen.
Although it’s not a new adventure, will he sail the 2014 Singlehanded TransPac race?
“I don’t know,” he said.
Maybe he’ll be diving off the coast of Florida instead.