Go ahead, twist your tongue and call him Poprishchin, the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Diary of a Madman.” Although he’s not a schizophrenic like Poprishchin, he, too, does crazy things — but a different kind of crazy.
His name is Roger Mann. He’s 50 years old, lives in Taylors, South Carolina, and works as an aircraft mechanic. Outside his job, he’s known for taking very small boats on very big trips — for instance, the Everglades Challenge, an expedition-style race that runs from Tampa to Key Largo, Florida. That’s 300 miles in 80-degree water, powered by wind or muscle or both, eight days tops.
Looking for a different test, he competed in this summer’s inaugural Race to Alaska, which started in Port Townsend, Washington, and finished in Ketchikan, Alaska. (I wrote about the race in the April issue.) That’s 750 unsupported miles through the notorious Inside Passage — 50-degree water, double-digit currents, storm-force winds, snorting whales and a lot of stark, lonely scenery. Propulsion by wind and/or muscle only. Eight days? Fat chance.
It took Mann nearly two weeks to be the first single-hander home. By that time he’d become a hero to thousands of fans who checked his progress on the Yellowbrick satellite tracker. They rooted for him on social media and hoped he would survive. Well, he did, but listening to his story, this was less a race than two weeks of shooting craps with Davey Jones, during which Mann cheated his opponent more than once out of a soul for that infamous locker.
“Seymour Narrows was absolutely terrifying,” he says, the first of two mandatory waypoints along the route. “I went through it around 1 a.m. and had 20 knots on the nose, and the [following] current stood the waves straight up. They were so steep and so close together that I got washed off the boat. Luckily, I had a surfboard leash tied to my foot, so I scampered right back on. It was a kick to my head.” It also indicates that real adventures must include the likelihood of defeat and the possibility of death — at least if you’re wired like this guy.
Watching Mann assemble his boat outside the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend a few days earlier, onlookers shook their heads in disbelief. To Alaska? On this? Alone? That’s suicide, they said when out of earshot. And they weren’t exaggerating.
His vessel was a strawberry-red rotomolded Hobie Mirage Adventure Island trimaran sailing kayak, not even 17 feet, equipped with a pedal drive and a roller-furling mainsail. With all due respect, that’s what sane citizens sail around Mission Bay in San Diego, not 750 miles against the grain through the Inside Passage! He added mesh trampolines and aluminum boards to carry more kit and loaded the boat with 42 pounds of dehydrated food, “a soup of rice, sausage, eggs, veggies and mashed potatoes,” says Mann. He calculated 6,000 calories a day, nearly equal to a cyclist’s per-diem intake during the Tour de France. Still, Mann dropped 15 pounds during the race.
He could start a diet business. “All you can eat! All carbs, all the time! Guaranteed to lose weight.” He just has to be careful not to disclose the graphic details, such as this one. “Johnstone Strait is notorious for wind against current. It was three days solid. You’re completely wet; you eat when you can … no break in a gale of up to 35 knots. I didn’t have a sat phone, so I called my wife from my cell to ask how I was doing.”
And that introduces Andrea, who goes by Dawn and stayed in South Carolina to hold down the fort and her job in human resources at a real estate firm. She and Roger had dated in high school but later went separate ways with different partners. But the winds of life shifted, and in 2007 they married, surrounded by five kids from their respective previous marriages. “This race must be his midlife crisis,” she muses. “He didn’t exactly know what he was getting into, which probably was to his advantage.”
She followed him on the tracker, praying for his health and guided by a wife’s sixth sense. “I was worried when he hit his first low spot,” she says. “When we spoke, he said, ‘I need your help.’ I looked at the tracker and told him to stop at Port McNeill, where a lady in the marina gave him a whole apple pie that he ate alone. He had to get off that boat for a while.”
A trap for disaster
These waters are bipolar. Ferocious storms can be followed by maddening calms, one of which caught up with Mann in Queen Charlotte Strait. Nice day, no wind, 12 hours of pedaling to make 40 miles toward the finish, which was still about a week away. It was the perfect setup for the next calamity.
“I pulled into a cove near Cape Caution to spend the night, but there were big swells,” Mann says. “Heard them but couldn’t see because it was getting dark. Landed nose first and flipped. A bolt sheared off, and the starboard ama folded back while the mast hit the sand.” Ouch. But it got better … well, worse, actually.
He made another critical mistake. “I left the zipper fly of my drysuit open,” he says. It quickly filled with water, immobilizing him. But a knife is a sailor’s best friend, and Mann had one handy to cut drain holes in the suit’s legs so he could extricate himself from the pounding surf. He was alive but in deep doo-doo. Cold, miserable, shivering.
Everything he’d lashed to the deck, including his only anchor, was gone. Some stuff was sloshing around in the surf with the tide going out. All of his electronics were shot, and all batteries were dead. Welcome to the Race to Alaska. Welcome to hell. “I coped with so much and felt so good,” he says, “but now I fell into this extreme low, feeling devastated and cold. I could not sleep. Everything I owned was wet. And it was barely past halftime. I had to get out of this miserable place.”
He could have, maybe should have, called it a day then and there. “When stuff happens, he just fixes it,” Dawn says, explaining her husband’s never-say-die attitude. “A few years ago he pulled out of a long race in Florida with a damaged boat, drove home to repair it, put it back on the car, drove back and continued racing.”
And then there is his fitness regimen, which includes the high-cardio workout program known as Insanity. But that’s not the end of it. “Before the Race to Alaska, he rose at 3 a.m. to pedal his boat for an hour that was tied up in the pool before coming back to bed,” Dawn says.
Out at Cape Caution, Mann fixed what he could, warmed his bones by a small fire and got back on his horse the next morning. Out on the water, he pedaled furiously to catch up to another competitor, Team Blackfish, a Corsair F-27 trimaran with three crewmembers. “I told them about the pitchpole, and they invited me over, so I rafted up and got some hot tea but still was shivering,” Mann says. “I got out of the wet clothes and put on a dry drysuit. I did not realize how badly I needed food and comfort.”
A lunch of salmon, carrots and mashed potatoes — with or without almond milk — seemed surreal after what he’d just been through. “They saved me.”
A life-changing experience
At the next waypoint, in Bella Bella, British Columbia, he regrouped, washed and dried his clothes, and ingested more hot food before shoving off for Ketchikan. Winds were light and the sea calm, but navigation was tricky with charts only and frequent fog. “The water is so big out there,” Mann says. “It takes time to cover any kind of ground.”
And yes, at times he wandered and was lost. Pushing hard toward the finish, he exhausted himself to the point of hallucination. “When I do that I always see trees on the water,” Mann says. “I shine my spotlight on them, and when they disappear I know, uh-oh, time to get some shut-eye.”
Without an anchor? “I tied up to bull kelp and dozed off,” he says, “sitting up in the boat, bug net draped over my head to keep away the mosquitoes.” He woke to a sounding whale that did its calisthenics next door, breaching and fluking. “I still was weak in the head, but I enjoyed the whale and followed it a little bit, pedaling again but going in the wrong direction.”
Then a shrimp boat came up. “To Ketchikan?” he asked. “Due north,” they said.
Others claimed the $10,000 cash prize for first overall. Still others got second and a set of steak knives. But Roger Mann had reason to celebrate, even though he fell short of his goal of 80 miles a day because “I don’t have that much vacation time.” His performance was no accident, says Steve Isaac, who knows Mann from expedition-style races organized by WaterTribe. “He is a great guy with lots of determination and excellent skills,” says Isaac. “It is not a surprise to me that he finished that very challenging race.”
Avoiding the fate of 25 teams that dropped out, Mann executed his game plan with discipline and luck. But by far his biggest achievement was eluding Davey Jones’ locker and returning to the waiting arms of his wife. “It was an incredible journey, a life-changing event,” he says. “Getting out of Johnstone Strait, I had a real good moment with myself. I felt changed, proud and humbled.”
Mann says it took a month to recover from the Race to Alaska. Next year he plans to enter the 1,200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge, a race he has tried but has yet to finish.
Come to think of it, Poprishchin is a silly sobriquet for a guy like Mann. It should be Supermann. That’s German, but it says exactly what you think it says. And that’s only fitting, crazy or not.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.