Editor’s note: This post was written mostly by Cmdr. Michael Powers with additional text from Confessions of a Wave Warrior by Cmdr. Eric Soares and a little bit extra from Lt. JG Nancy Soares. Also edited by Michael’s wife, Nani Venegas. Photos provided by Capt. Deb Volturno, TRs Steve El Rey King and Michael Powers, and TR pals Paul McHugh, Bob Stender, and Will Nordby, plus a few from the archives. A true team effort! Thanks everyone for contributing to this post!
Eric Soares: Michael Powers was raised near the lakes and rivers of wild Idaho during the 1940s. As an adult he eventually made his way to Half Moon Bay, California, where he hand built a Viking-style house on Miramar Beach, which serves today as Tsunami Ranger headquarters. From Confessions of a Wave Warrior.
True stories and lessons learned from 30 years of paddling with the Tsunami Rangers
Michael Powers: “The ocean is like a cathedral, a place of worship!” Eric Soares, a commander in the Tsunami Rangers, an “extreme conditions” sea kayaking team – was expounding from his favorite pulpit, the cockpit of a sleek Tsunami X-1 Rocket Boat.
Right on cue, a squadron of brown pelicans sailed down through a turquoise sky above Mavericks Reef, a few miles south of San Francisco. They leveled off inches above the water and began surfing the invisible air currents generated by the powerful swells. A pair of California sea lions burst suddenly to the surface at the top of a wave and surfed effortlessly down twenty feet of cascading water. They were the masters here, and we were the students. Even Soares seemed temporarily humbled.
A palpable, unspoken tribalism has always prevailed among the Rangers, empowering us to greater heights of bravado and derring do than any of us would ever dream of attempting alone. Together we have paddled out into storm surf conditions with giant waves breaking over rocks, shrieking winds whipping the sea into a witch’s cauldron, probing through dense fog along wild and unknown coasts seeking a hidden beach or protected cove where we could find refuge – all things that would be overwhelmingly scary if faced alone. After all, we always thought… if one of us capsizes and our kayak is swept away by the wind, if we became exhausted or otherwise got into serious trouble… the other Rangers would always be there to help us out… right?
This underlying sense of security is further enhanced by the Ranger’s system of assigning rank to each member of the team. There are humble entry-level interns and somewhat more experienced lieutenants, lieutenant commanders and commanders like myself and Eric Soares, as well as one admiral (Jim Kakuk, a co-founder of the Rangers, and so far our longest-surviving member).
As the years passed it became increasingly apparent that the Rangers and their cohorts… were not immortal. Oddly enough, however, none of us died while actually kayaking. Legendary Steve Sinclair, a barrel-chested giant and the leader of a rival group of storm surf paddlers known as Force Ten, collapsed and died while running around a schoolyard track with his young son. Wild, courageous young Misha Dynnikov, who came from Russia and brought bold new blood to the Rangers, was the next to go – he vanished without a trace while free diving alone off the big island of Hawaii. Then Eric Soares, one of the original founding partners of the Tsunami Rangers and an amazing waterman in his own right… ultimately responded to Neptune’s irresistible siren call.
One wild winter day while paddling down a rugged, exposed stretch of the California coast with the Rangers, I surf-landed my kayak on an exposed sea reef, disembarked from my boat and stepped away with a video camera to record the other Rangers surfing the big waves that surrounded my vantage point. Seconds later, a giant wave swept over the reef and washed my kayak away into the wind-swept open sea. Eric, a champion swimmer in his high school days who ever since has relished swimming in storm surf and breaking waves, quickly assessed the situation from his position out in the surf zone. He powered through the breaking waves to overtake my fast escaping kayak, without hesitation abandoned his own craft – and grasping the bow of my kayak in one hand, swam all the way back to the reef where I stood helpless and waiting anxiously. It was a truly astounding athletic accomplishment to witness.
A couple years later on a multi-day expedition further north along the spectacular Mendocino coast, we once again found ourselves surrounded by big surf and strong winds. Sea conditions were truly crazy, even for the Rangers – we tumbled end over end through breaking waves and rocks, boats got damaged, and my waterproof camera got swept away when I capsized. Yet we laughed and celebrated, for this is what we loved to do.
Only after returning home to his home in El Granada on the Northern California coast did Eric complain to his wife Nancy that he felt something was wrong with his body. The doctors at the local Medical Center became alarmed and immediately had him ambulanced to Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City. The specialists there found Eric’s aorta was hemorrhaging badly and performed emergency surgery that saved his life.
When the other Rangers heard the news, they were grateful that Eric had survived the aquatic carnage we had all just endured. Then we shuddered to think that if Eric had expired when we were still out there bashing around on the Mendocino coast… we would have faced the grim task of towing our dead companion back to civilization, strapped down on his beloved Tsunami X-15 kayak. But much to everyone’s joy and amazement, Eric recovered and went on to paddle on many Tsunami adventures again, even competing in our annual experts-only “extreme conditions” sea kayak races.
Ultimately, Eric was blessed with a true warrior’s death. Following his annual ski trip to the mountains with Nancy, he was air-lifted from Oregon to Stanford Hospital. Yet being the high-spirited athlete that Eric always was, after a short time he appeared so strong to the doctors at Stanford that they transferred him out of intensive care. It was there in a regular hospital room while returning messages on his laptop that he died suddenly. The last transmission Eric reportedly sent out to someone read: “I’m upbeat!”
If there is a secret to the Ranger’s power and vitality, perhaps it can be symbolized by Neptune’s trident, long a favorite icon of the Rangers that has appeared over the years on their race t-shirts and painted on the bows of their hand-crafted expedition kayaks. One point of the trident spear could be said to represent COMMUNITY, as tribalism has always been central to the Tsunami philosophy. A second might be PURPOSE, so closely allied to the warrior credo of the Rangers. A final essential element is GRATITUDE (which might surprise those who think of the Rangers as pagan, and somewhat irreverent in their high-testosterone approach to paddling and to life in general). Yet before launching on every expedition the Rangers always gather at the edge of the sea in solemn acknowledgement of its power and seek permission from that invisible Force they perceive so powerfully confronting them there.
So the next time you go out paddling with your friends, heed the Tsunami Ranger’s advice and try working more closely together as a team. You too may discover something very ancient and primal awakening within yourself.
Nancy Soares: Michael is the elder statesman of the Rangers. At our last retreat we officially promoted him to Shaman. Michael is one of the most enthusiastic Rangers and is always up for anything. At 78 years old, he’s still tearing it up on the water and in life in general. Here’s what Eric said about his first encounter with Michael: “I was immediately impressed by his physical vigor and old-world attitude toward life. No doubt he was one of Beowulf’s fellow sea warriors in a past life.”
Michael has been instrumental in helping the Rangers go public. He got us the film gig with National Geographic and landed a book contract for himself and Eric which resulted in Extreme Sea Kayaking. He has taken thousands of photos and videos of the Rangers over the years. He is a genius at carpentry and also creates beautiful rock sculptures which he sells and which adorn his Viking stronghold where he also runs the Miramar Beach Kayak Club.
His primary occupation is as an adventure photojournalist and he has traveled to Norway, New Guinea, Chile, Patagonia, Easter Island, Peru, Nepal, and Antarctica among other far away places. In 2009 at 69 years old he trekked near Everest at 18,000 feet. Michael really gets around!
Michael’s adventurous life continues as in September 2019, Tsunami Ranger officers Michael Powers, Tim Sullivan and Steven King will join an expedition bound for the remote Altai Mountains in western Mongolia to visit the indigenous Kazakh tribespeople, there to document their centuries-old practice of hunting on horseback with trained eagles.
For questions or comments, please contact us by clicking below. We love to hear from our readers!