Below is an excerpt from CONFESSIONS OF A WAVE WARRIOR. As a youngster, I dreamed of becoming a frog man when I grew up, but though I had the chance while in the Navy, I let the opportunity pass me by. I later learned to SCUBA dive and to kayak in rivers and the ocean. In 1986, I got together with Jim Kakuk and Glenn Gilchrist, and we formed the Tsunami Rangers ocean adventure kayak team. Then we took it a step further and invented a new type of kayak that could help us master the marine environment. Here’s the story…
The X-1 Breaks the Wave Barrier
On a sheet of scratch paper, I sketched an ideal kayak, a sleek Kevlar-armored sit-on-top boat, fifteen feet of glistening sinew, which had rocker (like the curved rockers on a rocking chair) for maneuvers, big hatches to easily store gear, and a kick-up rudder to track in wind and currents. Glenn took the drawing and used his naval architect magic to draw up detailed plans for our first boat, the Tsunami X-1 Rocket. We called it the X-1 because it was experimental, and we loved The Right Stuff and everything about test pilots and experimental planes. We were impressed that Chuck Yeager’s X-1 broke the sound barrier. We intended to break the wave barrier in our X-1. Jim looked at Glenn’s design and said, “I’ll build that boat.”
And so Jim spent weeks constructing a mold for the X-1. One day we had a party at the shop. Out popped the first X-1 Rocket. It was made of translucent fiberglass and seemed very delicate. We took it to Tomales Bay and put her through the paces. It looked so graceful on the water that I nearly cried.
Jim made two more boats, this time out of heavily reinforced, “bulletproof” Kevlar. The X-1 designated for my use he painted crimson. We called it “the Red Boat.” We tried the second generation boats out on the pond next to the Berkeley marina. We raced, we braced, we rolled them with quick-release SCUBA tank straps secured at our waists. Everything checked out. We decided to form a corporation and go into production. I would be president and in charge of marketing our products, Jim would be the operations chief and builder, and Glenn would be lead designer. We called our company Tsunami Products, to associate the enterprise with our kayaking team and to leave open the possibility of making and selling ancillary goods and services in the future.
Since we had no money, I decided to use “guerrilla marketing” tactics that I taught in my promotions class at the university. My first bright idea was to earn an endorsement from the Navy SEALS and to get them to use the X-1 for insertions when they needed to avoid radar detection and be able to get on and off the boats at will.
I contacted SEAL teams 3 and 5 in Coronado and arranged a demonstration. Jim and I drove down the coast with my Red Boat and Jim’s kayak, the Blue Boat. Guess what color it was?
We stopped at La Jolla Beach and surfed the boats, to make sure they could perform in rough water. We should have done this long before our presentation to the SEALs, but didn’t. As it was, the boats surfed beautifully, just as Glenn had designed them to do. The hatches were relatively watertight, and the rudder worked as intended. There was only one glitch: the seatbelts came loose when under pressure, that is, when the boater was upside down in turbulent water and needed to roll. We determined that this was not a big deal since the SEALs would not be able to roll in any case. We took the seatbelts off the boats, cleaned them and ourselves up, and drove down to Coronado.
The sentry waved us through the gate at the Naval Amphibious Base, and we parked next to the beach, as instructed. Our contact, a chief Boatswain’s Mate, greeted us cheerily and helped us unload the boats and put them next to the surf. From nowhere, a squad of five SEALs materialized to check out the X-1s.
They encircled us as we gave our dog-and-pony show with the boats. Some looked interested, others skeptical. Being the natural ham, I did most of the talking. One big guy asked me a good question: “Since these boats are made of Kevlar, are they bulletproof?” After a sign from Jim, I indicated that they were tough but not bulletproof. “Good,” he said. “If they were bulletproof, we couldn’t sink them if we needed to. But you say they’re tough. Are they tough enough for me to jump on?”
Taking the bait, I said, “Of course they are.” As they listened to me, they looked at Jim for his reaction. Jim looked worried. The big guy guffawed and prepared to leap and stomp on the bow of the Red Boat with his combat boots. I watched confidently.
The big guy jumped high in the air with his knees tucked in. His boots came down on that boat with everything he had. Jim expected the bow deck to get crushed. The big guy’s boots didn’t dent the boat but instead slipped off the slick finish and flew high in the air. He landed hard on his ass in the sand, stunned. I pointed my finger at him and went “Bwa ha ha ha!” The SEALs glowered at me.
I ignored their glares and continued my pitch. “Okay, who’s ready to try the boat in the surf?” Only one commando volunteered. I told him to walk into the surf until he was knee deep, then sit in the boat and swing his legs inside. Then put his head down and paddle like a madman until he made it through the break. I instructed him to wait for the last wave of a strong set to pass, then again put his head down and follow the wave in to shore until he made it to shallow water, then jump off and drag the boat up. He nodded, surveyed the water for a good five seconds, and took off. After a few moments in the froth, he put his legs over the sides for stability. This slowed him down, but miraculously he made it through the surf zone and back in again without capsizing. Jim and I were impressed. This SEAL was indeed a water man made of the right stuff.
I asked them if they liked the boat. They all said yes. I went for the close and said, “What colors do you want on the boat, grey, black, or grey/black camo?” They chuckled at my attempt, and asked if we made a two-man boat.
We were curious as to why they needed a double kayak. They replied that they paddle in two-man teams, and they might need to put a wounded guy in the front cockpit. Jim said that we were working on a double kayak and would let them know when it was ready. We all shook hands, and Jim and I hefted the boats onto the truck feeling that the day was a success, even though we did not make a sale or obtain an endorsement.
On the way out I spotted a SEAL commander I used to know years ago in the Navy. I yelled out his nickname, and he walked over. We chatted a few minutes. The other SEALs looked at me like, “Who is this guy?” I put my mirrored sunglasses on and acted mysterious as Jim and I drove away.
Well, I never did become a full-fledged Navy frogman, but I did metamorphose into a Tsunami Ranger, which was even better in my book. True, I didn’t earn hazardous duty pay from Uncle Sam, but I got to decide what our missions would be, and that has been very rewarding.
Oh, by the way, a week after our trip to Coronado, I broke the wave barrier in an X-1.
A note from the author: place your CONFESSIONS OF A WAVE WARRIOR book order by December 13th, 2010, and you will receive it before Christmas.
Want to read another excerpt from the book? Read “Hitting the Wall” in the fall 2010 issue of California Kayaker Magazine (www.calkayakermag.com).