This story featured in the 2012 June issue.

Photo: Michael Powers

By Michael Powers

"We all have one thing in common—we don’t want to die."
— Eric Soares

"The ocean is a cathedral, a place of worship!" exulted Eric Soares from his favorite pulpit, the cockpit of a sleek Tsunami X-15 Rocket Boat. About a dozen Tsunami Rangers had launched from a secret campsite on the rugged southern Oregon coast, punching through layers of thundering shore-break to rendezvous in the lee of an open sea reef. The occasion was the testing of filmmaker Gordon Brown for acceptance into our elite 'extreme condition' sea kayaking team, a serious affair. In 1993, Brown had directed a National Geographic television show about the Rangers. Seven years later we'd invited him to join our ranks.
An ominous dark line on the horizon announced that more excitement was coming—another set of giant waves from a storm up in the Gulf of Alaska was racing straight toward us.

"Outside!" shouted Soares, spinning his kayak to face the oncoming threat. A massive well rose skyward into a translucent green wall looming two stories above our heads. Eric probably sensed he could not make it over that wave, but he charged forward anyway. The moving mountain of water crashed onto him, and for a long moment there was no sign of Eric or his kayak.

When Eric popped back to the surface at last, he was still strapped in his boat and bracing hard against the monster wave. But he was in defense mode now and broaching helplessly sideways at a perilous speed, directly toward the double kayak carrying Tsunami Ranger Jim Kakuk and videographer Allison Chase, who was filming the action. A split second later, Eric's boat struck and was impaled clear through by the sharp pointed bow of Jim's big double.

The team rallied quickly to tow Eric and his stricken boat back to camp. There we discovered how fortunate Eric had been—the bow of Jim's much heavier kayak had broken though the top deck of Eric's X-15 just forward of where Eric's butt was held down by his seatbelt. If it had come through a few inches aft, the consequences would have been much more serious. But now he was only limping slightly from where the bow had grazed his leg. We patched up the holes in Soares' boat with duct tape and were soon back on the water resuming Brown's test to become a Ranger.

The Tsunami Rangers had long ago accepted broken boats as the price for the thrill of paddling exposed coasts in storm-surf conditions. Such was the case during a particularly tempestuous multi-day Tsunami mission along the steep cliff-lined coast of Mendocino in 2003, which produced more capsizes, collisions with rocks and smashed boats than any trip in the collective Ranger memory. Eric returned home feeling exceptionally battered, and when he woke up the next morning he knew something was terribly wrong. At the hospital they discovered his aorta had ruptured and was hemorrhaging badly. Emergency surgery saved his life.

When the news reached us who had recently kayaked that stormy coast with Eric, we realized that once again his luck had been good—had his aorta burst a couple days earlier, we would have paddled back to civilization towing a dead man strapped in his X-15—a dramatic and poetic end, perhaps, for a Tsunami Ranger.

Still, all of us thought that Eric Soares' extreme-condition sea kayaking days were over forever. All of us but Eric. He was an extraordinary water athlete with an indomitable will and a great love of the sea. Amazingly he came back to participate once again in the annual Tsunami Rangers' surf-zone race out to Mavericks in 2005, paddling a double Tsunami boat with Gordon Brown. This event was infamous for its broken boats and rescues. Years before, officials with the American Canoe Association had viewed the Ranger videos and declined to issue insurance for the race. So friends and family all prayed fervently that Eric would survive, and he did.

Ultimately it was a hard fall while skiing that provided the final nudge toward eternity for Eric Soares. Some might say that a man whose aorta had been replaced had no business racing kayaks through extreme conditions or hurtling down mountains on skis. But those who knew and loved Eric understood: His was a great warrior spirit, and he richly deserved to die a warrior's death.

Click to view an early video that the Tsunami Rangers made to share their unique sea kayaking style and philosophy. You may discover there too, why Eric Soares considers the sea a holy place.