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Liquid assault and battery

The Tsunami Rangers' harrowing ocean race begins with kaboom and ends with whoops.

June 22, 2004|Eric Simons | Special to The Times

Half Moon Bay, Calif. — The man with the plastic shark fins duct-taped to his helmet twitches in the spray of a thumping shore break.

If he can pierce the thick wave with his 20-inch-wide Kevlar lance, paddle 3 miles into a headwind, snatch a fistful of sand from a razor rock-gated beach and charge home ahead of 15 others, glory -- such as it is -- will be his. But first he must out-joust Michael Powers, who on this bright April morning gleams at the Acme dynamite-sized firecracker lashed to his crossbow -- another prop in his ever-bulging quiver as a commander of the Tsunami Rangers.

Boyish antics and bravery march lock-step in this recreational sporting unit, which explains why very few sea kayakers make the cut. Why any try is unclear.

For a glimpse inside the Ranger psyche, cue a typical scene in the "Tsunami Rangers Greatest Hits" video. Witness a wave hurling a Ranger into a cleft of rocks and pinning the kayak to a craggy wall with the paddler still on top. Hear a concerned off-camera Ranger call: "Are you OK?" Watch a second wave smash through the channel and dislodge the kayak. See the paddler bail out and tumble into another rock as the boat rolls. Wince at the sound of the onlooker's maniacal cackle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 03, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit -- A photo in Tuesday's Outdoors section with an article about the Tsunami Rangers annual race was credited to Mark Massee. Mathew Sumner took the photo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 06, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit -- A photo accompanying an article about the Tsunami Rangers' annual race in the June 22 Outdoors section mistakenly credited Mark Massee. Mathew Sumner took the photograph.

And yet for all the goofy helmets, flaming arrows and group deprecation, the dozen or so Rangers take their mission seriously.

Even without camera crews in tow, they routinely pull on body armor and attack the Pacific's steepest waves and rock gardens, perils the everyday kayaker avoids because, "well, they'd get killed," says Chris Cunningham, editor of Sea Kayaker magazine. "Obviously."

Into the froth

Up the rickety boat ramp and across the one-lane road from Miramar Beach sits a weathered driftwood A-frame that doubles as Powers' home and Ranger headquarters. Its many embellishments include a rooftop angel figurehead and a salt-glazed glass case that displays faded magazine articles touting Ranger heroics.

On the day of the Rangers' annual race, spectators grab a map of the course here and either line the bluff or scramble down boulders to the sand, where red and gold pennants snap against the percussion of breaking waves.

At noon, the contestants -- anyone crazy enough to enter -- gather in a circle on the beach. The non-Rangers ponder the greatness before them: the men who have passed the paddling test, the oral exam, the rescue drill and the lunch-prep test (though one high-ranking officer came perilously close to flunking by serving sardines) to achieve Rangerhood.

Only hazing survivors get to attend training getaways on which the paddlers assault the rugged Pacific Northwest coastline by day and then build pyres, drink like pirates and bellow-sing "I'll Swim in With My One Good Arm" by night.

Only Rangers enjoy the sort of camaraderie that allows Commodore Jim Kakuk, who co-founded the group in the '80s, to slam Powers' $3,000 kayak into the coastal rocks at a spot the Rangers call "Sniveler's Punchbowl." (Because Kakuk builds all the Rangers' Tsunami kayaks -- and will soon rebuild this one -- Powers grudgingly accepts his right to break them.)

But all race contestants rate another Ranger ritual-perk. They receive blessings from a shaman and a priest, who squirts water from a sports bottle onto their helmets. "It's not holy," he says with a wicked grin, "but I boiled the hell out of it."

The racers line up for the gun, nervously edging their boats onto the wet sand. Commander Powers, a wiry 63-year-old sometime photojournalist with bushy eyebrows and a steel-wool beard, raises his crossbow to fire the lighted M-1000 into the sky and ... kaboom. It explodes before he pulls the trigger, and a twisted shard of arrow drops to the sand.

The kayakers gape, stunned. Only after Powers staggers purposefully down to his boat and climbs in do they spring for theirs. Wiggling and pushing until the surf rushes in to lift them, race favorites Kenny Howell and Don Kiesling break away. In seconds, their boats punch through the shore break and quickly fade, paddles windmilling against the blue horizon. Powers, in a double kayak with his racing partner, Misha Dynnikov, gives chase.

Others struggle. They get caught inside and bob alongside their overturned boats in the whitewater until a larger set rolls in, shoving them toward shore. One frustrated paddler swims, beaching himself like a sick whale, and starts over.

Onto the sand

The Rangers' usual route includes a quick dash through Maverick's reef, where California's biggest waves break during winter, but an atypical April swell makes the whitewater there too treacherous. "There would have been a lot of carnage," Kiesling says later.

It's the carnage, framed by house-sized walls of spray, that occasionally draws film crews from ESPN, MTV and the Discovery Channel. Today, though, there's no compelling reason to risk death. Instead, paddlers will pull up short of Maverick's, land on the nearby beach, grab a handful of sand and complete the loop.

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