Victory At Sea

Victory At Sea: A beginner finds kayaking in salt water to be safe, easy, dry – and beautiful
By David Watts Barton The Sacramento Bee September 1, 2005


For some, the word “kayak” evokes a string of thoughts that goes something like this: Stuck in a small hole, upside down, under water. Rocks. Head. Nooooooo!

Add the word “sea” to “kayak,” and we get: crashing waves. Salt water up the nose. Rocks and sand. Nooooooo!

But here’s the reality of sea kayaking on a recent Sunday morning in Richardson Bay: cruising over gentle water, gliding with almost no resistance, the hills of Sausalito rising into the fog, harbor seals warming themselves on decaying piers.

Comfortable. Dry. Stable, even. Easy.

To be sure, aquatic derring-do is possible in a sea kayak. But this is a sport beginners can approach with little trepidation.

Bob Licht, 58, has watched sea kayaking grow from a handful of enthusiasts to the point where, as he puts it, “When you see an ad for an SUV, it’s often got a sea kayak on top.”

He has helped develop, and has profited from, the rise of sea kayaking. His Sausalito-based company, Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center, which he says was one of the first sea kayaking operations in California when he opened it in 1982, has grown with the sport’s popularity.

He also watched as the then-new sport was being named.

“The English, who first developed it as a modern sport, called it ‘sea canoeing,’ which is more accurate and less scary,” Licht says. ” ‘Sea kayaking’ sounds dangerous.

“People have been exposed to whitewater kayaking for 30 years, and that’s the idea they have of kayaking,” he says. “People really think they’re going upside down, they’re going to be wet.”

Well, all seven members of a recently gathered group of beginner kayakers and a guide do get their feet wet while pushing a kayak into the water on a recent Sausalito morning. But just their feet. Tucked under waterproof spray aprons inside the kayaks, even novices get no more than a salt spray in their face. Or perhaps the stray rivulet of salt water running down their arms from a hoisted paddle.

A misnomer

That’s partly because, as Licht says, “sea kayaking” is a misnomer. Very little kayaking goes on in the ocean; it’s usually in protected areas, estuaries and bays.

For Sacramentans, the best place in which to put a first paddle in the salt water is Richardson Bay, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and ringed by the Marin County communities of Sausalito, Corte Madera, Tiburon and Belvedere.

Sheltered from the big waves of the opening to the Pacific a few miles south, Richardson Bay offers gorgeous vistas, wildlife and companies ready to offer beginners their first experience of kayaking.

It is also barely 90 freeway minutes from Sacramento, with easy parking nearby.

Sea Trek’s three-hour kayak outing, for which it charges $65, is guided this day by Bob Ent-wistle, 58, a retired banker who discovered the joys of sea kayaking while still in the crush of business life.

“I ran a division of 500 people, a 24/7 job,” he says as he sits, bobbing slightly, in a one-man kayak on Richardson Bay during a pause in the day’s trip.

“When I went on my first overnight kayaking trip, it was out of reach of cell phones, and it was, ‘Whoa, this is really cool,’ ” he says. “I’ve always camped, I’ve always fished, and … to go places where I’d never go, that are only accessible by kayak, was wonderful. I like the water and the serenity.”

Entwistle guides the group of seven with enthusiasm and patience, though patience isn’t necessary, so easily do all those involved take to the task. Sea kayaking really is dead easy.

“It isn’t difficult, it’s fun!” exclaims Stacie Martinez, 57, a court reporter from Fairfax who has kayaked before. This day, she brought her daughter, Alexis, 25, and a young friend from out of state, Kendall Caskie, 13, for their first paddles.

“It’s something that anyone can do if they’re at all athletic,” Martinez says. “Though the rudder is a bit of a challenge.”

Different view of world

After very brief instructions on paddling and the rudder (the person in the back steers, using the feet), the group – two doubles, a triple and Entwistle solo – sets out along a Sausalito marina. The morning is quiet, foggy and crisp. Paddling warms everyone up quickly.

The world looks different from the water, especially in Sausalito. There, the paddlers glide along past harbor seals that barely give them a second glance, and the steady movement of cars on the hills all around seems very far away.

The paddlers love it, especially when Entwistle guides them into a section of the floating houses moored north of downtown. There, Kelli Mann, 40, later says she had her best moment.

“It’s like an amusement ride,” says the Sunnyvale resident. “Some of them were really gorgeous, and others were dilapidated, but you wouldn’t ever be able to see that without a kayak.

“I saw someone in her house, she waved to us – and we were just gliding by!”

The others agree on the delights of this unique perspective, as they make their way through the often fancifully appointed houseboats (one is built to resemble the Taj Mahal) and past others that are rustic and battered.

“I was born and raised in San Francisco and Marin,” says Entwistle, who now lives in Novato. “There are a lot of historical things that I’ve had to learn about doing this, which has been fun.”

Indeed, Entwistle’s descriptions of the land grant given to William Richardson, and Ent-wistle’s comment that 85 percent of San Francisco Bay is less that 15 feet deep, resonates with Antony Awaida, 42, the CEO of a Palo Alto venture capital firm.

“I’ve done kayaking and canoeing in the past, in Tahoe and Bali, Indonesia,” Awaida says later. “But this was very unusual and entertaining. It was different because it wasn’t just the canoeing; there was an element of history.”

The historical aspect of this trip is just one of the many ways in which each sea kayak trip is different, Entwistle says.

“I get to experience the area in different ways on every trip,” he adds. “I did an evening group paddle out around Strawberry Point, and we sat out there and you couldn’t hear any road noise, and two people simultaneously said, ‘This is weird, you can see all the cars moving, but you can’t hear a thing.’ And that’s not that unusual.

“Other times, the moon’s great, or the next day there are 200 seals sunning themselves, or fantastic boats coming through. It’s always new.”

Entwistle then guides the group out into open water, toward Strawberry Point, where the wind comes up suddenly.

No one seems particularly flustered, and indeed, the low-profile kayaks are remarkably stable. But the quick change in weather is a good reminder that we are on water that is subject to sudden changes in conditions.

This is important to remember, says Roger Schumann, who co-owns and operates Inverness-based Eskape Kayaks with Jan Shriner. The two are also co- authors of “Guide to Sea Kayaking Central and Northern California” (Globe Pequot, $15.95, 222 pages).

“Modern boats are really stable and forgiving, so there’s really no deal about tipping over,” Schumann says by phone. Still, he notes, “They’re so user-friendly now, it’s easy to just row out and get in trouble. The wind changes, or you fall in, and you’re in a different situation.”

For that reason, Schumann says, a class is the logical next step after a simple guided tour.

“A class will give you tips on how to stay out of trouble,” he says. “Or how to get out of it.”

While there are guided tours for beginners, once you have a class under your belt, there are a wealth of places to go sea kayaking on the coast of Northern California. And the proliferation of operators means you don’t have to invest in a large kayak or lug your own around if you’re not fully committed.

Operators are careful to ensure that those to whom they rent equipment will encounter good conditions, Schumann says.

“Most reputable shops will not rent to you if the conditions aren’t favorable,” he says. “And they won’t rent you the closed-deck sea kayaks unless you’ve taken a class. And most places won’t rent you a boat to take away, so you stay in an area they know. Most sites are chosen to be forgiving.”

Plenty of places to paddle

It’s as Licht had said: Most sea kayaking takes place in bays, estuaries and inland passages, not on open ocean. Among the most popular places in Northern California are on Monterey Bay near Cannery Row in Monterey and in Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Monterey Bay; farther north, there’s Tomales Bay near Point Reyes National Seashore and Drake’s Estero in Point Reyes itself.

The last is a good example of why one should check with local operators before setting out, Schumann says. Drake’s Estero is a popular seal-pupping area and is closed from March through June. During the rest of the year, it is accessible only at high tide.

Other companies offer specialty trips, such as those for bird-watchers. Those with the time and money (and wet suit) can even join a kayaking trip among the penguins of Antarctica, as Entwistle has done.

If you really want to, you can get yourself into some pretty hairy situations.

“I just did a weeklong trip down the Lost Coast, out in the waves and rocks and sea caves,” Schumann says. “To be able to see this amazing coast from a seal’s-eye view is incredible.

“There are some very safe pockets for starting out,” he says, “but once you’ve done that, you can go as wild as you want to go.”

Wherever one chooses to go, there is something special in just being out on the water, moving under one’s own steam, Entwistle says. And that means being in a single kayak.

“That combination of being outdoors and being in control of the boat, which you don’t get in a double kayak, is wonderful,” he says. “Whether you’re in the Sea of Cortez or the Inland Passage in Alaska, the experience is mind-boggling. You’re not disturbing nature, there’s no motor noise, you don’t have to talk to your neighbors if you don’t want to. It’s very peaceful.”

Wow! Let’s do it again

As the fog starts clearing over Richardson Bay, Entwistle’s group of seven approaches the sand beach where it launched. The trip has been remarkably easy, and everyone declares themselves ready for another shot.

“I loved it. I want to go back and go out on my own,” Mann says. “I’ve always wanted to do that, and now I know I can. I was afraid I’d get really wet, but I didn’t get wet at all.

And, she adds, she’s gotten something else from the trip.

“I grew up in Mountain View, but I’d never seen the area from this perspective,” she says. “It’s beautiful.”

If you go…

If you want to get your feet wet with sea kayaking, there are a number of places to start. You can take lessons or just hit the water on a guided tour.

Below are several of the many outfitters who will take you out for a few hours or an entire day. Check the Internet for a wider selection. Or, if you prefer, for a full-moon tour. Or an overnighter. Or Baja …

Prices vary, but one can expect to spend between $35 and $100 for a short tour, including guide and kayak rental.

* Current Adventures in Lotus offers beginner packages in the area. Operated by Dan Crandall, a nationally known sea kayaker and a frequent winner of Eppie’s Great Race. www.currentadventures.com or (888) 452-9254.

* California Canoe and Kayak offers the usual area tours and conducts sea kayaking classes at Lake Natoma. www.calkayak.com/index.cfm, (800) 366-9804 or (916) 353-1880.

* REI offers one-day (and longer) tours out of its Berkeley location. www.rei.com/map/store or (510) 527-4140.

* Monterey Bay Kayaks has two locations, one on Cannery Row in Monterey and another near Elkhorn Slough. Both spots are ideal for beginners, with great weather, abundant wildlife and gorgeous views. www.montereybaykayaks.com or (800) 649-5357.

* Eskape Sea Kayaking covers the Monterey area and beyond, focusing on classes and longer tours. www.eskapekayak.com or (831) 566-5385.

* Blue Waters Kayaking in Inverness offers beginners tours in the Point Reyes area. It also offers a tasty tour of the oyster beds of Tomales Bay. www.bwkayak.com or (415) 669-2600.

* Sea Trek offers tours of the area, as well as tours to Baja and elsewhere. www.seatrekkayak.com or (415) 488-1000.