When Joanne Turner started paddling in Newport Bay four years ago, she could count on being the only kayaker on the water.
In about six months of paddling, in fact, she never encountered another kayaker in her excursions around the lower bay's boat harbor and the marshes of the upper bay. Finally, she began posting notices around town, looking for someone, anyone , who shared her interest.
"Six people responded in the first couple of months," Turner said while relaxing on a sandy beach in Newport Harbor. "And I thought, a'Wow, that's great. There's six of us here in Southern California.' "
Little did she know then how the sport of sea kayaking would catch on locally, thanks largely to her efforts. Kayakers are now a common sight on Newport Bay and elsewhere in the Southland, and the club founded by Turner, California Kayak Friends, has a fast-growing membership of more than 450 paddlers.
For Turner, the sport has gone from a part-time hobby to a full-time occupation. Last year, she abandoned her career as a management consultant to start Southwind Sports Resource with fellow kayaker Doug Schwartz. The Tustin-based business offers sea kayak lessons, manufactures the Rhino surf kayak (a craft designed specifically for riding ocean waves), sells fleets of kayaks to hotels and resorts and handles promotions for the paddle-sport industry.
And while Newport Bay is still a favorite local haunt, Turner has expanded her paddling horizons to include the Channel Islands, Baja California, Virginia's Barrier Islands in Chesapeake Bay, and, in her most exotic excursion to date, a group of islands in the South China Sea.
Turner spent more than a month last year paddling among the tiny Soko Islands, between Hong Kong and Macau, as a volunteer on a scientific expedition to survey the reptiles and amphibians of the remote archipelago. When she wasn't shuttling scientists and fellow volunteers between the islands, she explored solo.
"I got in some extraordinary paddling myself, into the little villages that I found on the islands or along the mainland," Turner said. The locals she encountered had never seen a kayak: "They were really amazed wherever I went. The Chinese junks all had to come up and visit me."
And when she explained how far she had paddled and where she was heading, many refused to believe her. While the locals had large canoes for racing, Turner said, "they never go offshore more than one-eighth of a mile. And for me to come from the islands far away--they were just flabbergasted."
While recreational sea kayaking is a relatively recent phenomenon, its roots stretch back to Alaska's Aleut Indians, who took to the sea in search of food and fur seals more than 8,000 years ago, scientists believe.
At the turn of this century, some Germans took to floating down their rivers in kayaks, but it was not until the 1950s and '60s that white water river kayaking really caught on. A few years later, the first recreational kayakers took to sea, particularly in Great Britain and the Pacific Northwest.
"Since 1970, we'll say, sea kayaking was growing slowly," Schwartz explained. "Then, in the last three or four years, it's starting to spread around the country, particularly in Southern California."
Thanks to its temperate climate, calm seas and abundance of harbors, Southern California is "just an absolutely perfect place to paddle," Schwartz said. In the Northwest, still the country's sea kayaking hot spot, "they give up in about September, early October," Turner said. "They're just barely beginning to start again now."
Kayaks come in a variety of space-age materials, but their basic shape and design have changed little since the days of the Aleuts (although some models have foot-operated rudders). They range in cost from $600 to more than $2,000.
They are very stable in the water and are easy to operate, said Turner, adding that most people are proficient paddlers after a single four-hour lesson. Specialized skills, such as maneuvering in heavy surf or navigating in open ocean, require further training. The sport does not require Olympian strength, as the diminutive Turner will attest.
Excursions offered through California Kayak Friends range from "brunch cruises"--leisurely paddles to waterfront restaurants--to extended kayak camping expeditions in Baja California and other areas. The Channel Islands are a favorite destination, and Turner said that even relatively inexperienced paddlers can make the 3 1/2-hour trip from Channel Islands Harbor to Anacapa with ease.
Catalina is a different story: Turner and Schwartz made the 9 1/2-hour crossing once and both dubbed it boring. They recommend taking kayaks over on the ferry and exploring from there.
Sea kayaking offers something to thrill seekers, who can ride ocean waves or play in "rock gardens," where the surf crashes around rocks and reefs. Such aspects of the sport are a draw to white water river kayakers, Schwartz said.
"Here along the West Coast and Southern California, most of the population is within an hour's drive of the ocean, as opposed to maybe four hours from the Kern River," the nearest white water river, Schwartz said. And the open ocean is a welcome respite from crowded rivers, where paddlers have to fight the crowds during a limited season to enjoy the white water.
Most sea kayakers, though, are content to tour the quiet waters of bays and harbors. "We have all the real quiet harbors here, and areas like Upper Newport Bay that are just really peaceful and picturesque," Turner said. "And the bird life is just incredible. We can get up so close, even to the great blue herons and the egrets. Kayaks are just so silent."
For a copy of the most recent California Kayak Friends newsletter, write to the club at: 14252 Culver Drive, A-199, Irvine, Calif. 92714.