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JAUNTS : Exploring the Ventura Keys in a Kayak : Sport's popularity is growing. Rentals are easy. Come with a good attitude and be prepared to get wet.


Skimming the waters of Ventura's harbor in a kayak, you're likely to see anything from a sea lion basking on a dock to the gritty backsides of working fishing boats laden with orange buoys.

You'll also see other kayakers. The popularity of this sport has blossomed recently. If you want a taste of it, you can rent a kayak at the harbor and cruise out to the harbor's mouth or explore the fingers of the Ventura keys.

"Most of the people we get have no experience," says Rick Sanderson, manager of the kayak concession operated by Bay Queen Enterprises.

"Come with a good attitude and prepare to get wet," he advises. "You'll get wet whether you turn over or not."

How wet? Well, when you ease yourself off the dock and onto the seat of the kayak, you'll probably find your fanny already sitting in a puddle of water. These are the kayaks you sit on, not in. Water splashes in when you paddle. If your seat isn't wet when you start, it will be when you finish, along with your arms and legs. (Wet-suits aren't needed, though, during this time of year.)

About 15% of the novices end up going overboard, he said, but this almost always happens when they're boarding the brightly colored plastic craft.

"If they get past that portion, they're usually all right," he says.

Sanderson rents one-man kayaks for $10 an hour and two-man kayaks for $15 an hour. You can rent them for a half-day or a full day, but for first-timers, an hour is usually enough.

First-timers Lauren Westfall, 12, of Camarillo and her Idaho cousin, Erin Scott, 11, gave it a try recently. They were back at the dock in 30 minutes, tired, wet but pleased.

"Once you get the hang of it, it's not hard," Lauren said. "But until then we bumped into a few rocks. It's neat to see the boats."

Before kayakers go out on the water, Sanderson fits them into life jackets and gives them some basic pointers on how to paddle and get back on the kayak if they go overboard. They're advised to stay in the harbor and stay away from other boats that have the right of way.

Once on the water, you can simply paddle around and eye the boats parked in their slips and mull their sometimes oddball names, like the Codpiece and Earth Girls Are Easy. On weekends, music from live bands on shore drifts over the water.

If you paddle as far as the keys, you'll find calmer water. You can also see the exclusive waterside homes with boats moored out front. This will take close to an hour. Once back at the dock, Sanderson will help you to land and to hoist yourself back on the dock.

If you want more of an ocean adventure and a fuller understanding of kayaking, here's another place to try. Warren Glaser, a retired Nordhoff High School teacher, started a business called OAARS four years ago, which primarily teaches ocean kayaking--from different paddle strokes to oceanography--and leads kayaking excursions in the Channel Islands and elsewhere.

The kayaks he uses also are the sit-on-top, or open-cockpit variety. He says people are more receptive to this style than to the enclosed-cockpit style.

"Anyone can do it," he says.

If you decide to buy one, Glaser has some advice. They cost from $400 to $850 depending on the style, so try out different varieties first. The shorter, fatter ones, designed for riding the surf, are more stable. The longer, narrower models are faster, more maneuverable, but a little tippier. However, it's not easy to tip one over.

"You have to work at it," he says.

Choosing the paddle is as important as the boat. A good one runs $80 to $180.

"It should be lightweight, well-constructed and the right length," he says. "If you don't have the proper paddle, you're not going to like it."

Nor will you like it if you paddle incorrectly. Your back might start to hurt. Keep elbows straight and use your whole body. And don't lean back.

"Some people will start to lean back if they get tired," he says. "It might feel good at first, but then it will hurt like heck."

Where is the best coastal water for cruising? Above Ventura. "South of Ventura you get strong currents," he says. Or you can cruise Channel Islands Harbor. Forget about Lake Casitas and Lake Piru. Kayaks aren't allowed at either spot.


* Sea kayaks can be rented by the hour at Ventura Harbor Village. The concession, operated by Bay Queen Enterprises, is located on the dock in front of the shops and restaurants. For information, call 642-7753. Sport Chalet in Oxnard also rents kayaks.

* For information about OAARS, a Ventura-based business that offers sea kayaking instruction and tours, call 643-8139.

FYI: The National Park Service is considering whether to allow kayakers to camp on Santa Rosa Island. People have until Sept. 9 to comment on an environmental assessment that looks at this proposal. For information, call 658-5700.

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