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Navigating Camelot : Informal Club Paddles O.C. Harbors in Kayak-Like Rigs, Sharing Conversation and Exercise


Pat Macha belongs to an exclusive club. One that has no membership fees, no regular meetings--and only three other members.

They call themselves the Camelot Surf Ski Club and for nearly six years they've been meeting every weekend to paddle Orange County's harbors.

"Our basic thing is that on Saturday morning we go for coffee and a muffin, talk and visit and then put the boat in the water and paddle," says Macha. "We have talked about having T-shirts printed up, but we've never done it."

In addition to Macha, club membership includes his wife, Mary Jane, and neighbors Gary and Linda Chrisman. The group is named "Camelot" for the street where the four members live and "Surf Ski" to honor the type of boat they paddle. All four paddlers insist that boating together in a small informal group is more fun than going it alone.

"My husband and I have never been involved in any formal organization," says Linda Chrisman. "But this once a week thing that we do, you tend to do it because you know someone else is involved. If it is just you, you tend to say, 'Oh well, I've got to mow the grass.'

"It helps to have another couple involved. And yet you have the flexibility because it is not a huge group. You're not having to coordinate the schedules of 30 people," she says.

Gary Chrisman admits that if not for the group he probably wouldn't go boating every Saturday. "Doing it as a group does drive you to the water," he says.

Although the "club" has no officers, Linda Chrisman calls Pat Macha "the cheerleader" of the group. "He is the one who started it and so he kind of keeps it going," she says.

Macha took up the sport in 1987 when he bought one of the small, one-person boats, which is similar to a kayak, and tired to teach himself to paddle it.

"Because the boat is so narrow, balance can be tricky," says Macha. "So, I promptly fell in the water and in getting back on broke my ribs."

But Macha, a former sailor, says he was determined to learn. After his ribs healed, he tried again and this time he got the knack of it.

A few months later, Mary Jane Macha, encouraged by her husband, tried it. When she didn't fall overboard and discovered that she could set her own pace, she was hooked. "You can paddle for an hour or so and when you're done, you don't feel destroyed and you want to do it again," she says.

Pretty soon the Machas' neighbors and friends, Linda and Gary Chrisman, had bought their own boats and began paddling too. All four say the sport is great fun and a terrific way to stay in shape.

"I was getting fat," says Gary, who will celebrate his 50th birthday this month. "And when Pat came home with his boat, I tried it and liked it. It has done a lot for me, kept my blood pressure in check, and it's not a stressful type of endeavor. That's one of the real pluses."

The type of boat the four paddle is 19 feet long and weighs about 36 pounds. The boat is a member of the kayak family, only you sit on top of it instead of down inside it. Macha says he chose the boat because of its flexibility. "It transports easily and they're very light and easy for one person to pick up."

Both the Machas and Chrismans, who own identical Plymouth Voyagers, say the boats fit easily on the top of their cars. The boats cost from $300 used to $1,200 new.

Because the boats are relatively inexpensive, portable and easy to store, Pat Macha says that nearly anyone can take up the sport. "It is mostly a young person's sport, but anyone who is half-way in shape could do it and enjoy it," says Macha, who is 47. "When you get out in open water where you are shooting waves, that's a different story."

In addition to weekly group excursions, all four paddle individually and as couples. Although the two women paddle mostly inside the harbor where the water is calm, the men have done some long-distance paddling between Alamitos Bay and Newport Beach and from Newport Beach to Dana Point.

Pat Macha, followed by a support boat, recently completed a Catalina crossing, which took him about 5 1/2 hours.

Deciding where to go is never a problem, the Camelot four insist. "We know each other's minds now and we don't have to ask," says Linda Chrisman. "We share a lot of things in common that we like to do. And we manage to give each other space, but we also enjoy each other's company."

Says Gary Chrisman: "There is really nothing to disagree about. It doesn't matter whether we paddle locally or put our boats on the car and drive to Dana Point. We enjoy it."

Wooden boats. About 70 wooden boats will be on display Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the seventh annual Wooden Boat Festival at the Sea Scout Base, 1931 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

This year, there will be a derby for Cub Scouts in which they will build and race a model boat, according to Mickey Harnage, director of the Sea Scout Base. In addition, the festival will include its popular "Nail and Sail" competition in which participants actually build and race a small one-person boat. For information, call (714) 642-5031.

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