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WET & WILD : Ocean Cruising, Without the Shuffleboard

June 15, 1995|DAVID HALDANE | David Haldane is a staff writer for the Times Orange County Edition.

Hundreds of Southern Californians are discovering a view of the coast that few others get to see.

Gathering in the mornings in small groups on Orange County beaches, they lay down their paddles and slither into wet suits. Then, helping each other out through the surf, they slide aboard colorful little boats heading out to sea. And for the next several hours, hobnobbing with the dolphins and the seals while chatting among themselves, the kayakers glide past the rock formations and over the jutting reefs of the South County coast.

"For me, it's a spiritual experience," said Daniel Kehl, 45, co-owner of Laguna Kayak, one of a handful of companies that organize daily kayaking tours. "You can have a good time, have a decent workout and not feel too strained."

Said his partner, Brad Herron, 39: "The goal is to put people on the ocean and give them a safe, exciting experience. It's like being in the wilderness 10 minutes from home."

Kehl and Herron are among the many Southern Californians who have discovered kayaking, a sport that practitioners say is growing by leaps and bounds.

Kayaking has long been around. But about six years ago, a technical innovation allowed it to expand well beyond its small coterie of adherents: the advent of the sit-on-top kayak.

Traditionally, kayaks were designed so that a kayaker sat inside a dugout, his or her legs covered by the hull. While the design provided warmth, it could be hazardous: A capsized boat would quickly fill with water, requiring a kayaker with special training to right it and keep it afloat.

The new sit-on-top boats, made of durable plastic, allow the user to sit in a small indentation atop the boat. Thus, in addition to being easier to handle, the boats, when capsized, allow water to roll right off and can be easily righted.

"This has opened the sport up to a lot of people who weren't willing to go through all the training," said Alan Sandoval, co-owner of UP Sports in Newport Beach, which sells sit-on-top kayaks for $500 to $1,000 apiece and rents them for $10 an hour.

As a result, he said, kayakers can now be seen paddling up and down the coast between Corona del Mar and San Clemente almost as regularly as joggers can be seen running along Coast Highway. While some prefer to go it alone, others seek the services of professional guides who provide instruction, equipment and companionship.

Kehl and Herron conduct kayak tours every day for about 20 people a week ranging in age from 14 to 60. For $75 a person, they provide all the necessary equipment, a lesson and a guided three- to four-hour trip up and down the coast starting from one of their favorite spots, which include Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach.

In addition to leisurely touring with friends, Kehl said, experienced kayakers can surf the waves with their boats, take them on long-distance races or use them as platforms from which to snorkel or scuba-dive.

The most challenging aspect of the sport, experts say, is paddling out and in through the surf. By keeping your boat at right angles to the waves, they say, this can usually be accomplished; let your kayak parallel the surf, however, and it's likely to capsize.

If that happens, no problem--just turn the boat over and climb back aboard.

Once you are out beyond the surf line, Kehl said, the going usually gets easier, although you still must watch for breaking surges over shallow reefs and other obstacles to smooth traveling. While first-time kayakers may feel some initial discomfort in their backs and legs, he said, it usually disappears within half an hour as they become accustomed to the tight quarters and constant paddling.

"It's just so beautiful," he said on an outing, speaking over the hiss of the water while eyeing the strange coastal rock formations seen only by surfers and kayakers.

Once, Kehl said, he found himself in the middle of a pod of dolphins. Another time he came within three feet of a migrating gray whale. On this trip, a big-eyed seal slowly approached the kayaks and touched one with its nose.

"It keeps you focused on what's important in life," Kehl said of the sport he loves. "Health, fitness and feeding your own psyche."

To feed yours, call Laguna Kayak at (714) 497-4425.

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