SAN ONOFRE — Sitting vulnerably in her lime-green sea kayak at the edge of the surf, 14-year-old Debbie Carlson nervously grasps her paddle and waits for what looks like the mother of all waves to crumble and disappear.
Then, like a sea turtle waddling out to the water, she scoots her kayak farther down the beach and, without time to look back, plunges into the churning ocean before another big wave has time to hit.
"Paddle, paddle, paddle!" screams her kayaking instructor, Harold Tervort, while giving her an extra shove into the surf. "Don't stop!"
Carlson is not about to stop. Paddling furiously toward the open waters as if her life depends on it, the novice tackles the most dangerous part of the surf--the shore break.
"We call it the three-minute drill," Tervort said. "You paddle like hell for three minutes until you're absolutely sure you're out of the surf zone. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you're upside down."
Carlson, of Irvine, has just been initiated into the fast-growing sport of sea kayaking, an activity enthusiasts say is part-adrenaline high, part-peaceful meditation and fully a recreational prerogative of the sunny summer.
From weekend warriors to hard-core outdoor veterans, the sport has been gaining hold among enthusiasts seeking an escape from the crowded trails and campgrounds of local wilderness parks.
Every weekend, hundreds of sea kayakers can be found renewing themselves in the protected inlets of Newport Bay, Huntington Harbour and Dana Point Harbor. Others launch kayaks from local beaches, such as San Onofre, paddling out to calmer ocean waters beyond the surf line.
Still others seek thrills riding the pounding waves like low-slung surfers, an experience some liken to white-water kayaking.
In the quiet expanse of the Pacific Ocean, they say they can find a peace and solitude that's become more difficult to find on land.
"It's so wonderful being out in the kayaks, knowing that the whales are right under you," said Joan Carlson, a weekend sea kayaker who got her daughter, Debbie, into the sport so they could be together.
It's that appeal that has the sport growing as much as 30% a year in Orange County for the past three years, said Joanne Turner, past president of California Kayak Friends and co-owner of the Irvine-based Southwind Kayak Center, which offers classes in sea kayaking.
"It's good exercise, you're close to nature, you can do it solo or socially, and the equipment is inexpensive and low-maintenance," Turner said.
She doesn't know exactly how many local kayakers there are, but she has about 9,000 kayakers from Orange County on her mailing list.
For those people with hectic lifestyles, sea kayaking is also a way to enjoy the great outdoors without investing a lot of time.
"I only have little snatches of time to do things," said Carlson, a teacher at Laguna Hills High School and the mother of three daughters. "[Debbie] and I can just throw the kayaks on the car, go out in the water, get renewed and refreshed, and then come home an hour later."
The point is, anyone can do it. "It does not require an inordinate amount of strength if you do it right," said 46-year-old Alan Trudell, who started kayaking after knee surgery four years ago forced him to quit jogging. "I would recommend classes, though, to learn common safety procedures."
Traditional fiberglass sea kayaks--the kind with a hollow shell that encloses the kayaker from the waist down--start at about $400, with the higher quality models ranging from $1,200 to $2,000. Sit-on-tops, a hard plastic kayak with an open seat on which the paddler sits, start at about $600.
Many beginners prefer to start with sit-on-tops, not only because they are far less expensive than the traditional kayaks, but because they require less skill, are easier to climb back onto after capsizing and their cockpits don't fill with water.
"They're fun and accessible to everything," said Steve Morris, who teaches sea kayaking at Laguna Beach. "You can scuba-dive off them or run them into the rocks. They're very durable."
But for outdoor enthusiasts who favor long-distance touring or open-ocean kayaking, the traditional closed-seated kayak is the preferred vessel. It keeps the paddler dry and protected from water, and is more functional because it can hold food and gear in its shell.
"It enables you to get to areas that are remote without having to carry so much gear, as opposed to backpacking," said Len Goodman of California Kayak Friends, an Irvine-based organization that promotes kayaking trips and safety education for its 700 members. "Yet it's something you can do within a few hours of where you live."