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First-Timer Feels the Pull (and Push) of Kayaking


AVALON — The sun was glinting off the Pacific waters at Descanso Beach, and Jake Brannock was preparing another kayak for a trip north along the rugged Catalina Island coastline.

He's a big man with beefy arms whose specialty is ocean kayaking. On this day he was taking me up the coast to demonstrate the virtues of the so-called sit-on-top kayak, the type that has revolutionized the business. Once kayakers were a relatively small niche of hard-core enthusiasts, involved in a sport that had its origins in the frozen north.

Now, because of the sit-on-tops, kayaking is a wide-open sport, suitable for young and old alike. The reason: It's eliminated the fear of being trapped underwater if the kayak rolls over. Brannock gave his son an initial kayak ride at 18 months, and the boy promptly fell asleep. A 90-year-old woman recently celebrated her birthday with a kayak ride up the Catalina coast.

So here I am, a first-timer, on a deserted beach in the middle of winter, getting ready to cruise up the coast. I am heartened that I'm going to be in a sit-on-top, because I frankly don't want to have to learn how to get out of a kayak if I tip over. Experts have told me getting out of a kayak isn't terribly difficult, but still.

I've chosen Catalina because a short ferry ride from San Pedro brings me to a world far removed from crowded Los Angeles. And asking around about kayaking made the choice a cinch. Catalina is considered a kayaker's heaven in this part of the world.

"We're probably putting between 200 to 600 people in the water a day during the summer," said Brannock, a manager and instructor at Avalon's Descanso Beach Ocean Sports (kayakcatalinais

On this day, a slightly overcast sky has given way to sunshine, and several kayakers are on the water, paddling north. They, like me, don't look like hard-bodied athletes, but they seem to be cruising along nicely. They look to be good examples of why ocean kayaking has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, as sit-on-tops have gone from being lumbering bathtubs to much more maneuverable vessels. The number of kayakers is difficult to come by, though, because various paddle sports are lumped together by the water sports industry.

"The real answer is that no one has broader statistics than the end of their nose," said Joanne Turner, owner of Southwind Kayak Center, an Irvine-based company.

Southwind, for instance, started with six kayaks in 1987. Now the company owns 160, which are trucked up and down the coast for rentals and lessons.

Perhaps surprisingly, Turner said the largest number of ocean kayakers range in age from 30 to 65, with the majority in the 40- to 50-year-old range. She said there also is a subgroup of young families who have discovered kayaking as a way to exercise together once their children are old enough to swim.

Mark Brodeur, president of the California Kayak Friends club (, said that when he took up ocean kayaking at age 40, he was consistently the youngest person on trips.

"My explanation is that people in their 20s and 30s participate in high-adrenalin sports," he said. "Kayaking is a lower-adrenalin-type sport. It's about the same as a brisk walk."

At the same time, though, he said multi-day outings are sure fat burners. "When I come home from one of those, my clothes are sure not to fit," he said. "Of course, part of it is the terrible freeze-dried food we have to bring."

Brodeur said there are a number of Southern California kayaking clubs, as well as Internet list servers where enthusiasts can track events or just find a paddling partner for the day.

At Catalina, Brannock prepared a Scupper Pro kayak for me. The 50-pound kayak was almost 15 feet long and 26 inches wide, built to hold between 350 to 400 pounds, kayaker and gear included.

My gear consisted of a pair of waterproof pants, designed to fit tight at the ankles and protect a large portion of the torso. Also, there were water shoes to guard against rocks in the shallows, and a mandatory life jacket. A foul-weather jacket is also recommended, but moderate temperatures argued not to wear it.

After a brief lecture about how to paddle and what to do in the unlikely event of landing in the drink, we pushed off from the beach. In the first moments, the kayak seemed unstable as it rocked from side to side in the small swells. My 50-something leg muscles tightened, in what Brannock said is a natural first response to the slight swaying motion.

But then I dug into the water with my paddle and headed north, out the small harbor and toward the pristine scenery that is the hallmark of the island. In a matter of minutes, Avalon was out of sight.

I checked my heart monitor, which in the first minutes climbed to around 125 and stayed there for most of the paddle. It was, indeed, like a brisk walk. Brannock, meanwhile, cruised effortlessly by my side, occasionally pointing out a cormorant as it dove in the water. What, I asked, is the first step to being a better kayaker?

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