Slicing Through The Other Wild Blue Yonder

One of the thrills of learning a new sport is that "I got it" moment. The good news about the fast-growing sport of sea kayaking is that whatever your athletic ability, that "I got it" moment shouldn't take more than five minutes--unless your boat has a hole in it.

Kayaks fit right in with the growing "eco-touring" movement, leaving only a ripple behind them as you soak up the scenery. Except for having to pay mind to winds and currents, kayakers have remarkable freedom to explore.

During a vacation in Hawaii, my husband Tom and I went kayaking for the first time, touring the Na Pali River in open-cockpit or "surf-ski" boats. Exploring our cold Northern California ocean waters meant learning to pilot a closed-cockpit kayak. These are typically 14 to 21 feet long and made of plastic or fiberglass. A single-seater costs about $1,000. Lessons run around $65, and rentals are $30 to $50 an hour.

The most common fear new kayakers have, says Eric Fournier of California Canoe & Kayak School (800 366-9804), is of capsizing and getting trapped underneath. That's because of the "spray skirt"--fabric that fits around your waist to cover the opening and keep out water.

For our first lesson, we paddled into the calm, shallow waters off Princeton on the Pacific coast. All of us novices were quickly in control, slicing through the water. Eric demonstrated some strokes.

DUNKIN' DO-NOTS. Suddenly, Tom spilled out into the 55F water. He slid right out of his spray skirt and bobbed to the surface. We spent almost the rest of the class learning how to right a craft and get ourselves or others back in. Experienced kayakers rely on the "Eskimo roll"--flipping the boat upright while in it.

I demonstrated some what-not-to-dos. I was unprepared for the cold slap of the water when I capsized, and I let go of paddle and kayak--a big no-no, since choppier water could have carried them in opposite directions. My life vest took me to the surface, but I began shivering and became disoriented. Eric didn't take that lightly: Hypothermia is a real threat to kayakers.

One problem was that I didn't have warm enough clothes. Sea kayakers often wear a wet suit and waterproof paddle jacket, along with layers of wool or synthetic fabric.

After adding a dry sweater and eating, I felt better. Despite that chilly experience, we're eagerly planning our next trip.

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