Sea Kayak Adventures office staff member and first time kayaker Amber Crane just returned from a tour in Baja (Oct 30-Nov 4, 2011).  She will chronicle her adventures in a new blog series:

Voyage of a Novice Kayaker

Part 1: Wait, what do you mean by ‘sea kayak?’

Kayak? On the ocean?  Like, where the big fish live?

I confess, when I first joined the office staff at Sea Kayak Adventures this past August and received the generous opportunity to join a trip this fall to Baja, my first thoughts were not of starlit sand or diving dolphins. 26 years of media influence and land-locked living ensured I possessed a healthy caution of open waters and the untamed inhabitants therein.  Consequently, the thought of strapping myself into a sliver of fiberglass and hovering like a delectable hors d'oeuvre above hundreds of feet of water containing what I could only assume would be a swirling mass of “things-that-might-eat-me” seemed, quite simply, impractical.

That SKA owners Terry Prichard and Nancy Mertz have led kayak expeditions in the Sea of Cortez for over 25 years (and operated their business there with thousands of guests since 1993) without anyone swallowed by a whale (most of which, I later learned, are of the peaceful baleen variety) didn’t soothe the stirrings of my survival instinct. As much as I aimed for intellectual suppression of my irrational fears, I remained committed the administrative end of the Baja sunshine: from the safety of my computer screen with my feet firmly on solid ground.

And then I saw the pictures.

Our brochure is gorgeous – what company wouldn’t want to put its best foot forward – but assuredly reality would probably be a bit less “photoshopped.”  Or so I thought!  I was treated to visual splendor when I asked offhandedly for some photos to use for the SKA Facebook.  The candid photos, taken with regular cameras by regular people, were utterly breathtaking. No photoshop needed. It’s just that gorgeous.

Electric blue water – a color I previously reserved for spandex and popsicles – sways over a bed of white sand.  A kayak floats tranquilly over an aquarium without glass.  Pelicans infused with sunshine nap on outcrops.  Blue-footed boobies dot cliffsides with a refined grace their name belies. Russet peaks lift the horizon to a cobalt sky.

I was enthralled.  I still am, especially after seeing everything in person.

Throwing caution (and presumably the last vestiges of my sanity) to the wind, I applied for a passport and added my name to the list for our October 30th trip, the first tour of the season (other than an extended trip for experienced paddlers).

All seemed well until weeks later when upon preparing the roster, I realized my glaring inadequacy.  While only a handful of the other guests had sea kayaked before, most had some experience with a canoe or river kayak and adhered to regular exercise routines. While I work out several times a week, my transition to a desk job left me rather less-than-toned after several years of immersion (and high fitness) in the competitive equestrian world.  In horror I wondered if I would even be able to lug my sorry carcass along in a kayak at all, let alone paddle for four whole days. I imagined being the slowest of the group, “that person” who breeds impatience and hatred by lagging behind the others as I vainly huffed and puffed, red-faced, to keep up.  Or worse, I might be crippled by terror, frozen and clutching the edges of my boat, afraid to stick my sweaty little palms out over the water lest they be chomped off by a flying fish.  Oh, this would not do.  I needed to be proactive and face my fears head on – before I was surrounded by miles of open ocean and disgruntled guests.

I would later discover that the closest our tours got to “open ocean” was the 60 minute crossing from our launch point near Loreto to the closest island, Danzante, where we ate lunch on the first morning.  At barely two miles from land and well-sheltered by the curvature of the Baja peninsula, I needn’t have worried about getting lost in the great big blue.

Nonetheless, this concern did inspire a particularly brilliant plan on my part, and a strategy I recommend to anyone who feels nervous about their upcoming trip.  While 25-30% of our clients have never even sat in a sea kayak and do just fine, if you have any concerns at all, try a kayak ahead of time. Just do it. You can thank me from Baja or BC.

Nancy kindly escorted me and two of her sea kayaks out a local lake here in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. After a dozen texts about what to wear for “the experience” and several clothing changes (I dressed two hours in advance to be sure I wouldn’t miss something), I found myself standing on the beach eyeing the surprisingly sturdy-looking vessel that I would be living-and-breathing with in less than a month.

For the unfamiliar, it’s important to note that sea kayaks aren’t like the puny river kayaks with which you are probably accustomed. Sea kayaks are wide, long, and stable enough to handle the swells and currents of ocean waters. The Seaward Southwind doubles that make up the majority of our Sea Kayak Adventures fleets are 21’ long.  Hand-built for SKA right on Vancouver Island in BC, Canada, Seawards are apparently the Mercedes Benz of kayaks. Not bad for a vacation “rental car!”

Nancy showed me how to fit into my PFD and use a spray skirt (it keeps the water off of you and waves out of the kayak). I discovered that you’re not actually “strapped into” the kayak, just secured with the spray skirt through a loose elastic binding. I learned how to open and secure hatches, hold the paddle (I still had it backwards half of the time on my trip, which my guides would kindly point out to ease the paddling) and Nancy demonstrated how to brace ones hands on the combing around the cockpit and lower oneself gracefully into the kayak.  I practiced on shore before hand and, then, enlivened and enthused by the simplicity of design, I waded out into squishy lakeshore bottom where the kayaks bobbed gently on the shallow beach to try my entrance in real water.

For some reason, I ended up on the other side of the kayak than I had practiced on shore, but thinking highly of my newfound skills, bravely pushed forward despite this complication.  Unfortunately, my coordination seemed rather lacking from the left side of my body, and my hands ended up in all the wrong places with my feet out behind me. Panicking, I tried to jump in anyway so that I didn’t suffer the humiliation of a second attempt, and landed squarely in the water. I blame this not on any fault of the kayak but solely on the fact that I missed the boat entirely. I remember telling Nancy, “I’m glad I got that out of the way before my trip. Now no one will ever know!” All of you reading this are sworn to secrecy.

The second attempt went much better, and soon we were gliding along the shoreline. After a few minutes of adjusting to the balance and movement of the water, I found kayaking in the Seaward to be fairly simple and – surprisingly – fun! Within an hour my confidence grew and we crossed to the middle of the lake, that terrifying place where, on the map of Coeur d’Alene, is displayed “Here Be Dragons.”

By the time we returned to shore I wasn’t even thinking about the kayak any longer; I was peacefully in tune with the world around me, pausing to watch bald eagles dance and trying to spot moose on shore.  My shoulders were a bit sore as those muscles aren’t frequently used in my day job, but they didn’t hurt afterward. Changing my workout routine to include more arm exercises and stretching left me well suited for my trip – and I stayed well within the range of the group. More importantly, the serenity I encountered kayaking on the lake stayed with me to my paddling adventures in Baja, and my trip was exquisite.  Once in a kayak again, my fears about the water simply evaporated.

Stay tuned for further entries of Voyage of a Novice Kayaker to hear all about my trip.  Coming up soon: Part 2 – “Do as I say, not as I did.”

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