Sunday, January 17, 2010

Finding good kayak dealers, outfitters

You’ll find references on this blog to “full-service” kayak dealers and outfitters. I haven't taken money to make phony endorsements – and I never will. But whenever I encounter a helpful kayak outfit, I'll go out of my way to mention it by name. In my view, these folks are as important as a well-made kayak or paddle.

When it comes to recreational dollars, you get more value from a kayak dealer than from that $299 kayak on sale at Biggie Mart. Find a good local dealer/outfitter who specializes in kayaks and you’re much more likely to wind up with quality gear or a day tour you’ll enjoy. In turn, that improves the chances you’ll continue kayaking, hone your skills, feel the benefit of physical exercise, and find a deeper appreciation for nature.

So what’s a “full service” kayak outfit anyway? For me, it starts with a business that offers easy access to paddling. Even if the store isn’t right at the shoreline, it makes arrangements – with classes, kayak rentals, or tour packages – to put customers on the water with a minimum of hassle. Store employees are kayakers themselves. They're knowledgeable and friendly, so novice paddlers don’t feel intimidated. Of course, any good kayak shop is safety-oriented. Store membership in watersport associations also is a nice touch, but it still comes down to how the business relates to you, an individual customer. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the business has been around, the better. 

Beyond that, look for a dealer or outfitter who gives you flexibility to rent or buy gear. It’s absolutely essential that you try out as many different kayaks as you can before you decide what to buy. And it's a real plus if you can take advantage of a kayak trade-in or trade-up program as your skills and interests evolve.

Then there are the intangibles – the little things a pro kayak outfit does to help you enjoy your time on the water. Here’s a small but telling example:

On a recent trip to Sausalito, I met Steve Hayward at Sea Trek Ocean Kayak Center. He gladly took the time to tell me about touring the local houseboat community and help me get my kayak to the water, even though I wasn't renting one of his yaks. (Granted, it was a slow day in the off-season, but he seemed genuinely interested in helping newcomers.)

As we got to the beach, Steve pointed to gulls picking among piles of seaweed – something that I wouldn’t have given a second glance. “Here’s what they’re after – herring eggs,” he said, holding up a small clump of vegetation. It looked like delicate necklaces glistening with thousands of tiny pearls. “By the time you return from your paddle at low tide, you’ll see hundreds of gulls here, he said. “Some people think of this as a dead bay, but there’s millions of fish and other life if you know what to look for.

“Every tour that we offer is interpretive, whether it involves natural or human history,” Steve added.

 And that’s another good reason to paddle with a pro.

© 2010 Glenn Brank