Recreational kayaking is easy, safe and scenic — and there’s no better place to do it than here in Marin.
MILL VALLEY RESIDENT Bob Licht had already spent a decade leading whitewater trips all over the state when he decided to stick closer to home by opening California’s first commercial sea kayaking operation in Sausalito in 1982. “I knew that Richardson Bay had abundant wildlife, great views and dynamic conditions for paddling, from mild to wild,” he recalls. “So I figured that since I loved paddling there so much, others would too.” Not coincidentally, 35 years since Licht launched Sea Trek (he handed over the keys to son Galen in 2014), it seems there’s a kayak in every Marin garage, even if it shares cobwebs most of the time with that other iconic Marin sports-gear item, the mountain bike. In reality, the existence of Sea Trek and Marin’s two other paddling enterprises in San Rafael and Inverness make ownership unnecessary. Beginners and frequent kayakers alike can rent to their heart’s content at those spots, while paddling in three distinct bodies of water.
Where do you paddle? Kayaking from Sea Trek, tucked behind Sausalito’s Bay Model, you’ll slip past yachts, houseboats, harbor seals and cormorant colonies in Richardson Bay — with Mount Tamalpais, Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop. Paddling from 101 Surf Sports, kayakers follow the San Rafael Canal from Highway 101 to the bay before heading north toward China Camp State Park, south toward the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge or east toward the Marin Islands, a national wildlife refuge. From Blue Waters Kayaking in Inverness, paddlers pass a succession of quiet beaches — Heart’s Desire, Marshall and Tomales — in Tomales Bay. Bat rays, tule elk, osprey and great blue herons are among the creatures paddlers encounter. The drive to Inverness takes time and it’s the priciest of Marin’s kayak-rental locations ($60 for a two-hour-minimum outing), but also the most serene and memorable. Owners of kayaks can also choose from among dozens of other spots where it’s legal to “put in” in Marin (identified at bask.org/trip_planner).
Who kayaks? “Forty percent of our renters are first-time paddlers who just want to try it out, while 20 percent are members who get unlimited rentals for $45 a month,” says Sea Trek’s Galen Licht. “We get quite a mix of people, from teens and young couples to grandparents.” That busts the stereotype that kayakers are all older folks who couldn’t stay upright on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) to save their lives. Plenty of millennials kayak, just as plenty of baby boomers SUP. But at any age, kayaking is the better choice for beginners. “It’s a bit easier to learn, and kayaks perform much better in wind and rough waters,” notes David Wells, who opened 101 Surf Sports in 2011 in San Rafael. “They’re just more seaworthy.” Kayaks account for 40 percent of rentals at his shop; it’s 60 percent at Sea Trek.
How do you do it? A staff member will give you a few minutes of simple instruction when you step into a “sit-on-top” kayak — how to hold the paddle, how to turn (by angling your paddle or shifting your body weight) and where to explore. And then you’re off. “It’s far easier and safer than riding a bike,” Galen notes. Sea Trek has a spotless safety record, with no serious injuries in its history. Eventually some kayakers decide to advance to a sister sport that demands more skill: paddling a SUP, traditional (sit-inside) kayak or surfski (a high-performance, lightweight kayak), or rowing, surfing, kayak surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding or Hawaiian outrigger paddling. All can be enjoyed in Marin waters.
What do you need? Water can spray into the boat and onto your head, so to be comfortable wear a swimsuit or water-resistant apparel, a cap/hat and hardy sandals/flip-flops. Bike gloves can provide blister prevention. But that’s about it, unless you want to spend money.
When is the best time? November is a good time to try kayaking for the first time, for several reasons. The water is usually calm. From November to March, the bird population swells in Marin’s bodies of water because they’re on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Winter months are also when sea lions visit Richardson Bay. The other seasons have different personalities. Spring and summer bring higher winds and choppier waves — dramatic, fun and challenging — and autumn features calmer waters and warmer temperatures. At any time of year, mornings are always the best bet because winds usually pick up in the afternoon.
Why do it? Says Richmond customer service rep Elaine Baden, a kayaker who launches often from 101 Surf Sports, “Being on the water calms me, makes me whole and gives me as much or as little of a workout as I need each time.” Mill Valley accountant Michael Vipham, a frequent kayaker at Sea Trek, echoes that enthusiasm: “I can paddle for an hour or two in the morning and still have the day in front of me, or spend all day exploring the bay. I’ve had seals following me and pelicans diving all around me. It’s a great escape and a unique way to get fresh air and exercise.”