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The idea was a mellow day on the ocean, checking out birds, sea life, and coastal views while paddling kayaks in the languid waters off of Haskell’s Beach, with the green lawns of Sandpiper Golf Course and architectural elegance of the Bacara resort adding some development spice. But there was a slight swell last Friday morning, so when my friends Sarah and Owen, who is 10, embarked as our group’s first explorers, those of us on shore watched slightly slack-jawed as their boat nearly flipped in back-to-back waves.
“Whoa,” I said with a chuckle, as they paddled toward calmer outside waters. “I thought our first boat was gonna be a disaster.”
Of course, nothing too disastrous can really happen in waist-high water, aside from getting wet. And such is the joy of kayaking, the safest, sanest way to experience the sea in up-close-and-personal ways — and, with the tandem option, certainly the best way to introduce kids to the water. It’s particularly bulletproof when taking a tour with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, one of the region’s oldest and most established outfitters.
I met SBACo’s owner, Michael Cohen, soon after he’d started his company almost 20 years ago, when I paddled with a group from Gaviota to Refugio state beaches. That launched both a friendship with Cohen and a personal confidence in kayaking. I’m nowhere near an expert, but I’ve done numerous sea cave tours at the Channel Islands, even once paddling a dozen miles or so from Santa Cruz Island to Anacapa (a story I’ve told possibly 500 times, whenever kayaking or with a clear view of the that gap), and have been occasionally called on by Cohen to help out when nearby newbies get sideways. I’m not the boldest waterman — no desire to scuba, for instance — but kayaking is calming to me.
The morning started out normal, albeit with our group of nine — including three adults and three kids plus Cohen, his son, Blake, and our guide, Kyle Fischler — all wearing masks during the brief lesson. Our boys tested fate by saying they wanted to see a killer whale and shark. The adults stuck to less jinx-y things, like big fish and bugs on kelp. Once we hit the water, masks came off, and we watched Sarah and Owen survive.
Better-timed launches were easier for the rest of us. My son quickly spotted a Mylar balloon, so we snatched it up before another dolphin died. Cohen talked about how he’s kept his businesses, which includes Channel Islands Adventure Company, afloat during this bizarre time. He started running tours again in early June, but the past weekend’s island trips were blown out by wind. “We finally get to open,” he explained with a what-can-you-do smirk, “and then we have to deal with all the normal things that make this a tough business.”
Soon we were talking about how fast kelp grows, that the spots on the leaves are actually little apartment complexes for mini-beasts, and how good the fresh tendrils taste, which was only a mild exaggeration. We paddled to “Bird Island,” those pylons where cormorants build their guano-plant nests, and spotted chicks poking out of the poop. Recently, some cormorants had been hopping into kayaks, and Fischler wondered whether they were saved from the Refugio oil spill and had fond memories of human helpers. He also showed us the cactus patch that connects to the Japanese attack on Ellwood during World War II, which may have been more revenge against prickly pears than military strategy.
As we paddled upcurrent toward the oil pier, Cohen started a little competition, in which we had to secretly stash tiny “bad breath” and “body odor” balls — really just his dog’s toys — in each other’s kayaks. The kids loved the tag-like game, while the adults tried mainly to keep the boats right-side up. At the pier, we ogled at the variety of shellfish and listened to the powerful calls of a great-tailed grackle while plotting later trips up the coast toward the Naples reef.
The waves were holding steady when it was time to land. My son and I managed to ride one in most of the way, until we got crooked and I told him to leap out at the last second. It was a flash of exciting adventure in an otherwise educational outing. As Fischler chased down our boat, we stood right up in knee-high water. My hat wasn’t even wet.
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