Friday, June 7, 2013

Get off the beach: Sit down — or stand up — and paddle offshore

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Sea kayakers in Portland have a couple of problems. First, it can be hard to find someone to paddle with, if you don’t already know a fellow enthusiast. Second, if you find someone willing to paddle, they likely don’t have their own boat — meaning you’re back out paddling solo again.
There’s nothing wrong with that, except it’s way more fun — not to mention a good bit safer — to paddle with friends. The easy solution, of course, would be to rent a boat for your willing partner. But until recently, renting a kayak wasn’t possible in the Forest City. Rather, prospective paddlers were forced to leave downtown and drive north or south along the coast, or to sort out the ferry schedules to and from Peaks Island on either end of the trip. All this precluded a quick after-work paddle or the spontaneous choice to laze around the swells of a weekend afternoon.
But salvation is here, and there are no more excuses. Portland Paddle opened its hatches last weekend, right at the East End Beach.
It’s a perfect spot to start a paddling trip — many owners already store their boats on the city-provided racks and launch from the beach. It’s a very protected little corner of the harbor with great views, and provides super-easy access to a wide range of destinations. You can take a relaxed excursion among protected inlets, (carefully) explore wildlife nesting areas, check out the rarely viewed seaward sides of lighthouses, and watch lobstermen do their work at close range — if you’re lucky, and have some cash on board, you may buy them fresh out of the trap!
Portland Paddle co-owners Zack Anchors and Erin Quigley are longtime East Enders who found themselves frustrated at the lack of paddling opportunities on the mainland hereabouts. So Anchors, a master Maine Guide who has led kayaking trips in many places for more than a dozen years, and Quigley, an experienced outdoorswoman who just got her Maine Guide license last month, teamed up to expand paddling opportunities in Portland.
They have about a dozen single kayaks and five tandems (as well as several stand-up paddleboards), all available for rentals by the day, half-day, or for an hour or two. (Buy a 10-rental punch card for a discount!)
The gear’s all new; they let me put the very first scratches on the hull of a shiny Necky Looksha in late May, on the first official Portland Paddle outing, an afternoon route around the back of House Island via Fort Gorges. It’s great stuff — put it to use!
Go it aloneIf you rent from Portland Paddle you’ll need some kayak experience and self-rescue skills. (See below for class information if you need to learn, or brush up, on those skills.) They have wetsuits, life jackets, spray skirts, and paddles available at no additional cost. (For a half-day single kayak rental with all the gear too, you’ll pay $40.)
Pop out to Fort Gorges in just a few minutes, or across to lunch on Peaks. Noodle among the islands for a relaxing afternoon of on-the-water sightseeing, and find a quiet beach to pull up on for a swim and a brief rest before heading back on your way. Paddle up the inland coast to Mackworth Island. Explore the inner harbor or even up the Fore River. Or head for the main passage out to the open ocean, checking out some of the more remote outer islands; adventurous paddlers can cross the channel (be careful!) to picnic at Willard Beach or Fort Williams Park.
Follow themIf you’re not up for a solo rental, Anchors and Quigley also lead guided tours around the harbor every day from now until September. (If the weather’s really windy or thunderous, they’ll cancel, but generally they run rain or shine.) You can get out there with the other sunset cruises, take a morning harbor tour, or go all day to the farther reaches of Casco Bay. The coolest thing on offer is an every-other-Friday moonlight paddle, heading out at sundown and letting darkness fall during the excursion. You might catch some bioluminescence in the water, and you’ll definitely get your own glow-stick.
Do as they doOf course, if you’re new to paddlesports, you’ll need to learn the basics. Sea kayaking is fun, and not difficult, but you ought to be prepared before heading out onto the ocean.
Classes, which cost just under $50 each (including use of a Portland Paddle boat and equipment), will be taught on a weekly schedule, with others added as demand requires. Most of them are three hours long, which is enough time to learn, try, and practice techniques without wearing yourself out. There are basic-skills classes to introduce you to sea kayaking — and the all-important rescue class. Intermediate and experienced paddlers can benefit from tailored classes on improved boat handling techniques, and even a rolling clinic. (And yes, there’s an intro to stand-up paddleboarding too.)
Become a regularThe first teaser for locals to become regulars is a discount punch card, which lets you prepay for 10 rentals and get a pretty sizeable discount for buying in bulk. You can get a kayak-only card for $250, a stand-up paddleboard card for $150, or a card offering five of each for $200.
Even more attractive for those of us who are seeking more of a paddling community is the weekly Wednesday night skill sessions, from 4:30 to 6:30 pm; $10 with your own kayak or $20 to use one of theirs. It’s a chance to hang out with other paddlers, brush up on some skills with an instructor, and maybe, just maybe, find a paddling buddy for those longer excursions.  ^
Portland Paddle | East End Beach, Portland | open through September, Mon-Thurs 11 am-7 pm; Fri-Sun 9 am-7 pm | | 207.370.9730
Boost your safetyHelp the Coast Guard with a free sticker
 The Coast Guard is trying to cut down on unnecessary search-and-rescue missions, to leave time, energy, and focus for when it really counts. Paddlers can make it harder, or easier.
When any boat is found adrift, or washed up on a piece of coastline somewhere, the Coast Guard gets the call, and has to figure out whether someone’s in trouble (or several someones), or if it’s just one of those times when a boat slipped its mooring or got loose from a dock.
If power- or sailboats are involved, they have registration numbers on their hulls, which makes it fairly easy to contact the boat’s owner and see what might have happened. Not so for kayaks and canoes: Since there’s no registration required, there’s no easy way to track a boat to its human.
This sort of thing happened to canoes and kayaks more than 50 times in Maine and New Hampshire’s coastal waters last year, says Lieutenant Nick Barrow, who supervises the search-and-rescue command from the South Portland Coast Guard station. (By mid-May, there had already been nine so far this year.)
To prevent this, get a vessel identification sticker, fill it out, and slap it on your boat. Pick them up free from the Coast Guard during the June 15 boating safety day (all day over at the station on High Street in South Portland), or at paddle outfitters around the area. You put your own contact info and that of your emergency contact on a reflective surface that will hold fast to your boat, even if you, or your tie-up lines, don’t. (If you can’t find one, call the Coasties at 207.767.0320; they’ll figure out the easiest way to get you one. And hey, get two — and give one to the next paddler you see without one.)
The stickers are useful if your boat escapes on its own (meaning no extensive search is needed, and you get your boat back), and even more so if you’re actually in trouble. As Barrow points out, your emergency contact can give rescuers important information about where you were planning to go, what your level of experience is, and what equipment you had with you — all of which helps them plan a better, faster, more efficient search to get you home safely.