"It sounds like you have little kayaking experience," Sea Trek's program director told me on the phone. "That's good. The less you know, the better."
This guy was on the ball: he knew how to turn a lack of skill into an asset. Friends of mine had recently kayaked San Francisco Bay at night with Sausalito-based Sea Trek; the experience was, they said, an egalitarian adventure in which raw athleticism was pooh-poohed in favor of low-strain luxury. My kind of fun. But I was worried because I'd never set foot in a kayak. The program director was full of encouragement, especially after I asked whether we'd tip over and get sucked into some company's hydrocooling system or be munched on by sharks. Driving home the sale, he declared that the water, the moon, and the serenity blended into a powerful aphrodisiac called romance.
"Scratch romance," I said. "Just keep me afloat."
Tonight, our group of six landlubbers is setting forth on Sea Trek's five-hour tour, which includes paddling out at sunset, watching the San Francisco skyline come alive, dining at a waterside restaurant, and then returning to the water for several hours of stargazing.
But first we have basic training with guide Dave Talmo. He's about 35 years old, with a scraggly beard, kind eyes, and an easy smile. Dave doesn't mind that we goof on him when he demos the proper kayaking stroke by getting to his knees and paddling sand. We must be very smart, because when he is finished we have no questions. "You're very smart," Dave affirms.
Next, his fellow guide Mitch Powers provides a quick lesson about the boats. Mitch is big, strong, and serious. He shows us how to enter and exit a kayak without putting our feet through its $3,000 fiberglass hull. "Remember," he whispers solemnly, "you are sliding into eight thousand years of history, beginning with the Aleutians."
The land lesson takes about 45 minutes. We are assured that, despite what common sense tells us, these sleek aquatic darts are as untippable as Ohio. When the sun falls behind Mount Tam, our flotilla launches. I appoint myself captain of my craft and name my wife, Karen, first mate in good standing. (Karen's an E.R. doctor. Should a tsunami enter the bay and break us into little bits, she's capable of putting us back together again.) For the first several minutes we clack our paddles together as we struggle to synchronize strokes. "Get with the program, hon," I joke. Dave reminds me that Karen doesn't have eyes in the back of her head: "She can't see your stroke; you must adjust to hers."
For 10 minutes we zig and zag around Schoonmaker Point Marina, the inlet where Sea Trek is based. Mitch and Dave circle us like New York art critics evaluating a work of questionable value and taste. I have to admit they know their stuff. "To improve control," suggests Dave, "try putting your rudder in the water."
Embarking on a tour of Sausalito's harbor, we come to the massive, rotting Wapama, a turn-of-the-century ship that once transported lumber from the Pacific Northwest. It sits in dry-dock limbo while historians and port authorities decide whether it should be a museum or kindling. Coasting alongside its hull, Dave and Mitch slip effortlessly between the pier's pilings. "Come on, it's easy," Mitch calls to us. (In high school, Adam Friend once said the same thing to me, and I found myself diving under a moving train.) Once underneath, I bang my paddle against every piece of wood in the vicinity. Karen hits nothing, but our prow ricochets off the last piling.
"Uh, Karen's in charge of steering because she's in front, right?" I ask.