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Bay City Rowers

The next kayak, powered by the husband-and-wife team of Stig and Kelin Colberg, glides smoothly under the pier. He's a law student, and she's getting a master's in public health. The third holds Ray Paquette and Jon Oelschlaeger, senior executives at Ensemble Systems Corp., a computer consulting firm. Ray is the vice president of sales and marketing. He's in front, digging deep into the water and trying to move ahead. Jon, the cautious president, is applying the brakes without Ray's knowledge. "Way to go, men!" I cry. "Looking good!" I applaud whatever Ray and Jon do: they are my bosses.

Nature is beginning its fantastic transformation. The sky turns bright copper. Thin clouds, teased out like pieces of kinked yarn, look as if they have been injected with blood. The water has become the most amazing shade of lavender. "Am I in heaven?" Jon asks. "This is gorgeous," Kelin murmurs. Across the bay, San Francisco is winking with light. At dusk we head for deep water, but we must not venture too far into the open bay, because the receding tide is moving at seven knots. Even a strong guy like Mitch could be swept under the Golden Gate, and the next thing you know he's ordering egg rolls in China.

Someone blows his nose next to my ear. It's a tremendously wet sound, something from a Three Stooges film. I turn and find myself face-to-face with what looks like an earless Labrador. It's a harbor seal, checking out the happenings. Later, several California sea lions eye us from 50 yards away.

At nightfall we park our somewhat chilled selves in front of Margaritaville, a typical on-the-water joint with affordable food, a big bar, and a good view. Melissa, the waitress, materializes at our table to announce that appetizers have already been ordered. We raise a hearty cheer to her long life. "I'm a Sea Trek groupie," she confesses.

Margarita pitchers arrive with buffalo wings and chips, guacamole, and salsa. Toasts are raised to dry clothes and unflagging stamina. Our hands are so frozen it's hard to grip the glasses, but our bodies are warm. We must be good paddlers because Dave allows us two extra pitchers of margaritas, even though Sea Trek calls for a one-drink maximum per person. "We monitor KWI," warns Mitch. "Kayaking while intoxicated."

After dinner we head back to the water. The moon is a slender fingernail in the northwest. The only sound we hear is of slapping water. Tied to our kayaks are glow-in-the-dark sticks, without which we would lose one another.

Karen is silent except for an occasional happy sigh. Her paddle has grown dry on her lap. A mile away, the Golden Gate arches over the glassy bay. Ray knows most of the constellations, and as we lean back he identifies them. "I haven't looked up in a long time," he says.

An hour passes, maybe two. At some point Dave says it's time to return. No one wants to give up the peace. Our strokes slow to nothing as we draw toward land. Eventually the kayaks crunch against the sandy shore, but everyone stays seated, our eyes closed and heads tilted. We're trying to memorize the rhythm of the waves lapping against our hulls. We've been romanced.

Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center (Schoonmaker Point Marina, Sausalito; 415/488-1000) operates year-round, although April through October is considered high season. Three-hour starlight or moonlight paddles, which depart from Sausalito, run $60 per person; the five-hour evening dinner excursion to Margaritaville costs $80 per person (drinks not included). Sea Trek conducts many other trips, such as lunch paddles around Sausalito and water-and-hiking tours of nearby Angel Island, Tomales Bay, and the Muir Beach coastline ($50-$120).

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