- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

Greg Beiro taught himself how to kayak in seven months.
He spent the following year "undoing what I taught myself," says Mr. Beiro, co-owner of Blu Gnu Kayak Co. of Alexandria.
That experience helped persuade Mr. Beiro to start his own kayak instruction company to help others avoid the mistakes he had made, such as relying too much on his arms to paddle rather than rotating his torso as well.
The local kayak season may be winding down Mr. Beiro says it stretches from May to October but he contends that September's low humidity and dropping insect count make it the best month of the year for kayaking.
Local water enthusiasts have a choice of several instructional centers where they can learn the soothing sport.
Kayaks differ from canoes in that they have lower centers of gravity and allow riders to paddle with double-sided oars rather than a single-bladed model. They also can be used in shallower water than canoes and, in general, are lighter and swifter.
Mr. Beiro, who began kayaking seven years ago, says his company's instructors, certified by the American Canoe Association, teach students how to enter and exit the kayak, perform basic strokes, understand how weather influences kayaking and rescue themselves should their vessel tip over.
He says taking lessons taught him not to simply use his arms while paddling, but to rotate his entire upper body.
"I was watching other people and trying to do [what they were doing] rather than learning the basics," Mr. Beiro says.
Tipping over is a key concern for some inexperienced kayakers, but Mr. Beiro says he never has had anyone become trapped in the cockpit.
Typically, he says, students "bob to the surface without any effort" if they spill over. The boat's hulls are mostly sealed, and all students wear vests to prevent them from sinking.
Mr. Beiro calls kayaking a "relaxing, gentle sport" that attracts a range of students.
"It's not a furious activity," he says. "It's the efficiency of the stroke, not the power of it" that's important.
That message doesn't get through to some of the more macho students, Mr. Beiro says. They paddle, using primarily their arms, as if locked in a mad race. His beginner classes are aimed at getting students to steer the boat at a reasonable speed.
The modestly sized classes, typically with six to 12 students, have at least one instructor for every five students.
District resident Jason Sanders, 27, recalls that the last time he tried kayaking, during an Alaskan vacation, he couldn't get situated properly in the vessel.
"Nothing fit right. It was painful to sit in the kayak," says Mr. Sanders, who recently took a Blu Gnu half-day kayak lesson with his wife, 26-year-old Angelique Dorazio-Sanders, at Pohick Bay near Lorton.
"It definitely [was] a worthwhile experience even though we had some canoeing under our belt. This was definitely educational," he says.
The instructions "get you comfortable with the idea that you might, in fact, go in, but your craft isn't going to sink," he says. "It's not going to be catastrophic."
During the class, Blu Gnu instructors Alison Sigethi and John Richardson helped the young couple get their sea legs.
"Women take to it a little bit faster. They have a lower center of gravity," Ms. Sigethi says.
A person's legs should be slightly bent while in the canoe, like a diamond shape. The kayaker's hips and legs press against the sides of the boat and allow for subtle direction changes by adding or decreasing pressure. A pair of foot braces help keep the kayakers' feet anchored in place.
The longer side of the asymmetrical paddle blades should be facing up while one is paddling, which allows for a more powerful stroke.
If a boat capsizes, only the cockpit portion of the kayak will be flooded. Sealed compartments at the front and back provide buoyancy and prevent water from sinking the vessel. A series of ropes strung along the kayak allow slippery hands to grasp its surface should it flip over.
Kayakers who find themselves in trouble can blow their safety whistles three times in a row, an established nautical signal for help.
The instructors warn students that they may feel lower back pain the days after their first trip because the kayaks offer little lower back support.
The Sanders' lesson on the relatively calm waters along Pohick Bay ran $60 for the half day. A full-day sea-kayaking introductory course costs $120.
• • •
More instruction companies are relying on ACA-certified teachers, says Cheri Nylen, the American Canoe Association's program coordinator for safety education and instruction.
"It is becoming more and more important to organizations and to insurers to have a demonstrated level of competency," says Mrs. Nylen, whose group covers all paddle sports.
Mrs. Nylen says licensed instructors must register the type of craft they wish to teach as well as the environment in which it will be used.
"Being an instructor of paddle sports isn't just [about] being a great paddler," she says. "It takes a special individual to be able to teach a skill and be able to demonstrate it."
That said, "Kayaking is a little easier to teach," she says, compared to other paddle sports. "You've got a double-bladed paddle. A lot of canoeing is tandem canoeing, and that takes communication."
• • •
Mike Savario, owner of Amphibious Horizons in Annapolis, says he teaches a mix of students, though most fall in the 40- to 50-year-old range.
"It can be as relaxed or as intense as you want to be," Mr. Savario says of the sport.
His students appear most daunted by the "wet exit," the lesson in which they leave the confines of the kayak while on the water.
"The first time they do the wet exit," he says, "we stand right next to them in the water. People feel a little claustrophobic [about the process]. So as soon as they do it, their confidence level skyrockets."
Much of a kayaker's success depends upon torso rotation. Toward that end, Mr. Savario runs his students through a series of upper-body stretches, which he dubs "kayak yoga," to prepare them for an afternoon of paddling.
His classes, which are held around Annapolis and include sessions for both beginners and more seasoned kayakers, devotes entire sessions to "rolling" in the water.
Quiet Waters Park, where the classes are held, lives up to its name, making it an ideal place for beginners.
"The water around here is pretty calm and shallow. Boat traffic is the big danger here," he says.
• • •
Beginning kayakers are best served by plastic vessels, which weigh the most of all kayaks but also are the most durable. They cost about $1,000. Fiberglass hulls (about $2,000) weigh less and can be shaped for slicing more efficiently through the water, but they are vulnerable if dropped or misused. Kevlar boats (around $3,000) are light and expensive.
Other models include inflatable kayaks and foldable models, which can be carried in large backpacks by hikers.
The instructors agree that the waters around the District are fairly calm, but any number of squalls could erupt and change those conditions quickly.
For rougher waters, some kayaks are equipped with foot-controlled rudders for better steering.
Kayakers also can slip on a spray skirt, fabric that wraps around the waist and attaches to the cockpit's outer lip. It helps keep water from infiltrating the hull.
Whether a kayaking student is new to the sport or just seeking to improve, Mr. Beiro says practice may never bring perfection.
Like a golf swing, he says, the perfect paddle stroke may be elusive. With kayaking, "you're always learning to improve," he says. "I'll be working on mine forever."

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