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Family Adventures Close to Home:
Kayaking to the Giants
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
My 8-year-old son, Miles, isn't all that interested in baseball.
"You guys go," he says to his father and me on days we have tickets to games.
Not even the lure of the twisting slides and piles of junk food muster his enthusiasm. He just doesn't like to sit in the seats, waiting for action. So I was surprised, and a little suspicious, when he suggested that we go to a Sunday afternoon San Francisco Giants game.
"Sure," I said. "I'll call for tickets."
He grinned. "Do you need them if you go in a kayak?"
Ever since watching the guy in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mask shag Barry Bonds' 660th home run ball in McCovey Cove, Miles has been fascinated by the flotilla bobbing outside the Giants' ballpark. And apparently he's heard about City Kayak, a company that rents lightweight canoe-like boats to intrepid sailors like us.
A few days later, we meet up with our pal Zoe, also 8, and her mother, Laura, outside City Kayak's dock along the Embarcadero (Pier 38), marked by an old yellow VW Microbus and a couple of upended kayaks.
The laid-back staffers give us a short form that lists the risks and rules of kayaking on San Francisco Bay. Then they conduct a brief safety course and help us select our life jackets. Ted Choi, owner of City Kayak, demonstrates the correct straight-armed grip for the paddle and reminds us to push with the top arm and pull with the bottom. He helps us into our open-top kayaks, which include a small seat back, molded plastic footholds, and drainage holes.
Before we can ask about the perils of oil tankers, currents, and sharks, we're shoving off from the floating pier.
"Arms out! Grip the paddle tightly. Push with your top arm!" I shout to Miles.
From his perch in the front of our two-person vessel, Miles demonstrates his prowess by sending a chilly paddleful of Bay water into my lap.
"Like that, Mom?" he asks before dissolving into fits of laughter.
"It's a good thing it's sunny," I tell him.
With Laura and Zoe close behind, we've settled into a rhythm by the time we reach the end of a dilapidated warehouse jutting into the Bay and turn south toward Pac Bell--uhm, I mean, SBC--Park. To amuse ourselves as we paddle along, we think up some names that SBC's mysterious monogram might stand for.
"Saint Barry's Cathedral," Miles calls out.
"Slider, Breaking, Curve," I say, exhausting my knowledge of major-league pitches.
"Some Big Corporation," Miles says.
The ride is surprisingly smooth as the kayak skims the tops of swells. Still, after about 15 minutes of paddling, I'm happy to ride the wake of a passing powerboat past the end of the South Beach Marina seawall, where we're treated to a rousing cheer from the crowd of Giants fans outside the stadium.
"Ahoy!" Miles calls out to the folks who lounge along the promenade that borders the right-field wall.
While we can't see the action in the park, we can hear Renel Brooks-Moon, our favorite radio deejay, announce J. T. Snow at the plate, to thunderous applause.
There's a flurry of activity as fans in (and on) kayaks, rubber dinghies, and surfboards jockey for position around a giant rubber target that floats in the water a few feet off the promenade. Snow is one of the few ball players, other than Bonds, who has smacked one into the Cove. However, today is not Snow's day. Everyone sticks around for Marquis Grissom's at bat. "He's been hot lately," says a guy in a yellow dinghy who is holding a beer in one hand and a butterfly net in the other. "But he tends to hit inside the park."
"Barry's up next," someone says. Beverages are stowed, and the fleet tightens around the floating target.
"Maybe his homer will drop into our boat," Miles says, wiggling back to make room.
Then Brooks-Moon announces Pedro Feliz, in Bonds' slot.
"His day off?!" Miles says, with disbelief. "Even Barry Bonds needs a day off," I tell him.
"I guess he is getting pretty old," Miles says of the player who is a few years younger than this writer.
Inside the park, a cheer goes up as Feliz gets on base. But for the McCovey Cove cadre, there's only letdown.
We paddle over to "the Alligator Guy" to chat. Jay Austin, as he's known in real life, gets a fair amount of television coverage as he plies the waters of the Cove with a rubber alligator strapped onto the bow of his kayak. Today, he's stretched out, paddling lazily in circles, hobnobbing with other Cove regulars.
"I haven't gotten a ball yet," he tells us. "But I'm hoping for number 700 from Bonds."
"Will you give it back like the Arnold guy did?" Miles asks.
Even as a non-baseball fan, Miles knows about Larry Ellison (the real name of the masked Schwarzenegger) and his laudable decision to return Bonds' record-tying home run ball to the slugger.
"Uh, no," Austin laughs. "I need the money. I'll send my parents on a nice cruise, though."
"I'd keep it if I got it," Zoe says. "That would be cool."
Austin smiles at her. "That would be cool."
Next, we head over to the police patrol boat and ask the officer if it's okay if we go under the Lefty O'Doul Bridge.
"You've got 45 minutes before the tide comes in," he tells us.
"No way," says Laura. "It's too creepy."
"Mom," Zoe says. "Have a sense of adventure."
Adventure prevails and we make our way under the old metal drawbridge, where we discover that there is no echo under the bridge. The cars passing overhead make a strange high-pitched humming noise, though, and it's shady and cool under there. After a few minutes, however, I realize that Laura has a point. There is something creepy about the underside of an urban bridge. A loud cheer from the ballpark gives us a reason to scurry back into the sunshine, which feels hotter after our moment in the shade. Miles wiggles around to face me and then flops onto his back along the bow of our boat.
"How are you going to paddle like that?" I ask him. He pretends to snore.
Zoe giggles and assumes the same position. Laura and I lock paddles, and the kids whisper to each other as they lounge in the sunshine.
"This is so great," Laura observes. "It's like we're on vacation."
At the start of the seventh inning, the air fills with the smell of burgers cooking on the grills set on the decks of nearby powerboats. Miles lifts his head, sniffing.
"I'm hungry," he announces. My backpack holds a package of desiccated gummi worms left over from a movie we went to last winter and a pair of melted Oreos.
"You ate a big lunch," I tell Miles.
"It's a baseball game," Miles says. "We're supposed to have something to eat."
Zoe nods in agreement. "They've got Krispy Kremes in the park," she says. "Those would be good right now."
I toss the junk food their way, giving the starving children enough energy to join in as the entire flotilla sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." A massive yacht toots out the 1 2 3 strikes on its horn as we pump our paddles in the air.
Feliz drives Grissom home to tie up the game, and rumors that Barry's going to come into the game as a pinch hitter bounce from one vessel to another. Unfortunately, an afternoon headwind is picking up. Even though these are perfect conditions for a splash hit, they also signal rougher surf for paddling, so we decide to head back to Pier 38 through the South Beach Marina.
Pausing next to a guy who is sprawled at the end of a dock listening to the game on a radio, we learn that Bonds has been called in to pinch-hit. As they've been doing all weekend, the Marlins walk him.
"Chickens," Miles says, stabbing his paddle into the water.
We admire the boats and the city skyline as we slide through the water. Cheers echo off the seawall as Yorvit Torrealba drives Bonds home to win the game.
We're all on wobbly sea legs as we change into dry clothes in City Kayak's locker room, chatting with a few other people whom we recognize from the Cove. We all agree that this is absolutely the best way to see a game.
"Snack time," Miles says as we join the crowd streaming down the Embarcadero.
At the Ferry Building, Laura and I share a plate of Hog Island Oysters, and Miles and Zoe eat gelato from Ciao Bella as we talk about the day.
"I liked hearing the crowd yell," Zoe says. "And getting wet. You don't usually get to get wet at a ball game."
"I liked the seventh-inning stretch," Miles says. "And lying down on the kayak. The only thing that would make it better would be if they had snacks on the water."
If You Go
City Kayak is located at Pier 38 on the Embarcadero at Townsend Street, just across from the Brannan Street Muni stop. Rates are $25 per hour for a double kayak; $15 per hour for a single. No experience is necessary; beginners are welcome. In addition to rentals, City Kayak also offers lessons, guided tours, group tours, and night tours. They also rent wet suits for those who go out on chillier days.
I would add that those who are nervous on the water might want to try kayaking on calmer waters than the Bay. At sea level, the chop and swells could intimidate true landlubbers. I'd also suggest taking it easy on the first trip out. I came to this conclusion as I packed ice around my aching elbows and biceps at around midnight on the day we went.
Reservations are recommended, especially on game days. For more information, including a description of what to wear and bring, check out the web site at www.citykayak.com or call 415-357-1010.