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ST. PETERSBURG -- There was a time when Russell Farrow would pull his sea kayak up on the beach and people would stop and stare.
"What is that thing?" they would ask.
"A sea kayak," he would say. "The most versatile small boat in the world."
A lot has changed since Farrow and his partners opened their first sea kayak shop on Siesta Key 10 years ago. The sit-on-top and recreational kayak markets have exploded, and the interest in the more expensive, enclosed boats has continued to grow.
"We experienced our best month on record in December," said Farrow, co-owner of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg. "There are a lot of people getting out on the water."
The store, which more than doubled in size when it moved from its old Tierra Verde location to one near Gandy Boulevard in September, has earned a reputation as a kayaker's kayak shop. Sweetwater specializes in top-of-the-line, British-built, ocean-going vessels for the serious adventurer.
"We don't look at ourselves as a retail store," Farrow said. "We like to think of ourselves as a kayaking center. We are here to enable people to get out and kayak anywhere in the world they want to."
With several British Canoe Union and American Canoe Association instructors on staff, the emphasis is on education.
This weekend, the shop is hosting the seventh annual Florida Gulf Coast Sea Kayak Symposium, which typically attracts paddlers from around the world.
Instructors who will speak include Nigel Foster, an author and boat designer who includes the circumnavigation of Iceland on his paddling resume; Jean Totz, a BCU instructor and one of the state's top female paddlers; Chris Duff, author of Celtic Tides, which chronicles his trip around the Emerald Isle; and Greg Stamer, the "Greenland Style" paddling champion, who just happens to be from Orlando.
While some of the symposium's lectures and on-the-water demonstrations are geared for the intermediate or advanced paddler, beginners are welcome as well.
"The cool thing about kayaking is that it is a lifetime sport," Farrow said. "You can do it till the day you die, because it can be as high impact or as low impact as you want it to be."
Like many sea kayakers, Farrow was an outdoors enthusiast when he was introduced to the sport.
"I was a mountain biker, and to me, kayaking looked like mountain biking on the water," Farrow said. "You can go anywhere you want to, take all your gear, in pretty much any type of conditions."
The traditional sea kayak, patterned after an Inuit design, is a long, slender vessel with dry storage fore and aft. Most "longboats" are 16-18 feet long and 22 inches wide with hulls made of fiberglass or Kevlar.
"A good composite sea kayak will cost $1,800 to $2,700," Farrow said. "But a quality boat will last you a lifetime."
But having a good sea kayak is only half the battle. You still have to know how to paddle it. Sweetwater teaches under the BCU system, which rates paddling proficiency on a scale of one to five. Levels one through four can be achieved here in the United States, but to get that fifth star many paddlers go to Wales, the mecca for sea kayakers.
"The conditions can be extreme," Farrow said. "You need excellent skills, but you also need excellent risk assessment."
Farrow remembers being caught offshore in 16-foot swells and being forced to navigate a 7-knot tidal race with 300-foot cliffs on either side.
"There was no place to land, so all we could do was paddle," Farrow said. "When we got done, we were so proud of ourselves, we were beating our chests."
But Farrow's instructor was not impressed and admonished him and his friends for risking their safety with such a foolhardy stunt.
"Sea kayaking is not just about paddling anywhere, any time," Farrow said. "It is also about knowing when not to paddle."
-- For more on the seventh annual Gulf Coast Sea Kayak Symposium contact Sweetwater Kayaks at (727) 570-4844 or go to www.sweetwaterkayaks.com.