Last updated March 19, 2019
If you’re not already crazy for kayaks, trust us… you will be. Because the Northwest Outdoor Center (NWOC) is aiming to make kayaking believers out of all of us. Since 1980, NWOC has run a thriving business, featuring seasoned instructors who have honed their skills on waters ranging from Alaska and Belize to Chile to Tonga. According to staff like John Meyer, an owner at NWOC, they have a simple aim.
“To provide safe, high quality boating instruction for people in the Northwest,” Meyer said.
Around Lake Union, water living reigns supreme. Hundreds of vessels find homes in slips here. In fact, Tom Hanks even occupied one of Westlake’s many houseboats when he played the lead role in a film about a heartbroken man who moved to Seattle and had trouble sleeping (what was that called again…?)
Near this now-famous site, NWOC enjoys a front-row view of the action out on the lake. Highly praised for its classes, rentals and tours, the center keeps about 100 kayaks and standup paddle boards on its docks. The friendly hub gets potential kayak pros of all experience levels ready to confidently glide across Seattle’s waterways—arguably the best place from which to experience this sparkling city.
Learning To Paddle
Kayaking is an intricate dance of strokes, maneuvers and balance between person, boat and paddle. Although it requires a certain degree of arm and core strength, it’s a sport that almost anyone can master with a bit of practice.
Before entering the water, it’s helpful to know a few things. REI has a number of kayaking resources that can help paddlers of all skill levels. And after years of watching kayakers traverse Lake Union, Meyer has some suggestions for anyone kayaking in Seattle.
1. Dress for the water, not the weather.
Although appropriate clothing choices depend on the location, take into consideration the water temperature rather than the air temperature. If your kayak tips over, you’ll learn very quickly how important it is to plan for water temperature. Layers of quick-dry clothing are ideal, and hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are highly recommended. For footwear, wear sturdy, strap-on sandals or water shoes. If you don’t know where to start, Sierra Trading Post has some excellent kayaking gear resources.
2. Select a boat appropriate for your kayaking experience.
NWOC offers high-quality vessels of different sizes, including one-, two- or three-person sea kayaks that average 14’ to 17’ ‘in length. And the differentiation is for a good reason.
“It’s way more fun if you have a decent boat for what you’re doing,” Meyer said.
Once you’ve chosen the right boat, customers can easily paddle around Lake Union, checking out Space Needle views near the Wooden Boat Center or catching a glimpse of Gas Works Park to the north. Some kayakers choose to head west toward Puget Sound through the Lake Washington Ship Canal, or east through Portage Bay to the Arboretum.
3. Know how to rescue yourself and others.
Capsizing is unlikely on the calm (and relatively warm!) waters of Lake Union. That said, it’s best to be prepared. NWOC staff members provide safety and rescue gear like life vests, pumps (in case the kayak fills with water) and inflatable paddle floats, which allow a kayaker to re-enter the boat after a capsize by creating a stabilizing outrigger.
NWOC classes and tours range from basic rescue and whitewater classes to Golden Gardens sunset tours and Full Moon paddles. Classes last from 2.5 hours to four or five days; overnight options include camping or lodging in a group rental house. The most popular series, the four-session Fundamentals of Sea Kayaking, meets three days on Lake Union and once at a saltwater location near Deception Pass.
Customers rent gear by the hour or with a yearly pass. In fact, according to Meyer, one loyal patron has used her pass every single day. Going kayak crazy, it seems, is easy to do.