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This summer, renting kayaks and paddle boards is floating people's boats

Midday on a recent sunny Saturday, people steadily streamed in and out of Black Hall Outfitters in Old Lyme. Some, snug in their life vests, settled into kayaks and slowly paddled away from the dock and out along the meandering Black Hall River. Others returned from a two-hour trip out toward the Connecticut River and Great Island Wildlife Area, grinning and looking relaxed.

When one family was done, another was beginning. Gregg and Debbie Sajkowicz of Groton were ready to go, with their four children, ages 10 to 16. Gregg had kayaked before but recently brought Debbie to Black Hall for her first go-round; they had planned a two-hour trip but were enjoying it so much, they stayed out for another two.

“It was so relaxing — definitely what I needed,” she said. It’s great to “get outside, enjoy the fresh air, do something as a family. It brings everybody closer to nature — the best place to be, really.”

While they were preparing to get into their kayaks, another family had just finished their boating excursion. Marisol Datiz and husband David Rivera of Rocky Hill brought Marisol’s sister, Maria Datiz, and husband David Arguello, along with each couple’s child; the Arguellos had moved from New Mexico to West Hartford just three days earlier.

“As a family, we decided this was a good activity to be in a social distancing environment but then have fun,” Marisol said.

Maria said, “Anything that is outdoors, it’s good for the mind, good for your body. And then it’s one activity that allows you to do it in a safe way (during) COVID.”

Indeed, the summer of COVID-19 has been an unusually busy time for venues in southeastern Connecticut that rent out kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

And it’s not just here; across the country, people who had been stuck quarantining at home because of the pandemic are anxious to get out of the house and do something fun. With a lot of entertainment choices still not available, they are turning to this option, which is outdoors and an easy place to social distance.

Gene Chmiel, owner of Black Hall Outfitters, which also has a location in Westbrook, puts it plainly: “It’s been insane ... It’s been a massive increase, no doubt about it. Every aspect of our business, from rentals to our kids’ camp to kayak rentals and sales, it’s big.”

Chmiel, whose family has run the business for two decades, said that the impact of COVID-19 has created a perfect storm. People are not traveling, and he thinks people want “to get out of the house and do things that are active and outdoors and socially distant.

“And then there are the economics of it. Whether or not you've been impacted financially in a negative way, it’s a very low-cost thing to do. Then the flip side of it is a lot of people have gotten stimulus (checks) ... and they’ve got time on their hands.”

At Black Hall Outfitters, for instance, people can rent a single-person kayak for $25 for an hour, $40 for two hours and $60 for a half-day.

At Stonington Marina, general manager Paul Kirrane had actually seen a big decline in kayak rentals over the past few years, through 2019. As the purchase price of kayaks plummeted, with cheap versions being sold for as little as a couple hundred bucks, more people were buying than renting, he said.

Now, though, kayaks available for sale have become scarce, as factories shut down temporarily or reduced capacity during the pandemic and as more folks have been seeking outdoor activities.

Those factors have contributed to kayak rentals at Stonington Marina spiking this summer.

“We’ve seen about a 100% increase over last year. So the steady decline has completely reversed itself,” Kirrane said.

That shortage of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for sale made it challenging for Elle Kronholm, owner of Blue Heaven Kayak & Paddle Board Rentals in Mystic, when she wanted to buy more. This month, she finally got six new kayaks and two new paddleboards.

“All of them have been really difficult to find. I was lucky finally, within this month, to get six (kayaks), but I struggled for the first two months to get my inventory higher because of the demand,” she said, noting that rentals at Blue Heaven have tripled since last summer.

Keeping it clean

Once people return the rented kayaks, of course, the vessels have to be cleaned according to coronavirus-era protocols.

Suzie Flores, who owns Mechanic Street Marina in Pawcatuck with husband Jay Douglas, said, “That does mean we have to space our launches out a little bit so we can give our kayaks time to get rinsed and the high-touch zones get sanitized ... It’s like a Clorox sanitizer. And then we have to sanitize the paddles, and we have to sanitize the vests.”

Jonathan Leonard, co-owner of Cove Landing Marine in Lyme, said that he has had to hire another person to help with the cleaning. In the past, a kayak would come in, get rinsed off, and then would head back out with a new customer. Now, the cleaning procedures require a longer time before a kayak hits the water again. “Now, (the kayak) is almost missing a turn,” Leonard said.

New to paddling

Leonard has seen a good number of new customers at Cove Landing Marine this summer. Asked for advice for newbies, he would remind them to wear appropriate clothing — to protect them from the sun but also the potential chill, since being on the water can get cold at times — and to bring water to drink.

People going out should wear a life vest and listen to the instructions from the rental employees.

Also worth noting: Weekends, naturally, are the most popular days, and most places strongly encourage patrons to make reservations for Saturdays and Sundays.

Staying local

A lot of kayak-rental owners have noticed an increase in the number of people from the area wanting to rent.

Flores has seen more local folks dropping into Mechanic Street Marina.

“The anomaly for us this year has been local people who walk by — because everybody started walking or jogging — and they see there are kayak rentals. They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to pop in here and rent one for a couple hours,’” she said.

After being stuck in their Brooklyn apartment for much of the last few months, Bridget Carle and Matthew Roney were looking to get out of New York City for a few days and wanted to be somewhat near the water. They ended up at an Airbnb at Stonington Marina, a stay that came with complimentary use of the kayaks and paddleboards, which they took advantage of.

“I loved being out on the water,” Carle said. “... It’s a fun way to exercise and explore the area.”

She said that they probably would have gone somewhere else this summer had it not been the coronavirus, but with the pandemic, they didn’t want to leave the tri-state area.

Taking the plunge

Some people have gone beyond renting; they have bought their own watercraft. MaryLou Gannotti of Quaker Hill had tried paddleboards at her brother’s and had long wanted to buy her own. She went ahead and did it this spring, and now her family has two inflatable stand-up paddleboards.

“Our family has had a blast. Our most wonderful pandemic discovery has been a public boat launch five minutes from our home in Quaker Hill where we can paddle up the Thames. It has been very peaceful. We love it,” she said, adding that she has always enjoyed the water.

She said that going out on the paddleboard in the Thames is like a mini-vacation.

Location, location, location

Renting kayaks or paddleboards in southeastern Connecticut affords customers a wide choice in experiences.

Mechanic Street Marina is on the Pawcatuck River, and so boaters might see eagles, herons, hawks, ospreys, falcons and more; Flores said, “It’s like a birder’s dream.”

The Stonington Marina is on Wequetequock Cove, which is usually quite calm, Kirrane said. People can kayak around Sandy Point or Barn Island and out to Napatree Point. While their rentals start at two hours, some people do a full day, and groups explore the inlets at Barn Island or find little places to stop and spend some time.

Black Hall Outfitters has both of its sites on hundreds of acres of wildlife sanctuary — the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook and the Great Island Wildlife Area in Old Lyme.

Beach closed? No problem

During a year when state parks are closing down as they reach their much-reduced capacity, the folks who can’t get in there are looking for other water-related options. Chmiel said he is learning that Black Hall Outfitters’ proximity to Hammonasset and Rocky Neck state parks is a boon. People who can’t get into either of those discover that Black Hall is close by and can provide them with an outdoor experience, so they head there.

Anything to do with outdoor activity has seen a spike in interest across the entire country. In addition to kayaks, it’s become difficult to find bicycles to buy because of the surge in demand.

And it’s not just paddle-powered watercraft that have become more popular. Stonington Marina, for example, has seen an uptick in motor boat rentals, as well, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 a day.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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