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Paddle Battle

At the sound of the shotgun, they will begin paddling their little boats just off a tiny white beach under the mossy oaks, past Count Philippe's grave site and south of the Indian burial ground.

Using every ounce of trunk muscle (those are the abdominal and lower back muscles for you non-kayakers), the contestants will coax the boats up the coastline toward the Oldsmar bridge, swing around a buoy and head back to the beach.

The first one there wins what has become known as the "kayak craze" race event in Safety Harbor.

"Even if you have never raced before, you can do this race," said Craig Tobey, an orthopedic physical therapist and former owner of Adventure Kayak Centers in Palm Harbor, a co-sponsor of the event. "(The kayaks) are more stable than people think."

Noting the sport's increasing popularity in the Tampa Bay area, Safety Harbor commissioner Robin Borland came up with the idea of having kayak races to help celebrate the city's 85th anniversary last year.

"It was a very beautiful sight watching all the kayaks take off from the beach area at the park," she said. "They are all different sizes and colors, and one participant had made his own kayak."

It was so successful, the city decided to make it an annual event.

This year, the competition is not as grueling as last year's 10-mile course race: It is 2 miles to 7.5 miles, depending on which race you choose. It is designed for recreational kayakers mainly because the serious racers will probably be competing in the 11.4-mile Great Pickle Race down the Hillsborough River in Tampa on Saturday.

Why is kayaking becoming so popular?

"It's good for your physical fitness, it's fun, and in a kayak you can see things you can't see in a boat," said Tobey, 29, who once completed a 2{-month, 1,100-kayak journey from Georgia to Key West. "People are still discovering how many good places there are to paddle here."

One of them is Safety Harbor, a naturally protected area which is known for its smooth, calm waters "unless a storm pops up," said Patrick Wojdan, Safety Harbor's recreation supervisor.

On Saturday, Wojdan said, kayakers with boats shorter than 15 feet can enter the 2- or 5-mile races; those with kayaks longer than 15 feet can enter the 7.5-mile race. There is a half-mile race for youth 15 and younger.

They will compete in single and double, sit on top and sit inside kayaks.

If you do not own a kayak but would like to compete in the race, you can rent one at Adventure Kayak for $25 for a half-day, $35 for a full day.

Just remember to use your trunk muscles.

"If you use your arms, you wear out really quick," Tobey said.

_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schultesptimes.com.

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