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Tampa Bay’s most underrated item: the inflatable kayak

Getting on the water has never been easier.
Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise takes her inflatable kayak to the mangrove-lined waters of Upper Tampa Bay Park.
Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise takes her inflatable kayak to the mangrove-lined waters of Upper Tampa Bay Park. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]
Published Sep. 13|Updated Sep. 19

I already know what you want to ask me about my inflatable kayak.

No, it has not popped.

And yes, you should get one.

For a while, kayaking was just an occasional treat. There are many places to rent one around the Tampa Bay area, but the cost adds up with frequent voyages.

I also didn’t see myself realistically owning one. I’ve spent my twenties living in “historic” rentals around St. Petersburg (read: minimal closet space and no garages). Even if I had room to store a full-sized kayak, I drive a small sedan and suffer from poor upper body strength. Too much of a hassle.

Then in early 2021, on one of those perfect late winter Florida days, it hit me. During a picnic with my boyfriend at Lassing Park, I watched two kayakers in the distance coasting along the water. It was a beautiful afternoon, but it would be even better on the water.

We agreed having a kayak would be the move. He suggested an inflatable model.

They make those?

Our Lassing Park date transformed into an online research session. We learned that the inflatable kayak game has improved over the years, and it’s harder to pop them than you might think. If you do experience a tear, there are multiple chambers inside the vessel, ensuring that you’ll stay buoyant long enough to make it back to dry land.

Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise opted for the Intex Explorer K2 2-person inflatable kayak, which came with aluminum oars, an air pump, a removable skeg for directional stability and inflatable seats with backrests. The box also included a U.S. Coast Guard I.D. and a repair patch kit.
Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise opted for the Intex Explorer K2 2-person inflatable kayak, which came with aluminum oars, an air pump, a removable skeg for directional stability and inflatable seats with backrests. The box also included a U.S. Coast Guard I.D. and a repair patch kit. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

The pricing can get up to several thousand dollars, but many entry-level models were more affordable than I would have guessed. The cheapest single-person kayak I found cost roughly $60. I’d paid that much just to rent one for the day!

One model, a tandem kayak made of banana-yellow vinyl, was on sale for a little over $120. As we scrolled through positive Amazon reviews, the kayakers who had inspired us in the first place were paddling back to shore. Their kayak? The same inflatable one we had been considering.

It returned to the beach in one piece. They were smiling. It felt like a sign from God, or at least Jeff Bezos. We added it to our cart.

The kayak came deflated in a tote bag about the size of a medium suitcase. We blew it up in my living room to practice: First the main body, which had a couple of different chambers and puffed up quite nicely with an included hand pump, and then the two seats, which you blow up with your mouth like a beach ball. The oars came in pieces that clicked together. Assembly took less than 10 minutes.

We returned to the park to give it a whirl. Since the bag was so light, it didn’t matter that we had to carry it all the way from the street to the beach. We practiced steering up and down the length of the park.

As we settled into a rhythm of paddling, I leaned back against the inflatable seat and realized how much more comfortable my lower back felt than the times I’d rented a kayak at Weeki Wachee Springs. It wasn’t the fastest I’d ever gone, but that didn’t matter. We were on the water. And we could get back here any time we wanted.

Times writer Gabrielle Calise, right, and  Anthony Coustillac, left, take a ride in an inflatable kayak.
Times writer Gabrielle Calise, right, and Anthony Coustillac, left, take a ride in an inflatable kayak. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

Tips for getting on the water

Ok. I’ve convinced you. What’s next?

Start with an affordable model. You can find a decent entry-level kayak for under $200. Ours, the Intex Explorer K2, came with accessories like collapsible aluminum oars and an air pump. You can upgrade those parts later if you want, but we’ve kept the original pieces it came with and have not had a problem.

Life jackets designed for water sports are a must. I made the mistake of ordering a life jacket intended for use on a boat, but returned it after finding it hard to paddle with. Splurge on a dry bag to keep your phone and snacks from getting wet.

Check the tides before you head out, especially if you plan to traverse more shallow waters. You don’t want to scrape the bottom. You can take this kayak pretty much anywhere, but we tend to avoid places with mangrove tunnels, like Weedon Island, to avoid punctures.

As tired as you might feel returning from a day on the water, take the time to wipe down all of the parts with a towel upon returning to the shore. This will keep your kayak dry and free of mildew when you fold it up to store.

Times writer Gabrielle Calise paddles past manatees in Coffee Pot Bayou while riding in an inflatable kayak. Manatees can often be seen in these waters during the cool winter and early spring months.
Times writer Gabrielle Calise paddles past manatees in Coffee Pot Bayou while riding in an inflatable kayak. Manatees can often be seen in these waters during the cool winter and early spring months. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

Where to bring your inflatable kayak

My top three locations for kayaking around Tampa Bay:

  • Lassing Park: This quiet spot has gentle waters where you can test out assembling your new gear and launching. The park is long, making it a great place to get a feel for paddling back and forth, and has pretty views of downtown St. Pete’s skyline. 2042 Beach Dr SE, St. Petersburg, 33705.
  • Upper Tampa Bay Conservation Park: This nature preserve between Oldsmar and Tampa is a great place to see bottlenose dolphins. Be sure to visit the friendly rangers inside the visitor center, who will give you a laminated map and chat about the tides. 8001 Double Branch Rd, Tampa, 33635.
  • Coffee Pot Bayou: Cruise past the ritzy homes along Coffee Pot Boulevard and Snell Isle. Don’t forget to say hello to the local wildlife, including the Coffee Pot Bayou Rhino, thousands of winged creatures that live on Bird Island and, in the winter months, manatees. Launch at Coffee Pot Park at 1st Street NE and 31st Avenue NE, St. Petersburg ,33704.
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