Park District could buy kayak company


Staff Writer

The Vashon Park District may spend nearly $19,000 to buy out the Vashon Island Kayak Company, the summertime kayak rental concession housed in the Jensen Point Boathouse.

The current owners have been trying to sell the business for two years, and unless the park district takes on the kayak company, there will be no kayak rentals from the boathouse this summer.

The park board will decide at its Feb. 11 meeting whether to purchase the 11 kayaks, which come with accessories as well as many hours of training by the company’s current owner.

The kayaks would pay for themselves in as little as four years, and in nine years maximum, according to a business model mapped out by park program coordinator Susan McCabe. The difference depends on whether the district decides to lead multi-day kayak camping tours or not.

Still, commissioner Bill Ameling stressed that running a recreational kayak company isn’t a highly profitable venture.

“You don’t get in the kayak business to get rich; you get in it because you like it,” he said at last Tuesday’s board meeting. “Don’t view it as a commercial kayaking venture; view it as a park program.”

McCabe said Vashon Island Kayak Company has provided “outstanding service” at Jensen Point every summer for 13 years, and she hoped the park district could take on the kayak concession so there was no break in service.

“They’ve been wonderful tenants and great partners and always had the community’s best interest at heart,” McCabe said of the kayak company. “They’ve done it more out of love than anything else.”

The park district would rent kayaks between Memorial Day weekend and mid-mid-September.

Included in the $18,950 price for the 11 kayaks that seat 14 are enough paddles, pumps, lifejackets and kayak spray skirts for 14 people, as well as the invaluable time and knowledge of current Puget Sound Kayak Company co-owner David Steel.

Steel and his wife Kajira Wyn Berry founded the company 13 years ago with fellow Islander Doug Baum and his wife Tove Andvik. The two couples shared a love for sea kayaking and saw a unique environment in Quartermaster Harbor that was optimal for a startup kayak rental company.

“Vashon is one of the best places in Puget Sound to kayak, because you have the protection of Quartermaster Harbor, which has 12 miles of shore, and there’s not houses all up and down the shore, there are stretches of wilderness,” Steel said.

For the first five years, the partners rented boats off a trailer at Jensen Point. The rowing community was also dissatisfied with storing their water-craft outdoors at the point. So about eight years ago, Steel and rower Celia Condin began a crusade to have a boathouse built there, Steel said.

The pair secured funds through the Washington state Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Land Enhancement Account, which was established “to grant money to projects that promote access to the water for the public,” Steel said.

That grant was awarded in 1997 in the amount of $104,306, according to Wendy Braicks, parks executive director. In 1999, the project gained a $50,000 King County Youth Sports Facilities Grant, and between 1998 and 2000, the park district kicked in $134,000, Braicks reported. But it was only because of the push by the kayaking and rowing community that Jensen Point Boathouse came to be.

Vashon Island Kayak Company enjoyed several years of successful operation out of the new boathouse, but when Baum moved to his ranch in eastern Washington, Steel decided not to keep the business afloat on his own. He said the rental company consumes his entire summers, and he’d like to be able to go hiking, paddling and traveling during those months.

And while the company has had several offers in the last two years, they came from non-Islanders to whom Steel didn’t want to sell.

If Vashon Park District decides to take on Steel’s business, he will still be highly involved in the transition from private company to park program.

“I’ll advise, instruct and do minimal guiding,” he said.

He said safety is of the utmost importance, and he plans to train park employees extensively so he feels confident they can run the business to his standards.

Steel’s favorite thing to do, he said, is guide kayak tours, multi-day kayak camping trips throughout the Puget Sound. Guiding comprises a major portion of his rental business today — among his clients have been Girl Scout troops, Camp Sealth campers and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Half the people who rent kayaks during the summer are Islanders, the other half tourists, Steel said.

“We are a tourist destination in the summer, and that’s good for the Vashon economy,” McCabe said. “I think the community really uses (the kayak rentals), and it’s a great thing for summertime visitors as well.”

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