About a dozen people stand on the beach at Gunpowder Falls State Park, wrapped in lifejackets and clutching paddles, watching Julio Perez teach.
In a minute, they'll wet the bottom of their boats and become official members of the Canton Kayak Club. They've already sat through safety lectures, and now it's time for the last part -- the fun part -- of training.
Perez is president of the club, which has about 400 members and holds weekly training courses and monthly events. The next training course is at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, and the next event, Newbie Night, is at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
All club members must complete the training course, which Perez helps teach, and pay a $125 membership fee each year. Perez said he likes to watch how fast his students' level of confidence rises when they first slide into the water during his training courses.
"When they come out here, some of the people have never paddled before, and they have a lot of trepidation and a lot of anxiety about being out there or capsizing," he said. "By the time they finish the course, most of them are dying to get in their cars and get out on the [Inner] Harbor the same day. It's really nice to see people pick up the skills quickly and be ready to apply them."
For most members, kayaking is a weekend thing, but Perez said paddling a kayak is also a great way to decompress after a stressful workday. The club owns four kayak lockers around the Inner Harbor: Tide Point, Inner Harbor East Marina, Nick's Fish House and Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point. Members can walk down after work, hop in a kayak, paddle across the harbor to another station, leave it there for the night and drive home. The club makes sure it gets back to the right spot, Perez said.
Besides Inner Harbor paddling, the club also sponsors day trips around parts of the bay. Some of these more advanced trips require additional training, Perez said. The club hosts monthly happy hours and Newbie Nights, where members who've been away from the water for a while can brush up on their skills.
Perez said some of the club's more capable paddlers take a day and kayak the 13-mile round trip to all four of the club's stations. Trips around the Inner Harbor and out on the northern part of the bay are both sightseeing trips and workouts, he said. Kayaking works muscles in your arms, pectorals, abs and back, he said.
"The scenery is so nice that you could be doing this for three or four hours and not even notice," Perez said. "I think that's what we're all looking for. We're looking for exercise that gives us the health benefits but doesn't feel like work."
Hilary Roxe, one of Perez's students at Gunpowder Falls, said she's looking forward to evening and weekend kayaking trips around and eventually beyond the city.
"The idea of being able to take boats out whenever you want is great," said Roxe, a 29-year-old who lives in the city.
The club has two kinds of kayaks: recreational boats, which most beginners use, and sea kayaks for the more advanced members. Sea kayaks go faster (about 4 mph) and better handle choppier waters, Perez said. Members can try different sizes and types of kayaks to decide which best suits them, he said. Compare the club's $125 membership to buying a brand new $500-$1,500 kayak and realizing it's too big or too small, he said.
"A kayak is not a boat that you ride in -- it's a boat you wear," Perez said. "It has to fit you, because if it doesn't fit you, you're going to hate what you're doing."
Of the 400 club members, about 100 are weekly paddlers, Perez said. When the club started in 1999, it had only 30 members, he said. Members' ages range from 20 to 70. A 65-year-old beat Perez, 50, in a kayak race six months ago.
"It's something that you can do for a long, long time," he said.
The Canton Kayak Club's next training session is 9:30 a.m. Sunday at Tide Point. The next Newbie Night is 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Fells Point docks. For club information, visit www.cantonkayak club.com.