A few years before Ariel, our Columbia 28 sailboat, became part of our world, my wife and I explored the local lakes of Sonoma County, California on a sit-on-top inflatable kayak called an Advanced Element. When we moved to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to our son, we realized that we had a lot to learn if we were to continue our paddling adventures on the Salish Sea.

Our first venture onto Commencement Bay with our tandem kayak was tenuous, and even a bit unnerving. We resolved to gain a bit more knowledge of the area, hoping to find others with local experience. Fortunately, we soon got to know Kazuhiko Griffin, or “Kaz,” as he is known to his friends and family, who became a good friend and deepened our understanding of the equipment, knowledge, and experience of kayaking in the PNW.

Kaz and crew enjoying a group paddle near Neill Point on Vashon Island.

We first met Kaz, a retired postal delivery man, about three years ago while walking around the neighborhood on one of our frequent trips to Tacoma to visit our son. He was out in his front yard, installing stepping stones across the sidewalk median strip, one of many DIY jobs in which he demonstrates his construction skills and his creativity.

Speaking with both confidence and humility, Kaz gave us a little background on his yard improvement project and his life in Tacoma with wife Sandy, son Kazuhiko, Jr., and daughter Allison. Kaz is a dyed-in-the-wool tinkerer, with evidence of his handiwork seen in the camper top of his 1975 Ford 150 pickup truck, the traveling home of his NC 15-foot kayak. However, on that day the truck bed carried varying sizes of lumber for his yard project.

It didn’t take long before the conversation shifted to kayaking, with Kaz energetically recounting some of his recent paddling excursions with an informal club that he had created. He invited Laura and I to join. Kaz sends weekly emails out to all of the folks on the list, informing them of a departure location, route, and weather conditions, along with some of his personal editorials, as seen in the following excerpt from one of Kaz’s recent messages:

“There was a Small Craft Advisory for Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Local winds are predicted to be 13-16 mph. That is why I selected the leeward side of Fox Island (Hale Passage) for today’s paddle. Does the wind get through to that side? Of course there were sections where the winds were felt but nowhere near what it would have been if we were fully exposed. Patrick (a fellow kayaker) checked out the windy side of the Fox Island Sand Spit and paddled over to the calm side before we departed. There were a couple of sea lions out there checking him out.”

For the ultra-fit 68 year old, kayaking began as something to do on his time off from delivering mail. Since he walked all week on the job, hiking held no allure. But the upper body workout that comes from paddling and the effective use of core muscles in the torso were appealing. Combine that with a therapeutic recovery from his rotator cuff surgery in 2010 and Kaz was all in!

The first time that you meet the avid kayaker you feel like you’ve been friends with him for years. His exuberant and effusive demeanor radiate equally to anyone in range. We’ve gotten to know Kaz better on a few kayaking excursions, and even playing a little ping pong in my garage.

Sometimes on a walk, we run into Kaz and Sandy on their weekday bicycle rides along the Point Ruston waterfront. (Now that he’s retired from postal deliveries, he doesn’t mind the lower body workout.) We notice that he’ll strike up a conversation with a stranger as easily as an old friend, and more often than not he’ll take your picture. Kaz never goes anywhere without his camera, taking stills or video of friends or wildlife along the shore. But more than anything, his favorite scene to record is the waters of Puget Sound, and he keeps an extensive and complete documentation of his weekly paddling ventures.

While he doesn’t have a favorite route, Kaz spends most of his time around the Tacoma peninsula, rarely driving far for his launches, which usually take place from Owen Beach, Titlow, and the Ruston Way waterfront.

With his camera always at the ready, Kaz caught this stunning reflection of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

He has on occasion driven to Shelton and Southworth, but the long drives on highways take time away from relaxing paddles on the water. Kaz would much rather utilize the beautiful, close, and available bays and inlets than drive to destinations farther away. Additionally, Kaz advises, “familiarity with local waters increases awareness and hence, safety.”

Reviewing his logs since he began his kayaking hobby in 2011, Kaz can accurately report over 700 paddling excursions in those nearly 12 years. He began those adventures in an Equinox 10-foot recreational kayak from Costco, using it for nearly 9 years and 549 recorded outings.

His current boat is an NC Kayaks 15, a fiberglass vessel which he serendipitously obtained in December of 2019 from Travis Goldman, the owner of NC Kayaks. Kaz met Travis on the water, of course, as he was returning from his weekly constitutional in the waters of Dalco Passage, just south of Vashon Island.

After a few shared paddles in the next couple of months, Travis offered Kaz a slightly blemished, almost-new sea kayak in exchange for feedback on the protype connection between the hatch and the hull. NC was experimenting with adhesives to make the bond, and Travis figured that the permanent loan to Kaz would take the kayak through its paces out in the open water.

Initially, Kaz was undecided about the V-shaped, curved hull. It was tippy at first, making it easier to capsize than his previous vessel. But the avid paddler concedes that it is faster. And after 158 outings on the streamline kayak, Kaz is not turning back. Although true to his humility, he still believes that he doesn’t deserve to be paddling such a nice kayak.

Safety is of paramount importance to the de-facto group leader and his fellowship of paddlers. To the point, his favorite book about kayaking is The Sea Kayaker – Deep Trouble, a book that deals almost exclusively with safety.

In addition to the requisite life vest, Kaz carries a waterproof/floating charged VHF Radio (tuned into Channel 16), a whistle, an extra paddle, a first aid kit, a signal mirror, a paddle float (for self-rescue), his cell phone, navigation charts, along with a water bottle, fruit and other snacks, depending on the length of the trip. His camera sits perched atop a small tripod affixed to the foredeck of the kayak.

He’s been accused of carrying everything but the kitchen sink. “But,” says Kaz, “If you don’t take it, you don’t have it.” He recalls going for a paddle with a friend a few years ago. “The only problem,” said Kaz, “was that he forgot his paddle in his car. So there he was, literally ‘up a creek without a paddle.’” Kaz just gave him the spare paddle that he had packed and off they went.

To fend off the cold of Pacific Northwest winters, Kaz layers up with two wetsuits — a 3mm Farmer John and a 3mm shorty below his outer layers. He completes the ensemble with neoprene booties and appropriate head covering, based on the weather report for the wind, temperature, and water conditions.

Kaz — and nearly every other boater that we have met — reminds Laura and I of the three most important things to remember when on the waters of Puget Sound: don’t fall in, don’t fall in, don’t fall in! With water temperatures around 50 degrees, hypothermia sets in, muscles cramp, and drowning can occur within minutes.

Should disaster strike, Kaz and his fellow paddlers are prepared. He puts together an annual practice rescue drill for anyone on his email list. The drill starts with a shoreside demonstration of the technique to empty an overturned kayak of water and then climb back into the vessel. Then, with other kayakers in the water just off the shore, the practitioner paddles into the 6-10 foot depths and proceeds with the drill in the water. Returning to the cockpit is probably the most challenging part, although spending a minute or two in the ice cold waters is a close second. Bystanders at last year’s drill, we were impressed with the commitment of these amateur boaters in the informal club, as they volunteered to practice the maneuver.

A harbor seal checks out Kaz’s paddle.

While it seems like his dedication to kayaking would supplant his approval of any other sea craft, Kaz always encourages Laura and I to participate in boating activities any way that we can. His daily bike rides take him by the marina that berths Ariel, allowing him to check on her and remind us when she is missing our tender loving care.

We have yet to have Kaz and Sandy out on our Columbia 28, although not for lack of trying. Yet for all the wonders of sailing, I’m sure he’ll miss the feel of a paddle across the bow, a watertight spray skirt around his waist, and the splash of the cold waters of Puget Sound on his face.

David Casey is a retired math teacher and semi-professional woodworker and bass player. He plans on using his retirement to build a small sailboat and a kayak, and to explore the waters of southern Puget Sound.