The South Tampa Bay Paddlers is not a club, Bob Bartz says adamantly.
Yet even without dues, rules, agendas or officers, some 250 local professionals affiliate themselves with this informal kayak group that started a couple of years ago when the long-time Manatee Chamber of Commerce president discovered he shared a love of kayaking with Bradenton attorney Cliff Walters and the chamber's Economic Development Council director Nancy Engel.
The only requisite: "Show up, take your turn and lead one of the outings," Bartz says. Engel keeps the list of interested kayakers on her computer and sends out invitations for the monthly expeditions; it's Bartz's and Walters' responsibility to find the people to lead the trips.
When they began, "I thought we'd have 12 people," says Bartz. "We now have 250 on the invitation list, mostly from Manatee County: physicians, lawyers, builders, teachers, some retirees, pretty much from every walk of life." Perhaps 25 participate in each outing. Sarasota CPA Mike Pender met his future wife, Marie Dietrich Pender, on a South Tampa Bay Paddlers trip when she needed a ride and he offered her the front seat of his kayak.
Among their destinations are Sarasota Bay, Terra Ceia Bay and Palma Sola Bay, Myakka River State Park and the Alafia River. They've done a night paddle to Beer Can Island and a potluck picnic on Cockroach Bay, where upside-down kayaks covered with tablecloths provided an elegant ambience.
"I tell people it's like seeing Florida from the inside," Bartz says. "When you're driving down the roads you only see one aspect, but when you're on the water and you get behind the mangroves, you see amazing wildlife; it makes you feel like you're in old Florida."
Bartz cautions couples to avoid tandem kayaks. "I always advise people, 'You and your wife each get your own,'" he says. "You'll probably stay married longer that way."
And do the paddlers of South Tampa Bay Paddlers end up talking business on their outings? "No," Bartz says quickly and emphatically.