Wet and Wild

Six Saltwater Sports You Have to Try

Here's everything you need to know to book a rousing day on the water.

By Hannah Wallace September 5, 2023 Published in the September-October 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

From flying high in a parasail wing to cruising on a Jet Ski, there’s no shortage of thrilling ways to enjoy our bays and Gulf. Here's everything you need to know to book a rousing day on the water.


Image: Gene Pollux

Adrenaline junkies, take note: Parasailing is not an extreme watersport. In fact, dangling from a parachute 450 feet above the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most tranquil activities you can find. 

“It’s a chill ride, not a thrill ride,” says Taylor Eason of Parasail Siesta. “Like a big swing set in the sky.” 

The experience starts with you standing on a platform on the back of a motorboat, strapped securely into your “swing set” alongside one or two of your friends. The parasailing ’chute ripples behind you while your rigging is clipped to a coil of safety-certified polyamide cord. 

As the boat speeds up and the winch slowly lets out line, you find your bare feet gently lifting off the platform. Your climb continues as the line lengthens and the boat pulls farther away from you. 

When the full 1,200 feet of line is finally unfurled, you sit in the sky more than 30 stories up. Though the boat below may be traveling as fast as 30 miles per hour, you feel as though you’re almost floating in place. Up there, even the engine is out of earshot, and the only sound is the gentle whoosh of the wind. You look left and right, out over the beach, the island, the bay and the expanse of blue-green Gulf water extending endlessly away. 

As you’re floating, you might also be slowly lowered down into the water to dangle your toes mid-flight. Or, depending on the heat index, you might opt to be dunked up to your waist—your choice. The operators on the boat maintain precision control over how low you go. 

Your hands are free the whole time to take breathtaking pictures, but butterfingers beware: “We don’t have a dive team,” Eason says with a laugh. Best to put your phone away and ask your operators about photo packages instead. Siesta Parasail even has a GoPro on a selfie stick that you can take up with you, so you’re free to capture the view—or your own ridiculous reaction to it—as you see fit. 

How to Do It

A number of parasailing companies operate out of Siesta Key and Anna Maria Island. Ask about safety records as well as compliance with Coast Guard regulations and ATSM standards. Parasail Siesta can be found at Fin Island Company, 1250 Stickney Point Road, Siesta Key, Sarasota, (941) 346-8200, parasailsiesta.com


Image: Dan Wagner

Kiteboarders are Southwest Florida’s watersports welcome wagon.

On any given day in the waters off I-275, dozens of colorful, sail-like kites greet travelers coming over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into Manatee County. Look closer and you’ll see the kiteboarders themselves tethered more than 50 feet behind their kites, zipping along the waves and launching up into the air for gravity-defying tricks.

In fact, the western portion of Tampa Bay has more than local appeal. This is “the primo spot” for kiteboarders from all around the world, according to Steve Sipes, who owns Bradenton’s Kiss the Sky Kiteboarding.

“It’s warm, shallow, calm. You can go half a mile out from shore and it’s still waist-deep water,” says Sipes. “There’s plenty of room to spread out. You’re not having to worry about bumping into anyone or drowning.”

Those conditions make the area ideal for expert thrill-seekers and kite-curious newbies alike, and that stretch of causeway has started churning out new converts on the regular. Sipes, who started kiteboarding here in 2008, offers first-timers a three-hour introductory lesson—more than enough time to get addicted to the sport.

Attached to their kite via harness, students start on land and learn safety first, followed by the basics of kite control: launching the kite, steering with the control bar and slowing down by angling the kite higher in the air. Then the real test comes when the class wades out into the bay with boards and kites in tow.

“This is a multitasking sport,” Sipes says. “The hardest part is the moment we put it all together. You’re flying the kite at the same time you’re getting up out of the water on the board. Within two or three seconds, it all happens.” Or not. The whole process can take a few tries to feel out.

A group kiteboarding lesson is especially good for drawing out competitive personalities and merciless ribbing. Friends and family members talk trash and pass cameras back and forth to capture one another’s heroic failures and eventual triumphs. There’s plenty of joy in the trying.

“A lot of people look really serious. They’re trying to remember everything,” says Sipes, who sometimes records lessons on his GoPro. “But then I have one video of a girl who couldn’t stop laughing.” 

How to Do It

Sign up for a three-hour beginner kiteboarding course via Kiss the Sky Kiteboarding, (941) 447-8863, kisstheskykiteboarding.com


Kayaking is a love language in Southwest Florida. It’s the accessibility that makes it special.

Here, in the many-splendored waters of Sarasota and Manatee counties, people of all shapes, sizes, ages and experience levels can kayak through mangrove tunnels, coast over shallow grass flats, venture out into the open surf and pull up to—and launch from—just about any bit of open, sandy shoreline you can find, from Caspersen to Holmes Beach, from sunrise to sunset to moonlit paddle.

Ironically, the biggest barrier to kayaking, even for locals, is the stuff that happens away from the water—namely, storage and transportation. Fortunately, a plethora of local tour and rental companies can get you into the water and pointed in the right direction.

“Whether you rent or book a tour, going with a professional will take 75 percent of the intimidation factor off,” says Holly Rolls of Happy Paddler Kayak Tours. Even if they’re not going with you, local vendors can provide paddling tips (hold your arms in a triangle frame to spare your shoulders), basic nautical navigation (avoid boat lanes), maps to nearby destinations and even up-to-the-minute info about tides and weather.

“We time everything around the tides, which are obviously very predictable. We can predict them to about 100 years from now,” says Rolls. “The wind also has a huge influence on what kind of experience you have. It’ll have a big impact on your enjoyment level and your exercise level.”

Where to launch matters, too, depending on what you want to do and see. Able-bodied citizens can drag their kayaks into the water on pretty much any bare shoreline, but the best public launches—including The Bay in downtown Sarasota, South Lido’s Ted Sterling Park, Longboat Key’s Bayfront Park and west Bradenton’s Robinson Preserve—have nearby parking, restroom facilities and even low-slung docks and boat-washing stations. Some even offer on-site storage. (Bonus if your launch is far from boat traffic.)

Commercial rental companies bring your kayak to the water and remove it when you’re done, but are limited by where they’re permitted to operate. The best formal launch sites will often have one or more official kayak concessionaires operating out of them. Where you are and where you want to go will influence who you book with.

Lastly, don’t underestimate how much a tour guide can enhance your experience. Professional kayak guides can detail everything from flora and fauna to architecture and history, acting like a docent for Florida’s fantastically curated nautical museum. Your tour might even be led by an actual scientist, too, as with Mote Marine Laboratory’s popular kayak outings and select moonlit paddles.

Fair warning: Once you fall in love with kayaking, you’ll want to do it all the time. So if you’re not down for purchasing, hauling and storing your own boat, ask your guide about memberships or other ways to save on frequent excursions—what Rolls calls “a sort of frequent-paddler deal.” 

How to Do It

Information about public kayak launches can be found on the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation website and the Manatee County Government site. Kayak rental and tour operators vary by park. Rent kayaks or book a tour launching from Bayfront Park, 3970 Royal Road, Longboat Key, through Happy Paddler, (941) 773-1920, happypaddler.com.

SUP Yoga

You may have found inner peace in your climate-controlled yoga studio, but can you achieve spiritual stillness on a bobbing, twisting board in Sarasota Bay? That’s the challenge at the heart of stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga, a practice that encourages oneness with nature as it threatens to dump you in the drink.

“The board is literally jiggling underneath you,” says Steph Ouellette, who owns SUP Yoga SRQ. “You have to bring the stability from the inside out.”

To help, specialty SUP yoga paddleboards are wider and more stable than typical boards. After an easy paddle out to a relatively calm spot, everyone’s boards are attached to an anchor line. That way no one drifts down-current mid-sukhasana. 
SUP yoga practitioners should make peace with the possibility of getting wet, but instructors can adjust their class based on experience levels (both with yoga and paddleboarding). Ouellette takes weather into account, too. Colder days call for trying to keep everyone on their boards; in summer, falls are encouraged.

Once everyone is settled in at the day’s “studio,” Ouellette guides a sensory check-in. “We all want to have a magical experience,” she says. “Notice the different colors where the light shines, the palm trees moving, the sun sparkling off the water. Close your eyes and pay attention to what you can hear—the water, the mangroves rustling—and what you can feel on your skin, the temperature of the air. We dangle our toes and feel the temperature of the water. You’re noticing the movement of the board and how your body already knows how to move with it. Then open your eyes and set your intention for your practice.”

One rule supersedes this quiet meditation.

“We stop for wildlife,” she says. “If you see a dolphin or manatee, say something so we can all have a pause and enjoy it. Dolphins are magical every single time.” 

How to Do It

Ask your local yoga studio about SUP yoga offerings and referrals. Register for a SUP yoga class with Steph Ouellette at supyogasrq.com or call (815) 900-0579. Classes launch from Overlook Park, 201 FL-789, Longboat Key, or Sarasota Ski-a-Rees, 1602 Ken Thompson Parkway, City Island, Sarasota. 


“When I first saw efoils, my mind was blown,” says Dustin Johnson of Sarasota Efoil. “It took me to Back to the Future and the hoverboard. I was like, ‘No way these people were flying above the water.’”

There is a practical reason for this eye-catching ride. The eponymous “foil” (short for “hydrofoil”) is a motorized stem that lifts the board and rider above the waves, reducing drag and keeping the ride clear of choppy waters.

The standing rider steers by shifting one’s weight and controls the engine’s thrust via a handheld Bluetooth remote. Put it all together and you get a smooth, agile ride that’s somewhere between figure skating and skateboarding. 

Since they’re such a new technology, efoil rentals often come with lessons, too. Johnson teaches novices ages 14 and up to start on their belly and transition to knees and then feet as they ease the throttle to faster speeds. Depending on the weight of the rider, the efoil only needs to reach about 8 miles per hour to achieve peak hoverboarding height.

At that point, you’re free to try carving some cool turns à la Marty McFly. When you fall—and you will—just do your best to fall away from the board. At the same time, a sensor on the controller will automatically stop the efoil’s battery-powered motor.

Once you’re up and going again, maybe skip the stunts and take in the view. The elevated perspective is great for spotting sea life. Manatees, dolphins and other marine animals are often curious about, or at least indifferent to, the machine.

Under the water, the efoil resembles “a ray hyped up on caffeine,” says Johnson. 
Efoils have been gaining speed and traction with watersports enthusiasts since they first emerged in 2015. Today, efoil racers push 35 miles per hour in head-to-head competitions, while creative efoil freestylers carve tight turns that traditional surfers could only dream of. The foil technology allows you to, as the kids say, shred.

That’s not to say that efoils are strictly a young person’s game. Just ask one recent 74-year-old customer. “She said to me, ‘My husband has his paddleboard. I’m more of an extremist,’” says Johnson, who booked the woman for a lesson. “We had her up and going within minutes.” The septuagenarian wound up buying her own efoil and now rides the local waters daily.  

How to Do It

Book a private, 90-minute efoil experience through Sarasota Efoil, (941) 977-5722, sarasotaefoil.com. Locations vary according to availability and weather.

Jet Skiing

Image: Dan Wagner

Sometimes you just want to go fast. Personal watercraft—aka PWC or Jet Skis—will get you where you need to go, and in a hurry. But for most renters, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

“The majority of people rent for an hour, and they just want to get out on the water and zip around,” says Meghan Riley, who rents out her family’s four Jet Skis through the online marketplace GetMyBoat.

“Sometimes it’s those people who want motorcycles as opposed to boats.” 
The moment you first sit astride one of Riley’s SeaDoo GTIs with 100-plus horsepower, for instance, it sparks a thrill of power, independence and go-anywhere freedom—even as your kids are climbing on behind you. Yes, PWC are the motorcycles of the boat world, but they’re also loads of wholesome fun for the whole family.

Models can vary widely in size, power and stability, so do your research and ask the owners or rental company what you’re getting onto. Florida law also requires that anyone born after 1988 have a temporary boater’s license before they can operate a personal watercraft. (The good news is that those licenses are available online and only take about 25 minutes and a small fee to acquire. Plus, the process will give you a basic overview of boater safety.)

Once you push off from the shore, you’ll have the PWC’s thrilling power at the tips of your fingers. Find a wide-open spot to zoom figure-eights, bounce over waves and wakes,  or just charge full-speed ahead like Tom Cruise racing an F-14. 

One more heads-up for first-time riders and folks who have only tried them elsewhere: Mind the sandbars. Compared to the lakes up north or the ocean waters on the east coast, our local depths vary greatly, and those damaging (and dangerous) shallow spots can sneak up on you. 

How to Do It

Rent PWC and other watercraft directly from local owners through GetMyBoat, getmyboat.com 

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