I’m not about to take my camera out in the Savin Rock Surf Shop kayak, but I do fold my old-school reporter’s notepad in half, stick a pen in its wire binding and shove it inside my life jacket. Surf shop co-owner Kevin Darcey hands me a bottle of water to tuck under the bungee cords in front of me and adjusts the back of my seat. The other co-owner, George Curtis, is already on the water in his kayak, as is another customer named Jordan, who’s sped off toward the distant breakwater. Three other women—Liz, Barb and Brittney—are trying out their rented stand-up paddleboards (SUPs).

It’s a warm, calm evening on the West Haven waterfront near Old Grove Park. A few people are hanging out on the sand or fishing from the end of Grove Pier and a small jetty nearby. Madonna’s “Get Into the Groove” is blasting from somewhere up the beach. But the water is pretty much ours.

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Darcey and Curtis know this spot like the backs of their hands, or the bottoms of their sandy feet. Both West Haven natives, they’ve been friends since fifth grade. Now they’re business partners with a dream of seeing their hometown beach turn into a biking, paddling, lounging destination for everyone else. They opened Savin Rock Surf Shop on Memorial Day weekend 2018, then kept the business afloat through the off-season by setting up and breaking down big tailgate parties at the University of New Haven.

In addition to kayaks and SUPs, Savin Rock rents one-speed beach bikes, canopies, lounge chairs, carts, umbrellas, wheeled coolers and hammocks. They’ll bring gear to “wherever people are hanging out” along the West Haven beaches, Darcey says. The only restriction is you have to launch outside the lifeguarded swim areas. They’ll also work with private parties and groups, even outside West Haven. “It’s all weather-dependent, but we had a really good June, there a lot of nice days, so we’ve been really busy,” Curtis says.

West Haven’s beaches bear a bad rep from the old days when the water treatment plant stank, Curtis says. He recalls summers when signs were put up to let people know when the beach was open for swimming, which were rarer than the days it was closed. Today the city is operating under a 2013 settlement with federal and state regulators that “will significantly reduce illegal discharges of raw sewage… from the city’s wastewater collection system,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Now, “it’s the cleanest I’ve ever seen it” Curtis says, dipping his hand into the water. “I mean, it’s beautiful!”

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Savin Rock Surf Shop’s sunset paddles happen twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays from 6 p.m. until the sun dips behind the trees and apartment complexes of this long, sandy stretch—a quarter of the state’s public beachfront, according to Darcey. Participants vary—as many as 10 people show up—and strangers tend to connect and get to know one another as they explore the coastline, he says. It’s a chance to “come down, check us out, try out the equipment, see if there’s something you like,” he adds. The price is right: $20 for a kayak rental, $25 for a SUP, including basic instruction for newbies, all the gear you need and about two hours on the water. Aside from sunset paddles, these rates cover the first hour, with $10 for each additional hour.

A sugary half moon hangs high in a powder blue sky as I paddle over the gentle, glassy swells toward the breakwater near the horizon, lit up by the setting sun. Behind it is the nearly imagined rise of Long Island. Closer at hand, poles with orange markers tag the underwater nurseries where oysters are growing. Jordan comes paddling by. The breakwater’s squat little Southwest Ledge Lighthouse was farther than she’d thought. She says she’ll try to reach it another day. As for me, I’ve paddled out about as far as I’m comfortable with at this hour. I detour to meet up with Curtis and a woman named Jen, who’s SUPing with her pup, Pippa (wearing a doggie life preserver).

Distances out here do have a way of playing tricks on you. The current has carried me away, or I’ve forgotten how far to the east I’ve paddled, or both. When I turn my bow toward the sinking sun and head for shore, I’m way off course, aiming for the wrong pier. Jen steers me straight again, and Curtis leads us in. The entire shore is backlit, and everything is in dark silhouette, but eventually I spot Liz, Barb and Brittney near the beach and head to meet them.

Back on land, a West Haven apartment dweller walking his dog asks what we’re up to. Come on down on a Tuesday or Friday evening, Darcey tells him, but make a reservation. The Long Island Sound is vast, but Savin Rock Surf Shop only has so many SUPs.

Savin Rock Surf Shop
266 Captain Thomas Blvd, West Haven (map)
Daily 10am-6pm; other times by reservation
(203) 654-9383

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 5-6 photographed by George Curtis.

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