The one thing you need to know to rent a kayak in Vancouver

I recently took a business trip to Vancouver. Upon arriving in my hotel room overlooking the harbour between the city and Stanley Park, I immediately wanted to rent a kayak. Little did I know my aspirations would be foiled because I lakced one crucial piece of knowledge.

With a colder-than-usual spring in Toronto pushing back ice-out forecasts, I was itching to take the opportunity to dip a paddle in the water. I knew ocean kayaking was a popular activity here on the west coast and I’d be more likely to find kayaks available than canoes. My presumptions were strengthened when I took a short walk along the seawall and came across a man using a two-wheel portage trailer to take his sea kayak back from the harbour to his nearby apartment. Now that’s urban paddling!

Renting a kayak in Vancouver

A few Google searches later and discovered there are really no options to rent a kayak along the Vancouver harbour shore. My closest option was Granville Island, where Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres rent out kayaks and standup paddleboards (SUPs). They also have another location on Jericho Beach.

Prices for kayaks range from:

  • $29 for one hour
  • $39 for two hours
  • $54 for three
  • $99 for a full day

SUPs are less expensive and a double kayak is more expensive. After perusing the website and making a phone call to confirm that the store was open, I took a taxi to its location to make good use of my afternoon. But my best-laid-plans took an unexpected turn.

I was greeted at Ecomarine by a young man who said he could help me with renting a kayak. I did not expect his first line of questioning to hinder me.

He asked me if I felt I could get back into a kayak after a tip. I said yes. Then he asked me to describe the technique I would use to get back into the kayak. I described the method that I’ve been trained in, which involves flopping on the deck of the kayak and then shimmying your butt up to the seat.

It’s well demonstrated in this video:

But that method wasn’t good enough for the gentleman behind the counter. He kept prodding me to say something else about using my paddle, but I was clueless about what he wanted. Finally, he told me that since I was unaware of the “paddle float” method of re-entering a kayak, I wouldn’t be allowed to rent one.

Maybe paddle floats are more associated with ocean kayaking, but my Ontario experience with kayaks had never included one. A paddle float is simply an inflatable device that you attach to one end of your kayak paddle, which you can then use to provide leverage in order to climb back into your kayak in deep water.

The paddle float rescue technique is well demonstrated in this video:

So if you ever go to rent a kayak in Vancouver, remember that the magic word is “paddle float” to avoid disappointment.

Afterwards, I emailed Ecomarine about my bad experience and asked that they make their policy more clear on their website. They emailed back saying that they’d consider doing so and pointed to the terms and conditions of the rentals, which I suppose is buried somewhere on the website. Even still, this page does not explain that only the paddle float re-entry technique will be accepted.

The good news is that my afternoon wasn’t ruined. Instead of giving up and going back to my hotel (or just walking over to the Granville Island Brewing to drink away my sorrows), I found Granville Island Boat Rentals nearby. I traded in my paddle for a powerboat.

Powerboating in Vancouver’s English Bay

Even though I have much less powerboat experience than I have kayaking experience, there was no question about whether I would be allowed to rent out a power boat. After signing a lengthy agreement and waiver, I watched a four-minute video and then a young woman working at the docks showed me how to drive the thing. It’s dead simple and no licence is required. You hold a lever in your right hand and press a red trigger button, pushing it forward to go faster, or pulling back to slow down. Pulling the lever up to a 90-degree angle stops the boat and puts the motor in neutral.

The whole system seems very well planned out. Boats are forbidden from leaving English Bay, and a map of the area is permanently plastered onto the dashboard of each boat. Each boat has a GPS tracker that allows the main office to track its location and speed. This results in very helpful assistance that can be provided to the driver in the form of a warning alarm.

When I picked up my speed too fast when leaving a low-speed zone (you have to stay under 10 kph when going under the Burrard Street bridge), the boat signalled me to slow down with a series of long beeps. When I veered too close to Stanley Park’s rocky shore, a long and unbreaking beep blared until I turned away. (Boaters are asked to keep a very conservative distance from any shore.)

Prices to rent out a boat start at $45 per hour for a 16-foot boat. Larger boats are more expensive, but can fit more people. The best deal available seems to be taking a four-hour rental before 10 a.m., which gives you an additional fifth hour free. That would provide plenty of time to either go visit a seal colony further out towards the ocean, or to travel up the inlet to Iron Bay, where you can view a waterfall before turning around for the journey back.

Keep in mind that this fee only tells part of the story, as you also have to pay for insurance and for the gas you use. I was out on the water for about 75 minutes in a 17-foot boat and ended up paying just under $100.

Remember to take a “selfie moment” and post to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram tagging Granville Island Boat Rentals and you’ll get $5 off your bill.

Yup, I rented a power boat from @granvilleislandboatrentals #yvr #vancouver

A post shared by Brian Jackson (@urbanpaddler) on

For my one-hour rental, they suggested I could do a round-trip to either Lighthouse Park or Cole Harbour. Given the windy conditions, I opted for the more sheltered Cole Harbour. This trip also offered views of the seawall along Stanley Park’s north edge, a good look at Lion’s Gate bridge, and spectacular mountains rising in the distance past North Vancouver.

Zooming through English Bay was a real joy. I marvelled at the sheer size of the ocean freighters bringing cargo into port, and at the cormorants that flew alongside my boat with tufts of seaweed in their beaks as they built their nests for the season. In Cole Harbour, you can watch as small seaplanes land or take off, and then fly over top of Lion’s Gate Bridge.

I don’t think the experience converted me from being a paddler to a power boater on a permanent basis, but it was exhilarating to zip overtop of the ocean waves and take in the beautiful scenery on offer in English Bay. I’d highly recommend this experience for a small group of people or for a family, to split the cost and invest in a longer trip to enjoy some of the more unique places available.

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Brian has been canoeing his entire life, going on his first multi-day backcountry out trip when he was 13. Brian worked at summer camps as an out trip leader and canoe instructor, and now lives in Toronto and works full time as the editorial director of a technology news firm. He escapes to go paddling whenever possible.

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