By John Lawrence
An honest-to-god backroad vehicle with kayaks on the roof is the only hint that the nondescript storefront hides every kayak style known to humanity.
Open the front doors under the Osprey Bay Outdoors sign and a warehouse-sized store reveals itself to the customer: hundreds of kayaks of every length, style, and function stacked, one next to the other, on display racks, angled so the buyer can take them in.
It’s a warehouse full of kayaks for use in Florida’s oceans, gulf, bays, rivers, lakes and marshes.
What’s surprising about Osprey Bay Outdoors is that husband and wife owners Thomas and Kim Doehleman opened the store 22 years ago, most of those years at 160 N Belcher Rd. They moved from their first location on U.S. 19 before the highway was raised above the commercial strips that run beside it.
Their storefront doesn’t have a big LED sign or other large colorful sign outside that matches the color and attractive design of the high-ceilinged display and sales floor inside.
They have created a loyal and growing customer base via Facebook and other social media marketing, online meet ups, and by matching beginners and enthusiasts to the right kayaks and taking them on float trips on some of Florida’s – and Central America’s – remote and crystal-clear waterways.
“We were burned out on the corporate world,” Kim says as she stands among the colorful kayaks displayed in the store. “My husband was a nurse, an RN. Thomas is also a veteran, having served during Desert Storm in the Army and the U.S. Air Force. We were just kayak enthusiasts; we loved to kayak on the same rivers we take our friends and customers on – beautiful places like the Homosassa River, the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, the Rainbow River, Weeki Wachee State Park and places in the Caribbean.”
The duo and other instructors with the store provide paddling and kayaking lessons, offer kayak fishing charters, and regularly bring their various kayaks to the water so prospective buyers can try each out on the water and see which style fits best. An aquatic test drive, if you will. The money one pays for renting kayaks from Osprey Bay Outdoors can be applied to the purchase of a kayak, too, Kim says.
“We sign up our customers and kayakers via our website and Meetup.com, which brings people with similar interests together for activities and do trips every month. We go all over the place,” Tom says. “We prefer the rivers, there’s more to see, birds, wildlife and such. We go to Costa Rica, where we do whitewater rafting, we do ziplining and all that.”
Whether one likes sit-on tops or kayaks where you get underneath with your legs extended, with a waist collar to stay dry as you paddle through waves, Osprey Bay Outdoors has it.
Kayakers can choose boats that match their sport: crossover kayaks, inflatable kayaks, touring and day-touring, sea kayaks, whitewater kayaks, folding kayaks, and boats that are pedaled powered – with platforms designed for bird watching, fishing, scuba diving, just about anything one wants to do on the water.
But there also is a full line of accessories in the store, too: professional-grade paddles to fit kayakers of all sizes and skill, high-quality sun and shade hats, paddle gloves, wet/dry shirts, kayak sandals and water shoes, fishing tackle, durable sunglasses and even spare parts for kayaks.
The rear of the store has a rear counter with tools on the wall where Thomas repairs and adjusts kayaks for customers.
Unlike other businesses, the advent of Covid-19 has not slowed customer interest in kayaks or outings.
“This has been unusual year, busier than any other year, because a lot of people want to get on the water to get away from everybody,” Kim says. “You can paddle and do social distancing because you can’t get that close to another paddler. It’s beautiful out on the water; there’s a lot of natural beauty in Florida that people don’t know about because they are out on motorboats or jet skis, and they pass it all up. We always see lots of birds, gators, manatees and sharks – we have seen it all.”
Osprey Bay Outdoors
160 N Belcher Rd., Clearwater, FL 33765
John Lawrence is a free-lance writer who has covered Florida events for decades. He enjoys covering the people and places of Clearwater. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature photo by Pete Nowicki on UnSplash