Intro to Rock Gardening: Essential Gear

Bill Vonnegut's primer on the best boats, paddles, gloves and helmets for ocean whitewater

By Bill Vonnegut

Boats
There are many types of kayaks that can be used for rock gardening. My boat of choice for a trip will be determined by where I am heading and the conditions of the ocean.

P&H Hammer vs Pyranha Fusion vs Liquidlogic Greenboat.
P&H Hammer vs Dagger Greenboat vs Pyranha Fusion.

If it's a mellow day, I may feel like just touring around the rocks and maybe run a small pour-over or two. Under these conditions just about any boat can be used, even composite if I am careful. While composite boats will work great for rock gardening, they are more prone to damage than plastic. For this reason, if conditions are large or I feel like heading deep into the rocks to play hard, I choose a plastic kayak.

If I take a sea kayak out rock gardening, I prefer one with a lot of rocker, which will make it more maneuverable and able climb over waves better. If you’re taking a "long boat,” one that’s on the shorter side of the sea kayak spectrum (less than 16 ft.), will be better adept at maneuvering through rocks.

A crossover boat is another choice. These are shorter than sea kayaks and look like large river boats. My Jackson Karma RG is my go-to boat for rock play. I’ve also used a Pyranha Fusion in the past and found it fun and satisfactory for rock play. Crossover whitewater boats are shorter than sea kayaks. As a result these craft are more maneuverable, which means less energy spent positioning and more left for playing. They have whitewater lines with rounded edges to make them more stable in dynamic water and most models usually have a skeg that you can drop to paddle the distance required to reach your favorite rock garden.

A small river boat will squeeze into tight places, surf through the rocks well and may be the choice for rock gardens where paddling a long distance is not a factor. These boats are small, nimble, and some are even great for surfing. River boats can squeeze into tight places, turn on a dime and are designed to stay upright in lively water. Even though they are a challenge to travel distance in, they are still a fun option to consider if your play spot is nearby.

Paddles
Rock gardens in the greater San Francisco Bay Area are full of sharp, barnacle-covered rocks, which is a major safety factor to consider when playing here. The ability to maneuver efficiently and stay upright is important since rock gardens have strong currents and rough water on par with Class V runs on the river. Since the paddle is my main source of mobility and bracing, it's important that I carefully choose one designed for these conditions.

 A broken paddle is the last thing Gregg Berman wants when a large wave sends for a ride along the rocks.
A broken paddle is the last thing Gregg Berman wants when a large wave sends for a ride along the rocks.

The last thing I want when that unexpected wall of whitewater appears is my paddle to break. I have seen paddles broken in rock gardens resulting in a swim and rescue that could have been avoided simply by using a solid paddle designed for these conditions. This is why I use a whitewater paddle. These paddles are heavy and durable, designed for running rocky rivers with strong currents and rough water. At times, I may have unintentional contact or get into a jam where the paddle is needed to push off a rock. When that happens, I need a paddle I can rely on to be strong enough to handle some beatings. Whitewater paddles are tough enough to help get you out of trouble if needed and are designed for efficient propulsion and bracing in dynamic areas.

Gloves
I don't always wear gloves when rock gardening, but on days when conditions are big or I feel like playing hard, I make sure I have them on. I have seen a lot of cuts and scrapes that could have been avoided had the person been wearing full fingered gloves.

Gloves are important, you never know when you may need to climb to safety. Or come in contact with sharp rocks.
Gloves are important, you never know when you may need to climb to safety. Or when you may come in contact with sharp rocks.

Helmets
Rocks are hard. Even if my plan is to only go near the rocks and not play in them, I still ALWAYS wear a helmet. I never know when that unexpected wave may show up and send me where I don't want to be. There are many different types of helmets and it's easy to get caught up in trying to figure out which one is best. First, I recommend trying on a few and seeing what fits best. I personally do not use a helmet with ear protection, but have seen ears sliced up after a person-meets-rock experience. Having a properly fitted helmet is critically important because when in it’s loose, the pressure from the waves can wash the helmet right off your head, even if the straps are tightened. Look for fit first and then start to consider what features the helmet has like ear protection, visors, full face protection, etc.

Gloves and helmets are always a good idea:

Friends
Not a gear item, but still essential. I highly recommend paddling with the same people repeatedly, you will get to know and trust them to watch your back and lend a hand if needed. It's also fun if those same people happen to share similar interests and mindsets as well.

I really love paddling with my Neptune's Rangers tribe and have been doing so for many years now. It's a joy being with them as we weave our way in between rocks and features while always having someone to watch my back. After paddling with these guys and gals for some time now, I noticed that this is something that just happens naturally. There is not much need to talk while paddling, we just start reading each others minds and go along as one big posse of fun!

For some, I hope to have cleared up a few of the mysteries of what rock gardening is. For others, maybe, I have given a useful tip or two. As for me, this is my sport and I will continue to keep trying to improve my skills every chance I get. Now, get out there and practice, take a class, and I hope to see you on the water.

Eds. Note: –This is the last post in a multi-part ROCK GARDENING SKILLS series from Bill Vonnegut.

––Bill Vonnegut is a sea kayak instructor at California Canoe & Kayak and member of the Neptune's Rangers paddling posse. See more from the multi-part rock gardening series where Bill discusses the techniques, skills and gear needed to enjoy coastal whitewater.