By Bill Vonnegut

What are features anyway? Basically, they are play spots found in the rocky areas on the coast where waves work their way through cracks, over rocks, and against walls. These areas change constantly from wave to wave. Some waves will hit a rock feature in such a way that will make it a fun and challenging run. Other wave sets may turn the same feature into something that could damage both body and boat. Meanwhile, the entire section of rocky coast is changing with the rise and fall of the tide by exposing new features and flooding old ones. A big part of learning to rock garden is becoming familiar with the way water behaves in certain features, and learning to read the incoming waves.

Here’s a short video on different rock gardening features. The nicely formed river spilling over the off-shore rock is what we call a pour-over.

On a typical rock garden trip, I will be paddling on the coast with some buddies and someone will veer off toward a pile of rocks. Often without saying a word, we’ll head over and look at the dynamics of the area together. We’ll watch to see where the water is coming from and where it goes, figuring out how much it drains and fills. We’ll calculate the risks of paddling through the spot, and gage the best line to take through the feature. And we’ll keep glancing over our shoulders at the open ocean to see what the sets are doing.

Priscilla Schlottman sizing up a feature - Photo by Bill Vonnegut.

Priscilla Schlottman sizing up a feature – Photo by Bill Vonnegut.

Not every rock we come across is a perfect spot. At times, the waves aren’t the right size for the feature or the risks are just too high. We watch where the water flows, and if it ends up in a dangerous area, like a pile of jagged rocks in shallow water, we move on to find something better.

If the spot still looks good after we’ve observed it for a while, someone will run it as the rest of the group cheers them on. Everyone takes mental notes of the adjustments they will make on their own run. After getting a feel for the spot, we will run it again and again until we internalize what’s happening in the area. As confidence builds, we start riding the bigger waves. That’s when the cheering really picks up and the adrenaline starts flowing. Dialing in on our skills, we aim for the perfect run by attempting it with fewer strokes, making the run backwards, and running it from different angles. Not only is it a fun challenge, but the encouragement of your buddies and the sense of joy felt when we nail the run keeps us going back for more.

Bill Vonnegut & Gregg Berman running over some rocks. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

Bill Vonnegut & Gregg Berman running over some rocks. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

––Bill Vonnegut is a sea kayak instructor at California Canoe & Kayak and member of the Neptune’s Rangers paddling posse. Check back for an eight-part rock gardening series where Bill will discuss the techniques, skills and gear needed to enjoy coastal whitewater.

–Want to take the next step with your rock gardening? Kayak symposiums bring in the top coaches from around the world, making them a great place to take your paddling skills to the next level. There are a couple great sea kayak symposiums coming soon to the West Coast. The first is Lumpy Waters coming to the Oregon coast on Oct 16-18. Then on Feb. 5,6 & 7 head to California for Paddle Golden Gate in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area.

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