By Bill Vonnegut

When I mention kayaking, people generally envision paddling on calm lakes or down mountain rapids, and if I talk about whitewater, they’re almost certain to think I’m referring to a river. But there is another type of paddling found in coastal regions. There, swells generated by wind in a distant storm end their long journey to land with a fantastic result: ocean whitewater. Often, the swells will break on a long, sandy beach or a shallow reef, creating nicely formed waves to surf. Other times, they collide with, or flow through, a rocky coastal shoreline, creating a unique area to play in kayaks. This is called rock gardening!

Mendocino CA. The Mecca of Rock Gardening

Mendocino CA. The Mecca of Rock Gardening

In its simplest form, rock gardening is catching a ride on the ocean swell as it weaves its way through and over the rocks and reefs along a coastline. Rock gardening is often done in a short, playful sea kayak or crossover boat, and it involves timing your interaction with a rock feature as it’s hit by the ever-changing swells.

There’s a mental component to this activity that requires complete focus; concerns from the rest of life drop away. As mind focuses, we lose sight of everything else going on in the world except the fun we’re are having right here and now. Though the personal experience of rock gardening is different for everyone, I think of rock gardening as the constant work to hone my skills through new challenges. I focus completely on the run and push myself to make my strokes smooth, clean, and in rhythm with the sea. Each run is a new opportunity to learn, watch, and experience the water in order to gain a better understanding of our dynamic, coastal playground.

Bill Vonnegut chasing some negative ions. Photo by Cass Kalinski

Bill Vonnegut chasing some negative ions. Photo by Cass Kalinski

These areas of the coast can be unpredictable and very dangerous, so why would anyone want to kayak right into them? The answer could be an addiction to the negative ions we inhale–the invisible molecules created by dynamic whitewater that can be found in ocean surf. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our energy. Another reason could be the need to push the limits of our abilities, and perhaps even the limits of life itself, keeps us coming back to the rocks on the coast. Regardless of what draws us, it’s where I love to be on a regular basis. Over the next eight weeks, I want to share more details on what rock gardening is as well as tips for paddling ocean whitewater in my new series for CanoeKayak.com.

––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.

More from C&K

VIDEO | Coastal Whitewater: The Bay Area Steps Up Its Rock Gardening Game

Rock Gardening Skills: Make Those Moves Muscle Memory