It's good to have a toolbox of strokes when you need them. Photo by Roger Smith

It's good to have a toolbox of strokes when you need them. Photo by Roger Smith

By Bill Vonnegut


Being able to control your boat through turbulent water is key to paddling in rock gardens. But since shallow water or rocks may make it impossible use basic strokes in some instances, it’s best to have a number of strokes at your disposal that will help you respond creatively to any situation.

Picture your boat riding a swell over a reef. A rock appears right in the middle of the run, requiring a stroke or reaction to keep your momentum going forward. Simply using a stern rudder may not work. The bow might make it fine but the stern will be pushed the opposite direction by the water, potentially causing the hull to hit the obstacle. Maybe a bow draw to forward stroke will pull you past the rock safely.

A better rock gardening experience will result if you have a variety of strokes in the toolbox. Below are some of the key techniques that are worth practicing next time you hit the water. (A calm pier is a great place to learn to control your kayak with new strokes.)

7 Key Strokes
-Bow rudder- pulls the bow away from areas to avoid.
-Side slip (static draw)- pulls the whole boat to the side.
-Paddling on one side- a rock may be blocking the other side of your boat, so being able to make controlled forward progress using only one side of the boat is important.
-Bi-directional stern rudder- a rudder stroke on one side of the boat is used to turn the boat both directions.
-Low brace turn- slow the boat and turn sharp while bracing.
-Cross bow rudder- to turn the bow if something may is in the way of a regular bow rudder, like a low cave ceiling.
-Bow or stern draw- actively pull the bow or stern to one side.

Bill Vonnegut getting some bracing practice. Photo by Mark Boyd.

Bill Vonnegut getting some bracing practice. Photo by Mark Boyd.


Just in case it isn't already obvious, rocks are hard. Ocean rocks are not only hard, but they are often sharp because they are usually covered with barnacles and muscles.

Before heading out to play in the rocks, practicing bracing is a must. If a brace fails, use it as an opportunity to practice tucking tightly against the boat as quickly as possible.

A great way to challenge bracing is to try tilting the kayak enough to dip the spray skirt in the water, then brace up. Next try touching the elbow, then the shoulder and finally the opposite side of the spray skirt! Practice high, low and sculling braces enough that they will become automatic. If you need to stop and think about your brace, then it's too late and you’ll end up needing to roll. Practice, practice, until those moves become part of your muscle memory.

Watch: Bill gets flipped while running a pour-over and does a deep brace. Filmed by Morris Ho.

–Check out MORE ROCK GARDENING SKILLS 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.