Tony Johnson running a feature. Photo by Bill Vonnegut.

Tony Johnson running a feature. Photo by Bill Vonnegut.

By Bill Vonnegut

Kayaking between or over rocks in the ocean can be intimidating, but here are a few observational and paddling techniques I use to help make running features safer and more fun.

As I paddle up to a rock garden, the first thing I do is pick the line I want to take and spend some time watching how waves behave in that spot. Before anything else, I look at water depth. If there is not enough water to cover the rocks or it's not deep enough for the period of time I will need to paddle across this area, then I just move on to the next spot. But if there is enough water to make the run, I usually watch the area as a set rolls through while visualizing my line. Some waves may be too small and not provide enough water to make the move; other waves may be too big and end up breaking over the rocks.

Then I determine the route. As I look at the run to check water depth, I am also looking at the route the water takes when flowing through the rocks. Taking the run is similar to paddling a river. The best way through is usually to flow along with the current.

One of the most important things I do is making sure I identify the right route to take all the way to the end of the feature before running it. I ask myself: does the water flow between points A and B and push all the way through to that nice protected pool on the other side, or does it flow inward and then back out, requiring me to turn toward the ocean in order to exit? Being able to start a run is important, but knowing what to do to make a clean, safe finish is at the forefront of my mind as I analyze potential features.

Before I go, I take the time to visualize what strokes I'll need for a particular feature. The boat is going to be pushed off the line as I make the run so it's a good idea to have a battery of strokes all built into muscle memory so they just come when needed. Awareness of the amount of time required to make the run before the water drains from a feature–and knowing what my margin of error is before the next wave rolls through–decreases the potential for damaging the boat or being sent crashing through the rocks. Developing all of these observational and paddling skills make my days out playing much more fun.

–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. 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. First, on Feb. 5,6 & 7 head to California for Paddle Golden Gate in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area.

Then sign up for Lumpy Waters, coming to the Oregon coast on Oct. 7-9, 2016.