An exciting and challenging kayak trick in an ocean rock garden is to paddle over a pour-over. In river running, a pour-over is a river current that flows over a rocky ledge into a hole below. In ocean adventure kayaking, a pour-over is a flat rock or a reef which a wave surges over into calmer water on the shoreward side. River pour-overs are predictable; that is, what you see when you scout is what you get, as the water flow is constant. Ocean pour-overs are less predictable and thus more dangerous, since the waves pulse in a dynamic rhythm. Tsunami Rangers call a big ocean pour-over a cascade, which ends in a temporary waterfall on the shoreward side. Cascades are near the top of our list of fun places to be in ocean rock gardens.
Theoretically, it is easy to paddle across an ocean pour-over or cascade. All you have to do is catch the surging wave and ride it across the reef and dump into the soft foam at the other end. Ah, but there are hazards to consider. First, if you launch too soon and get in front of the wave you could nose right into the seaward wall of the reef and that would be the end of your ride (and the bow of your boat). The second hazard, also resulting from taking the wave too soon, is making it onto the reef only to get banged across the exposed rocks where the wave has yet to reach, resulting in considerable damage to the hull of your boat, or if you tip over, to your head, shoulders and torso. You don’t want to experience either of these perils.
The third hazard obtains from taking the wave too late, which is commonly done because the kayaker is afraid of the first two hazards, so he hesitates. In the third hazard, you take the wave after it has gone under you for too long, yet you make it fine about halfway across the reef, and then get stranded on the ledge, as happened to Tsunami Ranger Don Kiesling three weeks ago on the Mendocino coast. He launched late by ½ second, and rode the surge a good 20 yards, and then was left perched high and dry on the ledge with a 12-foot hole in front of him. He glanced over at us gawkers with a look of disgust, because he knew what was going to happen next. That’s right, the next wave (which was bigger, of course), knocked him off the ledge and into the hole. Being a good paddler, Don fought to stay upright and in control. He did himself proud; unfortunately, like an inflatable duck toy in an empty bathtub, he was left in the bottom of the hole after the second wave subsided.
This brings us to the fourth hazard—getting stuck in a hole (a depression in the reef), when there are still one or more ledges in your way before you reach the safety of the shoreward side of the reef. When the third wave hit Don, he was swept up eight feet and then dumped over the last ledge and down the cascade to the relative calm water on the shoreward side of the reef. He landed upside down but recovered nicely and had no damage to himself, although the ride broke his rudder off.
The solution to these four hazards is to time your entry onto the wave just right. To do that, take off in the middle (about two seconds after it passes under you) of the surging wave, so you have a cushion of water in front of you to avoid the first two hazards, and you have enough impetus to take you all the way across the reef and to the other side, so you don’t get stranded either high or low.
To perform it just right you need two things: lots of practice beforehand in easy conditions until skilled enough to make it all the way; and a thorough scouting of the pour-over stunt so you know which wave to take and when, and what course you will take all the way through to safety, and what you will do if something goes wrong.
For kayakers just learning about ocean rock gardens, go with your instructor to a safe and easy pour-over and practice reading and then riding the surge. Practice over and over until you get bored. This will give you competence and confidence. Over time, you can paddle across longer distances and in bigger waves, always under the watchful eyes of your teachers and paddling companions.
More experienced kayakers should seek out short but challenging pour-overs to hone their slalom skills. A short pour-over with only a couple of paddling moves will allow an experienced kayaker a chance to practice without being stuck in a 50-foot course with no easy way out. But even if you try a longer pour-over, remember that it’s similar to paddling rapids in a river. The good news is that the ocean rapids stop after a few seconds, which gives you time to recover or at least set up for the next onslaught.
Once you have the skills to handle more difficult pour-over problems, then get with your team and look for a suitable pour-over or cascade challenge. Scout the complex pour-over in question until you know you can do it. This could take several minutes and some discussion. Have only one person attempt a challenging pour-over, in case something goes awry. You don’t want a pod of paddlers crashing into each other in an already dangerous environment. Plus, the other kayakers can act as spotters and rescuers, if needed, and can see what it’s like for a good boater to go through. If it’s doable, then everyone, one at a time, can tackle it; and if it’s too scary, then it can be abandoned and another playground can be located.
Running ocean pour-overs is one of my favorite rock garden activities. You will like it too, especially if you slow down and assess the situation, then go for it with gusto.
Please share your pour-over and cascade stories. If you are experienced, please offer your suggestions on how to handle pour-overs. If you are interested in learning more about pour-overs, please ask your questions right here and either myself or another reader will answer them. Have fun out there!