When you kayak in ocean rock gardens, you may want to land on a rock to exit the water to eat lunch, camp, evacuate the area, or check out an interesting feature. Derek Hutchinson, in his SEA CANOEING book called this maneuver a seal landing. Decades ago experienced sea kayakers told me to eschew seal landings, as they couldn’t safely be done. They claimed it would be better, safer, easier to avoid rocky landings, paddle on and land on a protected beach or in a harbor. I decided to see for myself just how tricky it was to seal land. It turned out it was not that hard, even in fairly rough conditions.
There are two main ways to accomplish a seal landing—in your boat, and out of your boat. Let’s look at boat landings first.
Seal Landing in your Kayak
If you are landing on rocks in a protected environment, say on a jetty inside a harbor where waves are small (under 2 feet), you can paddle up next to a rock and just get out of your boat as if you were exiting at a dock. If the waves are 2-3 feet or so, take a few minutes and study the timing of the waves on the rocks. Choose a promising rock (one that is either tabletop flat or sloped gently) and envision yourself landing perfectly on the rock in the right-sized wave (one big enough to land you but will not sweep you right off). If it’s a tabletop, paddle up to and onto the flat surface in the middle of a wave that submerges it, and let the water recede around you as you perch yourself. Quickly remove your spray skirt, leap out of the cockpit, grab the cockpit coaming, and hustle your boat up above the waves. You must do this before a bigger wave comes and knocks you off—that’s why you scout first.
If the rock slopes gently (shaped like a ramp, but not steep), scout the waves again, and zoom up the ramp as far as possible on the right-sized wave until you are grounded. Quickly get out of your boat, secure it, and scoot it up to higher ground before a bigger set arrives. The good news about landing on a ramp rock is that it takes less skill than landing on a flat rock, which means you can safely land in bigger waves (perhaps up to 5 feet, if the waves are surging rather than crashing onto the rock).
Seal Landing without your Kayak
If the waves are bigger (4 feet or more), or crashing onto the rocks, and you are worried that you will damage your boat if it hits the rocks with you in it, then you will have to seal land without your kayak. Yes, that means you will seal land with your body just like a real seal.
To do it, exit your boat, wait for a good-sized wave (the last one in a set), and zoom up the ramp on the middle of the wave head first, on your belly, hands by your shoulders with palms out, with your body straight as if you were standing up. As soon as you feel the wave losing its power and starting to recede, grip the rock like a mountain climber would, then scramble up high to safety.
If the wave is crashing, land on the rock in the same position as just described, turn your head to the side so you don’t smash your face, then hit the rock like a judoka does a face fall on the mat. Be sure some of the water is on the rock before you hit, so your landing is cushioned. As above, scramble up to safety as the wave begins to slide back.
If you want your boat to also go up the ramp, hold the toggle and let the boat sweep up with you, should the wave be surging. Then grab it firmly and drag it up to safety as soon as the wave loses its forward momentum.
However, if waves are crashing, and you must land your boat, land as before but hold a line secured to the bow toggle and leave your boat in the water. After you seal land with your body, get to high ground, wait for a good-sized wave (the last in a set), and as it swooshes or crashes in, guide your boat up the ramp or platform by reeling in the line. Your boat will plop on the rock face next to you (don’t let it hit you), and then haul it up to safety, being careful that you do not get entangled in the line—a real hazard. Hauling up your boat in this manner is akin to landing a fighting marlin on the deck of a fishing boat. You want to be careful and avoid getting whacked by the fish or snarled in your tackle.
Seal Landing Caveats
Drysuits will eventually rip and fill with water during sea landings, so take note, especially if you are doing real seal landings with your body alone. Instead wear a surfing wetsuit for padding and warmth. Also, wear good gloves and booties to protect you from sharp rocks. And a helmet of course. Armor, if it fits snugly, is also useful.
If you are not experienced with seal landings and face sizable waves, forego the seal landing and opt for a safer landing on a beach or in a harbor, even if it’s miles away. Getting bashed up and damaging your boat is a sure way to ruin your day. It’s imperative that you develop multiple ways to deal with crashing into rocks, so you can instantly go to Plan B or C if needed.
And don’t be a dummkopf out there. I once attempted a 60-foot seal landing on a rock ramp in Big Sur—and didn’t quite make it to the top and safety. The 10-foot surging wave receded rapidly, and my boat and I tumbled end over end backward into the froth. I was relatively unscathed, but my Kevlar-lined slalom kayak got a big fat hole in it. Scratch another boat. If I had only chosen a smaller wave or had friends waiting to assist me at the top of the ramp….
To master seal landings, go out and practice with experienced friends and teachers, and learn in mild conditions first, then increase the challenge in small increments over time. There is no hurry. Kayaking in rock gardens is like golf. You learn a little more each time, and it takes a lifetime to master.
Please share your thoughts on seal landings. What’s your take on the methods presented here? What do you recommend for a competent and safe seal landing? Also, I’d like to read your stories—good or bad, so please tell your tale. Ask questions or add your thoughts by pressing the “comments” button below.
Editor’s note: This essay is the first of a three-part ocean rock garden series. In February, I’ll write about seal launching, and in early March we’ll finish the series with a post on “rock bashing versus rock gardening.” So stay tuned.