by Bill Vonnegut
Editor’s note: Bill Vonnegut of the Neptune’s Rangers is an old friend. We’re pleased to run his article on rock gardening versus rock bashing. If you find yourself paddling on the open coast from San Francisco to Oregon, you could possibly run into Bill. He has a passion for paddling and holds British Canoe Advanced Sea Leader and ACA Level 5 Coaching awards. You can find him running classes through his business Pacific Coastal Kayaking. Thanks, Bill, for all you do to educate paddlers and promote our sport. Photos provided by Bill Vonnegut except where indicated.
“I am going to go out and bash my new boat into a rock today.” Who does that? Rock gardening is about connecting your kayak to the ocean currents as they make their way through and over coastal rocks. Every run is a challenge to hone your water reading and boat control skills, and when everything clicks and your kayak gracefully flows through the garden it’s a delightful feeling, so you do it again.
The sport of rock gardening has progressed and become more mainstream since November, 2011, when Eric Soares and I were having an email discussion about writing an article on rock gardening, or what some people were referring to as boat bashing. Recently Nancy Soares came across this old email chain and asked me to finish the article.
Years before plastic boats and GoPros, there was an ocean whitewater paddling group that called themselves the Tsunami Rangers. Spearheaded by Commander Eric Soares, they had been documenting on VHS cameras something that looked crazy. They called it rock gardening. I love watching old videos of them out in body armor and homemade glass boats that Jim Kakuk, with the help of TR Glenn Gilchrist, designed and fabricated himself. They had to make their own boats because there were no boats suitable for rock gardening at that time. These boats would take a beating and sometimes broke into pieces but that’s ok because fiberglass is reparable, most of the time.
In 2011 when I was chatting with Eric about the article, I had been exploring coastal rocks for some years, the Neptune’s Rangers had just completed Eric’s Big Sur challenge, and I had started producing some on water videos. At this time, GoPros and modern playful sea kayaks were still a new thing and few people explored coastal rock gardens or comprehended what we were doing out there.
On a typical paddle with friends, we would try to improve our paddling, pushing our skill levels by attempting more and more difficult runs through the coastal rock gardens. While doing this, every run did not go as planned, and stories of the successful runs were sometimes overshadowed by stories of a rescue performed or damaged boat. Even though these stories were rare, we would hear about how we were being dangerous Rock Bashers. I remember heated conversations between us rock gardeners who were out challenging ourselves and paddlers who didn’t understand why we were, in their minds, purposely bashing into rocks.
During this time, I started posting rock garden trips to my local San Francisco Bay Area sea kayaking club. When I started posting these trips about 3 or so people would show up. After the trip I would post a report with photos, and slowly future trips gleaned an additional person or 2. Years later 30 or more paddlers would arrive and head out for a rock garden trip.
With the popularity of social media these days we can now see forms of rock gardening all over the world’s oceans. Sporty plastic boats like the Dagger Stratos and P&H Delphin/Virgo are very popular and more people have started playing in rocks and dynamic water.
The paddling we are doing is the same, but as more people start to play and understand that rock gardening is a way to challenge your skills on any level, the comments about boat bashing seem to have lessened and are being replaced with vibrant stories about rock gardening. Boat Bashing or Rock Gardening, it’s just a state of mind.
This from Eric: Ocean rock garden paddling is a “school of hard rocks.” You will bash and crash and smash. The idea is to get better so fewer crashes and more cool paddling skills and fun. As the ante goes up, bashing will occur.
Have you ever paddled a rock garden? Share your thoughts and experience by commenting below. For a gentler look at rock gardens, check out our post Moseying Down the Coast – Sea Kayaking in the Slow Lane. Happy paddling!
Jim Kakuk says
Remembering the times when Eric and I would explore the open coast and find amazing rock gardens and mysterious caves inviting us in with mischievous intent. After our thrilling encounters with the power and beauty of the exposed coast, we would wonder why are there so few ocean whitewater kayakers? The river kayakers were showcasing their exploits of dynamic rapids and big drops but the sea kayakers were mainly in flat protected bays and inside passages.
Great article Bill, it is so much fun to follow your adventures, see the fantastic photos and the interest you are generating in the wild blue of ocean whitewater.
Bill Vonnegut says
Thank you Jim, so much to explore and what you are exploring can dramatically change with every wave set.
Rafik Greiss says
My first experience rock gardening, or rock hopping, had me hooked. I had a smile that couldn’t be wiped off for two weeks. When friends asked me what it was, I told my ski fanatic friends that is was like “an intense mogul run through glades on a steep pitch with someone behind you shooting at you. Unlike moguls that stay stagnant, these bumps always move!” It’s the epitome of reading water and boat control.
Nancy Soares says
Great description, Rafik. It reminds me of the time I surfed a feature called “8” in the Noyo harbor. The feature is a rock formation that when you catch the wave swirls you around in a figure 8. More like a slalom run but that same feeling of speed and balance, just staying centered on top of your skis, or in this case, your kayak. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment!
Stephen Anderson says
I have been paddling for 20 years and have had some amazing experiences. One of the best was when I met up with a group of paddlers from Western sea kayakers club in Mendocino. I paddled my first pour over, went through sea caves and tunnels. Words cannot describe the joy I felt.
I couldn’t have done this without the group for obvious safety reasons.
I still dream of that day!