I was scared the first time I ran a rock garden (gauntlet). It seemed so unpredictable. Fearing being washed up on a rock any second got the heart going. But since that first encounter l have learned some skills and knowledge that makes that particular rock garden headland the highlight of a paddle from Wollongong harbour.
If one is proficient at rolling in all conditions, and has a helmet, gloves and a paddling partner with the same skills, this is a great way to spend a day on the water. If there is a beautiful calm sea with a small swell, sit in your kayak and watch the water’s energy in rock gardens. That’s right. Just sit and watch you will need to spend time on the sea to understand how energy in water forms, disperses then reforms around rocks etc. With some understanding of the rock garden or platform you are entering or landing on, you must have an exit plan. This may be a deep calm spot or an eddy behind a rock. Always let the biggest set pass and observe how the conditions change (these sets are what can catch you on the wrong side of a bommy).
When entering a rock garden or landing on a platform use the surge of the swell as you want as much water under you and not to be pushed in front of the surge – just like coming in on the back of a wave on a beach. So, depending on size of the surge, let it just pass your bow then paddle into the rock garden and turn hard. This is where your turning skills come in handy for it is best to have your bow facing into the following surges as in a surf zone. You can see what is coming and you are in the best position to get out of there. A broach is best avoided. That requires leaning into the surge and pulling yourself on top, relying on the cushion of the rebound and praying there are no rocks jutting out. It is better to have your bum not your head facing the rocks. Be aware of your fellow paddlers for they may cause more trouble than the rocks.
Facing into the surge is the best way to navigate backwards into a sea cave. But when you make seal landings you need to have your bow as close as possible to the rock platform. Watch how the water disperses on top of it. Then catch the back of a surge which covers the platform by about ten centimetres. Be ready to do some pretty active extended support strokes if your bow ends up on the shelf and the stern back in the water. Just wait for the next surge or let the kayak slip back. If you are intending to get out of your kayak, pull your splash cover off as you slide over the landing site then quickly jump out. If you can’t pick up your kayak and grab it at the stern, let the surges pass till a lull. Getting back off the platform is much the same thing. Hang the bow over the edge of the platform and push off into the surge by your hands on the rocks.
Why risk any of this? One day you may have no choice but to make a seal landing. You may need to help a fellow paddler who has strayed to close to some rocks. You should be able to read bommys better and have perfected your turning skills so you’re in the best position to deal with one. As Paul Caffyn said in his book he had avoided seal launchings but had to do one on the great Australian Bight on his dream voyage around Australia. Larry Gray says that surprises during expeditions sometimes require emergency landings. A sick or injured paddler, change of weather or miscalculation can lead to an unplanned rocky landing. On some of his expeditions there haven’t been any beaches! Once skills are up to scratch the situation isn’t such a big deal. Finally, putting yourself into these testing situations gives the morning paddle a new dimension.
One final word. Rock gardens are a complete ecosystem so tread carefully. Even though cungee (seaweed sponges) etc can create a kind of padded cell for your kayak when training at low tide, if you train at high tide there’s less rock, less power in the swell and hopefully it’s friendlier to both the paddler and the ocean world.