By Johna Till Johnson
“Rocks are our friends,” says Carl Ladd.
I look at him skeptically. That sounds insane to me. I’ve just met Carl, who runs Osprey Sea Kayaks in Westport, Massachusetts. From what I can tell he’s a talented paddler and a successful businessman with a wickedly dry sense of humor.
He doesn’t seem nuts.
But as I see it, rocks are not our friends—particularly when they’re combined with wind and waves. Rocks shatter kayaks and gear, and do worse to paddlers.
That’s why I’ve spent a fair amount of my paddling career learning how to avoid rocks. And it’s why I’m less than convinced by Carl’s comment.
Of course, maybe I’m the one who’s nuts—since I’m planning to spend a glorious cloudless weekend getting better acquainted with rocks, despite my opinion of them.
Let me explain. A few weeks back, John Ozard, who’d helped me edge into artistry at the Sweetwater symposium, emailed to invite me to a weekend of “open-water training” in Rhode Island, organized by himself and master coach John Carmody.
Aside from the short notice, there were a few minor problems.
That particular weekend was sandwiched between two weeks of intensive business travel (London the previous week and Denver subsequently). In fact, I’d be arriving from London (jetlag and all) a mere 20 hours before departing for Rhode Island.
Then there was the question of transporting boat and gear.
And, of course, what, exactly, was “open-water” training? I wasn’t entirely clear about how it differed from the ordinary paddling we do in NYC-area waters. The note went on to say something about rock-gardening—something I’ve never done. I wasn’t even sure what it was.
It took me about a nanosecond to agree.
After all, we’re talking skills training—something I shouldn’t pass up since I’m shooting for my three-star. Plus, John and John are one of the best coaching teams I’ve yet encountered. John (aka the Zen Master of coaching) has an ability to implant kinesthetic sense in your brain simply by asking a few questions about how you’re holding yourself and your body.
So a few weeks after I emailed my assent, here I am standing on the beach in Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island, listening to Carl tell the group that rocks are our friends. “They can shelter us from the waves. They show us how the tide’s moving. And they’re fun!”
I’m not buying it.
But never mind. The sun is shining, the water’s warm, and we’re going for a paddle.
We head out of the harbor and paddle north along the shoreline of Rhode Island Sound. The plan is to go up for about a mile, find some rocks to play in and then do some surfing.
We’re all reasonably good paddlers (about half are three-star, with a four-star or two). In addition to John Carmody and John Ozard, the coaches include Carl Ladd and Mark, who tells me on the first day that he’s addicted to playing in the rocks. Notwithstanding his evident derangement, he seems to be quite a nice guy.
Carl has supplied the boat I’m paddling, a Cetus LV, which I’ve already fallen in love with. It’s fast, strong, and maneuverable, and doesn’t weathercock at all. I’ve brought the rest of my gear up from NYC on the train (which I figured out was the easiest way to get my jetlagged self up to Rhode Island).
The coastline is lovely and picturesque, covered in late-spring greenery. And the swells are coming in, as promised, at 3-5 feet height—a little higher than they usually are in the Lower Bay of New York Harbor, but nothing I haven’t seen before. If this is “open water”, I’m in my element.
We pass some fishing buoys and begin to bear left, heading towards a cluster of low rocks, packed tightly together like the pads in a cat’s paw.
And here the swells don’t look so bouncy—they’re downright angry, breaking sharply on the rocks, then sucking and swirling among them in a green-and-white eddy that I soon learn is called, with reason, the “cauldron”.
Nothing friendly about any of it.
“Johna, come over here!” John Carmody yells. True to my instinct, I’ve parked my boat what feels like a safe distance away—not quite a quarter-mile, but not particularly close. Why get near those rocks if you don’t have to?
Then I find out that the plan is for us to paddle in between the rocks—right where the waves are breaking and the cauldron is fiercest.
And in a tightly-wound S-curve that requires some fairly tight maneuvering. Sheesh! My flat-water maneuvering isn’t the greatest—and now I’m supposed to be doing it among rocks? In waves?
John gives us some pointers, including the most important one: The best time to go is when the waves are retreating, just before the next big one goes in. You can surf through on the incoming wave, and (if you time it right) be protected from dashing against the rocks by the reflected waves bouncing back towards you from the rock surface. And if you understand the wave dynamics, you’ll actually get pushed through the turns by the water itself.
I’m thinking about sitting this one out, but John won’t let me. He suggests I give it a try. And whether it’s peer pressure or deference to authority, I go in.
I count the swells over my shoulder, then watch for the telltale retreating waves. My heart’s pounding, but I start paddling. The wave hits, and sure enough, the push-and-pull of incoming and reflect waves spins me around and I’m through.
Yeah! I can rock-garden!
John paddles up. “See, wasn’t that easier than it looked?” I nod yes, enthusiastically. “Let me give you a tip,” he continues. “Next time, paddle using your normal forward stroke. You were getting short and choppy there as you got nervous. Remember—the blades have to go all the way into the water.”
But the next couple of times, I make it through paddling properly. Each time, my heart rate is lower (but I get a burst of adrenaline from zipping through).
During a break on the beach, John sketches out the wave dynamics in the sand. I’m simplifying a bit, but the basic principle is that when a swell slams into a rock, it generates both reflected and refracted waves. As I mentioned earlier, the waves reflect back in the direction they approach from—which tends to “buffer” you from the rock. So even if you think you’ll be slammed into the rock, you probably won’t.
And the refracted waves bend around both sides of the rock, which can spin you around—something you can use to your advantage if you understand the wave dynamics.
The refracted waves collide at the back side of the rock, creating a wave with a lot of up-and-down motion (up to twice the size of the original swells). That’s what creates a lot of the exciting visuals in a rock cluster: the waves colliding in a bright splash of foam and an impressive peak.
The thing to remember is that although these waves are big, they’re not going anywhere—just up and down. In fact the safest place to be, usually, is at the back of the rock. Inside the cauldron, in other words, and in the epicenter of some of the colliding waves.
It all makes sense to me—I’ve always been fascinated by wave motion. (Signals and Systems and Electricity and Magnetism—both subjects fundamentally about waves—were two of the courses I did best in in college.) So I can see how rocks aren’t necessarily utterly evil—though I still won’t call them “friends”.
The rest of the day we spend surfing some truly memorable breaking waves. With my new-found stern rudder, I manage to control my boat fairly well (did I mention the Cetus is a fantastic kayak?) Later on in the afternoon I wipe out a couple of times—but I’ve caught more waves than I’ve missed, and ridden them fast and far.
So I’m pumped and ready to go for the second day. Conditions are almost exactly the same: sunny, 3-5 foot swells, 5-10 knot winds.
We paddle past the first set of rocks, which are now looking just a little bit tame.
And we arrive at another cluster, twice as tall and twice as tightly packed. The route into the cluster is in a gap between two rocks—you come in with the swells at your back, then make a sharp left turn and hide behind one rock while waiting to zip out at a 90-degree angle to the way you came in (parallel to the swells).
The gotcha is that where you’re lurking, you can’t easily see incoming swells—and if you try to venture out into a breaking one, it’ll spin your boat around and send you backwards into the rock behind you.
If it sounds complicated, it is. I spend the first several minutes just trying to figure out the wave dynamics while the others go through. And the more I look, the less confident I feel. The previous rocks were child’s play—this cluster is serious stuff. The waves are bigger than some of the waves I’ve surfed—and the push-and-pull of the wave dynamics is confusing.
Everyone else is going through, over and over, while I just watch.
At one point John paddles up to me. He can tell something’s not right.
“What’s going through your mind?” he asks.
“I’m counting the swells,” I reply. “Trying to figure out how many swells per set.” True, but not the whole truth.
Even though everyone else is going through the rock garden, he doesn’t suggest I try. He’s got a great sense of when not to push a student.
And I can’t explain why I don’t even want to try. I’m scared, yes, but that’s not the only reason. I just feel like I can’t quite understand what’s going on—and fear and confusion seems like a bad combination.
Carl paddles up. “Want me to blue-angel you?” he asks?
What’s that? Turns out it’s having someone lead you through the rock garden, showing you when it’s time to go and when it’s time to wait. “Yes,” I say, but too late: John’s decided it’s time to move to the next rock garden. “Saved by the bell,” Carl jokes.
As we paddle away, I’m feeling sad and whiny, like a four-year old who can’t figure out how to play with a toy. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not getting it? All the other kids are having fun!
I make it through the next rock garden a few times, but I still feel as though there’s something I’m not getting.
Each time the same thing happens. As I get closer and closer to the rocks, no matter how well I understand the phenomenon of reflection, I’m scared. It’s not fun. I can maneuver my way out of the garden okay, but I don’t get the point of any of this.
It’s nice to have the skills to escape being killed—and I can see why that’s useful—but why on earth would anyone voluntarily get close to rocks? Why is rock-gardening supposed to be fun?
Eventually we move to yet another set of rocks. Except… these aren’t rocks. These are cliffs, rising straight up maybe 30 feet, with an intermittent line of rocks in front of them.
The swells slam into the cliffs and splash up high, then retreat in a cascade of waterfalls, revealing a rock ledge at about the waterline.
What’s the deal here? Are we going to go between the rocks and the cliff? There doesn’t seem to be enough room…
And there isn’t. The idea, I soon find out, is to paddle up so the nose of your boat is right up against the cliffs (while you avoid the rocks on either side). You wait for the swells… and ride the wave up the cliff. Then the reflected wave pushes you backwards, and you slide down, and you catch the next swell…and ride it up again.
Now THIS looks like fun.
I push my way forward, and pretty soon I’m riding ten-to-twelve foot waves up the face of the cliff, and sliding backwards into the swells. I’m going up and down, up and down, with the nose of my boat a yard or two from the cliffs, and I’m having the time of my life.
I’m not afraid at all—far from it. The waves simply can’t dash me into the cliff—the reflected waves will push me back with equal force. It’s just like riding a big bouncy swell.
The only trick is not to fall off one of the sides and let it capsize you—but since the primary motion is up and down, that’s easier than it sounds.
John gives me a few more tips. The most important is not to push the foot pedals, because that will lock your boat. Instead, you stay loose and relaxed.
And this isn’t hard at all because… Did I mention I’m not afraid? I’m perfectly relaxed.
I don’t even realize how relaxed until a few minutes later. John O has been staying close beside me, keeping an eye on me. But John doesn’t think he’s being aggressive enough with the waves, and eggs him closer into the cliff, with a bit of coach-on-coach humor.
“Now hold your paddle over your head!” John yells. And John does.
So I do, too.
“Now shut your eyes!” John yells.
I do too.
And there I am with the nose of my boat inches from a solid rock wall, getting tossed by the swells, with my eyes shut and my paddle over my head… and I’m perfectly relaxed.
And having a blast.
The other paddlers are looking at me like I’m nuts. I’m the scaredy cat, the wimpy one, the one who didn’t even make it through the second rock garden. And I’m enjoying this?
Later on, I ask John: “Is it ever dangerous to do what we just did?” His answer: Yes. He explains that if the waves are breaking before they crash into the rocks—i.e. if we’re dealing with breaking open-water waves, not swells—it’s too rough to get up close to the rocks like that. But if the swells roll in and break against the rocks, we can ride them as much as we dare.
After a while, we break for lunch. We head back to the sandy beach where we ate yesterday, and draw more diagrams in the sand. John explains how the waves were working in the rock garden that stumped me. And I draw an incomprehensible picture of the rock cliffs and try to explain about reflection. (“You obviously didn’t go to art school,” Mark quips.)
After that, we do a bit more surfing. But I can’t help it… my eye strays to a cluster of rocks over to the side of the beach. The surf seems to be running up into them, then pulling back, and I’ve seen some of the better paddlers playing there.
I paddle over and begin to nose the boat into the rocks.
Mark follows, a wide smile on his face. “You can’t resist the rocks,” he says.
He’s right. I can’t. I paddle in as close as I dare, and ride the swells up and down. There’s a gap between the rocks that fills with water when the swell is rushing through. Mark has gone through it in a plastic boat, but I’m not ready to try (particularly not in Carl’s nice Cetus). Not today, at any rate. But tomorrow…
I’m feeling pretty satisfied at the end of the day, as we turn and paddle homewards.
Our last stop of the day is a rock garden—the same one I didn’t do before. Would my new-found confidence bouncing up and down against the cliffs translate to paddling through the rock garden that stumped me last time?
We line up and begin heading through the opening, helped along by the sizable swells behind us.
I’m feeling pretty confident until the paddler just ahead of me wipes out. Mark executes a crisp rescue (his second of the day). And I’m next, with a line of swells on the horizon.
I look to Carl for guidance. “You’re good,” he says. “They’re not that big.” I wait for the last waves to recede, and commit.
I’m nearly through the opening when the first swell hits and I pick up steam, heading straight for the rock, which is getting closer and closer.
“Rocks are our friends,” I say out loud to myself. My heart is pounding and I start to tense up… but remember to relax into the wave, edging into my turn.
And sure enough, the reflection hits. I spin around at a 90-degree angle and shoot out the far side. I’ve been watching the swells and I know I’m okay—I’m not going to wipe out in an unexpected breaking wave around the corner of the rock ahead.
And I’m through!
A fantastic ending to a perfect paddling day, and a wonderful weekend.
And Carl is right: Rocks are our friends. I’m planning to intensify that friendship over the coming years.