Oceans of Whitewater (Part 1)

Sean Morley in the Karma RG at Point Bonita, CA. Photo by Mieko Watkins

Even during a truly historic drought here in California there is plenty of whitewater to be found. It’s just that it tastes salty!

Every day of the year there is fun to be had paddling kayaks on the ocean.

“Sea kayaking? That is for old men with beards!” I hear you say.

Not anymore! The demographic is shifting and includes younger paddlers of both genders who are using shorter sea kayaks and whitewater kayaks to play with the ocean in a way that would make the late and beloved Tsunami Rangers founder Eric Soares smile with pleasure knowing that he had led the way.

Young charger Elliott Barlas tearing it up at Chicken Rock, Mendocino. Photo by Cate Hawthorne

It is remarkable that for years relatively few whitewater thrill-seeking boaters have considered the ocean as a genuine alternative during times of low run-off. Perhaps the fact that whitewater kayaks have got shorter and shorter is to blame. But now the trend is in the opposite direction with boats like the Rogue and the new Karma RG coming to market. Events like the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium have helped to stimulate that interest by offering classes in ocean surfing and rock garden play specifically for paddlers using shorter kayaks.

Cate Hawthorne styling it in her pink Zen 55. Photo by Jeff Laxier

But what can you do in a whitewater kayak in the ocean that doesn’t involve paddling long distances in a craft designed to allow the river to take you where you want to go? The trick is to understand the dynamics of the marine environment, specifically the inter-tidal zone where the ocean and land meet and pick your launch spot to quickly and easily immerse you in all the whitewater you can handle. It could be surfing a beach break but if that is all you do, you are missing out on a lot of fun and the chances are you will be sharing your surf break with board surfers who don’t necessarily like to share ‘their’ waves with you.

Jeff Laxier running a pour-over. Photo by Cate Hawthorne

The real benefit of surfing a whitewater kayak is that you can access and surf waves that no board surfer would consider. Reef breaks, point breaks, tide races, slots and pour-overs that can be anything from mellow to Class V on any given day. There are caves and tunnels to explore that only a very few human beings have seen, majestic arches to paddle through and beaches to land on where the only footprint is yours. Rock gardens adorn much of the world’s coastlines and this is our playground, where swell, wind, wave and current blend together to create the ocean’s whitewater.

Sean Morley squeezing through a gap in the reef in the Karma RG prototype.

Paddling in this zone requires skill and good judgment based on experience. Tranquility can transform into chaos in a moment and it is this seemingly unpredictable quality that many river paddlers find disconcerting. You may have great boating skills but taking a class with a certified instructor is a good way to obtain a better understanding of what is going on, how to predict what is going to happen and what to do if things go wrong. Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion Kayaking in Mendocino, California have been teaching rock garden and surfing classes using whitewater kayaks for several years now. Mendocino has some of the best rock garden features to be found anywhere in the world and they truly understand how to have the most fun out there.

The interface of ocean and rock is our playground. Photo by Mieko Watkins

Part 2 of this series will look at some of the factors we need to take into consideration when considering playing in ‘Oceans of Whitewater’.

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