First published in 'Canoe Kayak UK' Magazine
by Mark Rainsley
Paddling back through the chop towards the beach once, we
suddenly had the sense that we were not alone. Rather surprisingly, a decidedly
glamorous-looking wooden yacht had crept up silently behind us and the skipper
wanted to chat.
"Where have you two just come from?"
We explained that we'd just been rockhopping around Old Harry Rocks.
"Yeah, you can get real close and ride the swells over and around the rocks."
We told him about the narrow gaps between the chalk pillars that could just about be threaded if you waited for the right surge, and about the shallow ledges which could be surfed across with a combination of timing and attitude! He listened amazed as we described the tiny kayak-sized caves bored into the side of the chalk, accessible only at the right tides.
"Incredible! I've been sailing around here all my life, and I've never gotten close to Old Harry. If I could, I'd swap this yacht right now for those kayaks."
I did some mental arithmetic regarding the size of my overdraft.
"Okay mate, you're on."
"Erm, I was just joking…is that the time? I must be going…"
There is one part of the world where only we can go...a secret place that can only be reached by kayak. The narrow strip where the sea interacts with the land is all ours - the rocks, the cliffs and the caves. Exploring this Terra Incognita is known as 'rockhopping', but it is rarely given the credit it deserves. Sea kayakers are among the purest sea travellers. Whitewater paddlers get to experience the weightlessness of freefall. Kayak surfers know that theirs is really an aesthetic pursuit. A rockhopping trip can combine the best of all these disciplines and as noted, lead you to places that are yours alone. Let's give it a shot, then…
Where and when?
Locating rocks isn't rocket science. For the most basic trip,
you are looking for the point where a beach begins to run out…where rocks
encroach at the edges of the bay. What you are looking for is rocks that you
can paddle among or perhaps over. Cliffs offer great rockhopping potential
too, if the base is ragged and pocked; caves and arches are the icing on the
cake. Before a trip, you'll need to do some real planning, if you don't want
your trip to feature on the evening news…
Weather - Check the forecast! Strong wind makes paddling on the sea a miserable experience for any but the hardiest of seagull-eating beardies. Offshore winds are deadly, for reasons that shouldn't really need spelling out. If the weather is kicking up anything other than the smallest and cleanest of swells, go surfing instead; don't say we didn't warn you.
Tides - River paddlers often get confused by the sea's irritating propensity to move up or down and change direction of flow every six hours. Knowing when rocks will be exposed by low tide is helpful for our purposes. More crucially, you should be aware if the tide is creating strong currents…staying among the rocks may allow you to eddyhop out of the flow. There is no getting away from it; this is all straying into proper sea kayaking territory. You must understand tides, otherwise stay away from the sea. Read a book, go on a course, get some advice, whatever - but ignorance is no excuse.
Your ocean going Kevlar sea kayak may be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but it should probably stay in the shed for rock hopping trips. Unless you are independently wealthy, you'll find the grinding noise of barnacles shredding resin too much to bear. Either way, a full-on sea kayak is simply too long to manoeuvre in tight situations. Short plastic sea kayaks are a possibility; for instance we often use Perception Carolinas and can vouch that they can turn fast enough between swells to line up for a quick getaway! Any sea kayak will need snug fitting out inside for the degree of control needed in rockhopping; worth mentioning as many sea kayakers neglect this. Maybe the best compromise is to use general purpose whitewater kayaks like Inazones or Blazes. They are obviously nippy among and over the rocks, and they are just about bearable when you have to slog from #A to #B. How about using that teeny-weeny playboat? Be our guest, but the grin that appears on your face whilst flatwheeling might just be wiped off when you have to outrun a steep surge into a cliff…and trying to maintain a straight line through heaving seas might just rob you of your breakfast.
What is the Suck? Solving this conundrum is the key to rockhopping, young Jedi. The Suck is the Dark Side of rockhopping, what happens when the swell turns nasty. Only a little swell is necessary for jolly japes. But be warned: a teeny weeny bit of swell hitting rocks somehow surges into a hooning great hump of swell. All seems tempting to the unknowing boater who paddles forward onto the resulting cuddly hump. Suddenly, the hump drops away and the Suck appears below, a deep dark hole with only sharp barnacled rock to break your fall, and another swell incoming fast, intent upon pile driving your battered remains into the sea bed. What could go wrong?
This might sound like a nasty disease, but it's actually the choppy and confused sea you get when waves repeatedly bounce back into one another. At best you feel the need to barf, at worst clapotis can actually sling you right out of the water - with intriguing consequences. Be wary of clapotis near cliffs, and oddly, near manmade sea walls. There has been a story doing the rounds for years about a paddler in Plymouth who was flung onto the quay and killed; modern myth or truth, anybody know?
Pretentious as it may sound, there is a technique to rockhopping. Of course, you can (and probably should) stick to 'vanilla' paddling around and among the rocks as carefully as possible. With a minimal swell, a little care (and a little stupidity) the skilled paddler can push things further; but remember children, don't try this at home…
Squeezes - find a narrow gap between rocks. This is also how many caves are accessed. Study the surge between the rocks - and then study again. When you've figured out the timing, surf forward to the far side. The key is to stay high on the wave, and not piton forward onto bedrock. See under, "ouch".
Washovers - it'll all end in tears! Find a rock where the sea surges up and over reaching deep water on the other side. Employ a nifty combination of forward and back paddle strokes to cross up and over the rock without scraping your boat. There are two possible outcomes. Either, you ride gracefully high and dry before enjoying an exhilarating waterfall plunge on the far side. Or, you don't.
Seal Landings/ Launches - Sea kayakers use this technique to land and launch in difficult conditions. Similar to washovers, only you time your ride to land on the rock (or a ledge) as the water drops away. You then have to launch away from the rock again when the next wave comes - if you've got this far, you'll probably figure it out.
Rocksplats - just as on the river, you can smear your boat all over the rocks with a clumsy combination of your cartwheel and stern dip skills. Not recommended when there is any swell (remember the Suck?) and note that barnacles do amusing things to unscratched planing hulls.
Flora and Fauna
So far, this article has perhaps given the impression that the intertidal zone (ie. the rocks) is merely an aquatic playground for macho initiation rites. Indeed there is a copious amount of fun to be had whenever rocks and boaters meet…but the playground is located in rather pleasant surroundings. The words 'rocks' and 'cliffs' hardly do justice to the awesome formations that result whenever the sea gets a longterm chance to lay into the coast. Rockhopping doesn't take place in a sterile desert, either. I'm no tree-hugging environmentalist, but even I've noticed that the playground literally teems with life from bizarre little crustaceans to spectacularly sprawling seaweed. We aren't the only mammals who enjoy rockhopping; seals also get their kicks in this way. They are always curious about boaters in a gawping and stalking sort of way. However, they don't appreciate their home territory being appropriated so give them space, in particular avoid inhabited caves.
When Good Rocks go Bad
We were on our annual club trip to the Dart. Finding no water, we decided to go surfing. Finding no worthwhile surf, we decided to go rockhopping. Conditions were fairly lively; I remember turning to Rob at one point and saying "Someone could get hurt doing this". How we laughed. The Incident occurred inside a sort of rocky cove. You had to wait for a swell before you could get across the rocks blocking the entrance. Roy went in first and then enticed me to join him…I refer to this as the 'Follow Me! Incident'. I waited for a suitable wave and was swept in. I think I'd only been there a few moments when I realised that an enormous wave was surging towards me. I pointed the boat straight at it and hoped for the best.
The boat went up the face of the wave and was flipped over backwards. My head bashed against a rock and I lost my paddles. I released my deck and spent an enjoyable few minutes barnacle-bashing while the others waited for conditions to calm down sufficiently for them to effect a rescue. They got me a safe distance away from the rocks and then back into my boat. Since I had no paddles, they had to tow me back towards the beach. Rather than attempt to land in my incapacitated and paddle-less state, we remained offshore and waited for Mike to get out of his boat and wade back in to assist. I say 'wade', but he appeared to run into the sea and perform a heroic Baywatch-style dive before swimming out to us. It was only later he revealed that he had in fact tripped over a rock.
A trip to Derriford Hospital. A broken nose. Stitches. Bandages. An anti-tetanus injection. Antibiotics. Two *enormous* black eyes (they dubbed me "Panda Perry"). Inability to breathe properly through my nose for about a year (the dry mouth in the morning is the worst). A medical record which includes the words "large haematoma" and "dashed against rocks".
1) Don't follow Roy. Ever.
The most crucial info needed by any paddler venturing out rockhopping
is of the technical sort…if you don't understand how the sea environment 'works'
then you and your group are a prime candidate for Darwinian natural selection.
'The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking' by Derek Hutchinson is a great introduction; clear, readable and often amusing.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk has plenty of weather, tidal and sea paddling related info.
'ID' - by Richard Bell is a classic video which shows Shaun Baker and friends rockhopping in outrageous conditions in Pembrokeshire.
'Extreme Sea Kayaking' - by Eric Soares and Michael Powers is quite amazing. The 'Tsunami Rangers' are a deranged group of superfit New Age types from California, who suit up in body armour and go paddling in suicidal conditions. One of them has pulled off a 60 foot high seal landing! Whilst we don't recommend emulating their hobby, there's no denying that their book is compulsive in a 'rubber-necking' way.
Mark Rainsley - 2005