Grading the gap or gully
Why, when and how?
By Ollie Jay
After reading an excellent article on rock gardening by ex pat Sean Morley, I felt it was the right time to put forward a system I have been suggesting to my clients for a few years up here on the Northumberland and Scottish coast. It is a system I have always found useful since moving to the more challenging sea environment from the rivers. It helps me make a more informed decision about when it is safe enough for me to attempt a particular feature or not and, to date (as I am still able to paddle and write this article having paddled the odd gap), I can only conclude it works.
Why head in among the rocks?
I guess the reason I find myself drawn in among the rocks is related to my background of paddling rivers. I was fortunate to cut my teeth in the French and Austrian Alps back in the late 1980s. When I moved to Northumberland back in 1999, there were no big rivers on the doorstep and I was introduced to the pleasures of sea kayaking by some crusty old seagull-eating, bearded seadogs.
My first sea kayak trip to the west coast of Scotland was in an old Sea Tiger. While acting as a guinea pig on a very wet and wild 5 star assessment weekend, we paddled through the Corryvreckan and visited the Grey Dogs before surfing north to Oban on a huge northerly swell. I was hooked!
Back in sunny Northumberland I was introduced to plastic sea kayaks. I remember having an old square-hatched Capella and a Prijon sea Yak at my disposal – at that stage I couldn’t afford my own sea kayak. We often ended up taking clients in among the rocks to develop their skills where paddlers were forced to make the turn by better use of the paddle when the sea was flattish. When the instructors were out playing it could get a bit exciting, and some fairly serious gamesmanship developed. I guess it is human nature that once someone has survived a rather big set or wave it is a challenge for the next to try and beat it! Unfortunately, this approach often leads to a broken paddle or someone getting a good kicking or bad swim. Another possible reason for our playing among the rocks may have been an excuse to get away from the old folk recounting their various exploits in far-off places that we could not afford to paddle. (I am sure some of my current clients think the same when we are sat round the campfire on the west coast on expedition…)
When is it safe to try a certain feature?
There is really only one way of finding the when: trial and error. Like many outdoor activities however, gentle progression is the key here. The consequences of a mistake can be very serious if it goes wrong.
What is rock hopping?
For me it is not about bouncing off rocks (although this is inevitably what happens sometimes) but trying to negotiate a gap or gully without hitting the rocks. We are not into the wilful destruction of plastic kayaks but just keen to explore the boundaries. The kayaks don’t seem to mind it, although the single-layered roto-moulded are clearly the winners in this environment at the extreme end as they are less rigid.
My suggested system is taken from the well-used and tested river grading system. For those who don’t know it, we grade a particular rapid or feature on the river using the set criteria. It is by no means perfect but it does offer the less-experienced paddler a method of self-analysis and a potential measure of their current skill level. When river levels vary the level of difficulty can actually go up or down – some bolder strewn rivers become less technical with more water in.
I would always advise sitting on the coast (high up on a big day when paddling is not an option) and watching the sea do its thing. It is also useful to sit and watch other paddlers, ideally people who know what they are doing, and also people who are not too far above your level.
Aim to study the way the sea moves back and forth in the impact zone. This area is affected by three factors, which potentially make this area more complex: the state of the tide, swell height and direction and the wind strength and direction. The first determines where you can actually get to while the latter two factors greatly add to the complexity. I have attempted to categorise rock-hopping areas into six grades, from easy to extremely dangerous/un-navigable safely.
First, we should look at the factors mentioned above and how they can affect the grading.
The state of the tide
At low tide there are potentially more features, but there may not be enough water to go into that particular area. The state of the tide determines how much space there is between and around the rocks or features and the depth of any potential obstacles. The state of the tide will also determine if there is any water moving along the coast you are operating on and particularly on the east coast of the UK slack water does not necessarily correspond with low or high water. If you are operating near a headland or group of islands this can also add to the challenge considerably; you may find yourself committed in a fast-flowing area, so it is important to get your analysis of the difficulty correct. Initially, I would suggest starting your rock hopping on a dropping tide; features will become steadily more difficult due to the decreasing depth, increasing the number of obstacles in play and creating a steady progression.
This factor changes slowly, over 6.15 hours or so and therefore does not alter the grade of a particular feature considerably once you have chosen the area to play in. It would be worth knowing when slack water is though as this could effect things in more exposed areas.
The following factors can be less predictable and can change quicker:
Swell height and direction
If there is a residual swell running and it is in line with your proposed gap, then it can add to the challenge greatly. Sometimes it is better to go against the swell to start with, as this might give you more control; it does mean you will spend longer in the gap itself. If the swell is coming across your proposed gap then it can get interesting getting in and out the other side. All the skills required can be practised on a single rock somewhere on its own with lots of deep water around. For the sake of clarity, I always differentiate between swell and a wave; swell is the momentum lump if you like, and a wave is created when this swell passes over a feature where the depth is too shallow (the water trips over itself with the friction created, causing a wave to break and white water to be seen). If it is a really big day this can get complicated, as white caps form on the swell above a Force 4 or so. These tend to move with the swell however, whereas a wave always occurs at the same place due to its link with the depth at that point.
If created a few days before and the wind has dropped, swell can be quite clean. Though swell predictions will give a height and period (time between the swell), not all swell creates the same size of wave and these tend to come in sets of 4–7. If we watch a competent surfer they will wait for the big one, which is normally the 3rd or 4th wave in the set. We can use this knowledge among the rocks to make sure we get to the critical point of the gap with just the right amount of water. If you are less experienced you might want to go with the wave that is towards the end of a particular set; at that point, there is less chance of a big hole appearing any time soon. It also gives you a chance to recover, as the next few waves should be smaller.
Wind strength and direction
Unless you are either going into or against the wind, the wind affects the boat by turning it. The use of a skeg to counteract this is not a good idea when close to the rocks. It will therefore be necessary to steer the kayak using edging or by use of the paddle with sweep strokes or bow and stern rudders. (Bow or stern rudders are often more useful in narrow gaps.) The wind can be funnelled by the cliffs and between bigger features. Regardless of the forecast prevailing wind direction and strength, the actual conditions within the rock garden can be random with down-draughts causing interesting conditions in winds stronger than a F4.
As a guide I would suggest a shorter sea kayak is better for first-timers as they are more manoeuvrable. You do see people using creek boats for rock hopping (and indeed I have), but they can be a little short and slow to break through bigger waves. If you do use them make sure you have a full set of airbags fitted as you would for river running. When you start getting into the bigger stuff (grade 3+) it is worth having something with a bit of length to help you climb over some of the swell/waves you might encounter. I am going to resist mentioning any particular boat make or model, but a boat with a skeg can be useful when getting to and from the rocky zone. Rudders are not appropriate and can be easily damaged, so I would suggest removing it.
Clearly plastic kayaks have a massive advantage here being more durable, but not all can handle being bounced off rocks. Some plastics are more durable than others, and some layups are more appropriate. I would suggest using a single skin roto-moulded rather than some of the multi-layered options as they can be more rigid and therefore less forgiving. A few of the guys I regularly paddle with have cracked their kayaks. There is plenty of feedback on the various forums, but be aware that independent reviews seem increasingly rare these days. Manufacturers have recently been designing sea kayaks to be used in the impact zone, especially for rock hopping, tide race playing and surfing. Always try before you buy!
Composite kayaks can be lighter and some are made with a percentage of carbon, which makes them stronger and more able to absorb a knock or two. Gel coat can be repaired as can more catastrophic events, but the key is to have the decision-making sorted and the skills honed so as not to hit any rocks in the first place.
Drysuits can be damaged in this area so may be advisable to wear older gear and possibly a wetsuit which may help to give you some protection if you end up swimming.
Paddles need to be very strong if bouncing off rocks – glass or plastic blades advisable.
Normal sea kayak safety equipment needed, don’t think that because you are near to shore you should have it with you. Try to reduce the amount of equipment on the deck although a spare paddle is a good idea, don’t leave that behind.
VHF and mobile signal
Often both of these can be problematic close in under a cliff, check where you can get a signal before selecting a play area.
Why should we try and grade a gap or gully we are about to attempt? I think for the less-experienced paddler this system might give them a more objective way of assessing the risk and hopefully help them to develop their skills among the rocks more progressively and safely. The grading system is by no means perfect, but any feedback is gratefully received and I will endeavour to answer any questions you may have on my adopted system.
When playing amongst the rocks think of the old maxim: Never less than three there should be!
Please email Ollie@active4seasons.co.uk with ‘paddler rock hopping’ as the subject. Have fun but stay safe! To watch some of our adventures please check out active4seasons on You Tube and Facebook.
About the author
Ollie Jay has a BSc in Exercise and Health and a PGCE in Outdoor Education from Bangor, North Wales. He is an experienced BCU Level 4 Sea and Inland Kayak and Level 3 Open Canoe qualified coach who runs www.active4seasons.co.uk. He is based in the NE of England and mostly paddles on the fantastic Northumberland and Scottish borders coastline, which includes both the Farne Islands and St Abbs nature reserves. He offers guided trips and bespoke coaching in the NE and further afield, including Scotland.