15 min. Rock Garden Rescue & Communication lessons learned

By Bill Vonnegut, Peter Donohue, Roger Schumann, Tony Johnson

Communication by Bill Vonnegut & Peter Donohue 

Communication can play a major factor when things go wrong. We had a capsize and swim on a recent trip to Cypress Point in Monterey CA, where it broke down and almost caused not only significant more time in the water for a swimmer, but very nearly more danger for the rescuer by making them think they had no choice but to make the run through some very big rocky surf to get the swimmer to safety. 

As with all of our paddles, we paddle as a team, but there is not an official leader. Generally we have good group dynamics. As Roger Schumann said during our post mortem review “this was really the one time [during the paddle] where we got a little sloppy, and the ocean took the opportunity we gave it to give us something to think about. “ A paddler swam, a successful rescue was performed, and we then took some time to review our actions to see what we can do better next time (with the benefit of having a couple of video cameras on during the process). We are posting this in the hopes that it will help others prepare for rock garden rescues and would love to hear comments. We realize, and ask that you also keep in mind, that in all incidences quick decisions need to be made using info available, and these quick decisions are not always the best decisions in hindsight. That is one of the challenges of these rescues.

Background from Bill 

The five of us, Allen Shah, Peter Donohue, Roger Schumann, Tony Johnson and Bill Vonnegut arrived at Carmel Beach, and after our normal greetings managed to get ourselves on the water. Four of us have been paddling together very regularly for years, and we have also paddled with Roger on many occasions. We had a few radios and the normal safety gear, but as we have paddled together so much that we can almost read each other’s minds, we did not discuss any safety procedures prior to the launch. 

Conditions were very big that day and we had been out for a couple hours trying to find some features to play on. But except for a few areas it seemed to be an all or nothing kind of day. Most of the near shore areas were ether closed out or so protected that conditions were too small to fine a significant amount of challenging fun.

All it took was a couple waves for things to break down.

We were messing around in a protected cove and at the same time planning our run around the very exposed point full of very large boomers. We were a little scattered throughout this well protected cove when I saw Allen scouting a sheltered slot in the rocks that ran around the point, it looked to me like Tony and Roger followed by Peter were starting to head around the outside. So I turned to Peter and told him I was going to head through the slot. I was hanging out in the exit with Allen, checking out the line between the boomers we need to clear the to make our way outside the point when Roger showed up behind me. Figuring the rest of the group was close behind we decided to clear the small staging area and make the run to deep water and wait for the others. Tony came right after us followed by Peter, who got a surprise when a very large set hit and closed out the channel to deep water.
The video shows clearly the challenges of communicating in rock gardens. I was trying to tell Tony that I would tow the boat around, and he should have Roger start moving Peter in that direction. Tony heard that he should have Roger bring Peter into the rocks to the boat. If the timing didn't work out such that I got the boat out before they got too far in, this could have seriously delayed getting Peter back into his boat.

This whole break down of communication could have been averted, had I simply signaled Roger by holding up my paddle in the hold position and waited for his response, when I had the line of site in this photo.

What was going through my mind while I was on the rocks.

For starters, please remember this was not a planned exercise where we set up a scenario and have time ahead to think what we are going to do. At the time I headed in, I had no idea where the boat even was or how I was going to get it back out. And the longer I sat and thought about it, the longer it would take to get the boat back to Peter. 

I has visual contact with Roger, who was out beyond the breakers. At the time I knew that I needed to let him know what I was doing. I had started to make hand gestures indicating we would go around and was waiting for a response to see if he knew what I was doing, in my mind my next step was going to be to hold up my radio.  As I was doing this, Tony paddled up below and asked what he could do to help. I told him to tell Roger that I was going to bring the boat around because I did not to run the slot towing a boat. Somehow over the wind and waves, Tony heard that Roger needed to bring the boat into me. At this time in my mind I had given Roger the message and continued with my quest to get the boat back to Peter as fast as possible. I did not account for the "delay" or the possibility of miscommunication in getting the message to Roger. 

The whole story including a debrief can be seen in this video:

The account by Peter Donohue

My State of Mind and What Went Through My Mind

Here is some background of my state of mind leading up to the swim, and what went through my mind when I swam:

Before the paddle started, I was perhaps a little tired. Have been trying to work myself back into paddling condition by paddling a lot. This week I had upped my miles. 9 miles plus some surfing on Tuesday, 10.5 miles and an overnight camp (loaded boat) on Thursday, 16 miles back home on Friday. Then an early wake up for this paddle on Saturday, and we were probably 5 miles into it our paddle that day when this happened. I didn't feel tired, but this may have had some impact in this.

I was having two gear issues. Neither of these played any direct part in this incident, but they were making me somewhat less confident.

The first gear issue was that I was wearing a wet suit for the first time in years (my dry suit neck gasket blew out earlier that week, and I hadn't had a chance to fix it yet). Last year, my roll lost its bombproofness, so I have spent a lot of time this winter (in the ocean and bay more than at a pool) working to get it back. Really came to appreciate dry suit and neoprene hoodies. Never liked that rush of cold water as it works through the gaps in a wet suit. But here I was in my wet suit (standard farmer john) with a paddle jacket (velcro neck, so not very water tight). I knew I should practice some rolls, but was being a wimp with the cold water, so I didn't. I did carry in the boat an extra fleece paddle shirt with me, which was well needed for warming up when the swim was over, but if I had worn it, I would have been overheating some prior to the swim, so would have more likely done my roll practice.

The second gear issue showed up at the start. We started with a surf launch, which I got out cleanly (especially when compared to one or two others, who had a bit of a battle). Once I got out, I decided the paddle I was using wasn't feeling right (didn't feel like it was holding its feather), so I swapped it for my spare. The spare is a paddle I've used for many years, but was purchased before I got into more aggressive paddling, so at 230 cm was a bit longer than I'd like (the other paddle was 210, which feels much better for me). A bit later in the trip, I was finding that my spare was finally showing its age and could also be twisted with some force out of its feather. Stuck to that long paddle, but was twiddling with it from time to time.

As the paddle continued, the conditions were a little large for us to get into many play spots. I am usually a pretty conservative paddler, so stayed out and watched as the big boys played on stuff, and only edged into things myself.

Just before the swim, we played on the south side of a point for a little while. Then we looked for a way to get through the point (rather than paddling around). A route was found. It involved timing your way into a channel, where once you were in you were pretty protected. There was an exit to the far side, but I couldn't see it. The others went in, and I was last. When it came to my turn, I had to wait for a set to go through before I could go in to the channel, but I made it without any troubles.

The channel bends left around a rock, and I was now seeing the exit for the first time. By the time I got there, everyone was already outside, so I didn't get the benefit of seeing the route others took, but I am well trained and experienced in this, so should be able to pick my route just fine. Perhaps I was feeling a little rushed, with everyone already outside and waiting for me, so I didn't take the time to watch a few sets as I should have.

The peninsula I just cut through was to my left. About 150-200 feet out from my opening was an outer underwater reef that everyone was outside of already, and waves were breaking over. So I needed to go at least a bit right. The area between me and the reef had a few boomers, lots of aerated water, and a good amount of bounce. In my short inspection (a couple of waves), it looked like staying closer to the rocks on my right was the way to go (I chose basically the same route that Allen points out in the video), so I saw what I thought was a window and headed out.

Things get a little less clear in my memory here, but I think it was the second wave that came in took me down. It didn't break on me, but was unorganized, seeming to throw me both ways at once, and I wasn't able to brace in time. I don't recall it being overly large, but the video showed that it was pretty big.

Over I went. I set up to roll, but blew that roll. I even know what I did wrong (the same issue I have been having the last year - finishing the sweep with my roll-side arm over my lap, rather than the more powerful arm up by my head). Head almost came out of the water, and when I tried to catch a quick breath I got more water than air in my mouth. This is likely where the gear issues and lack of confidence came in (along with the unpleasant mouthful of salt water), as rather than try a second roll, I bailed.

Once I popped out, I saw how close I was to the rock (arm length away), and immediately recognized that this was not a safe place to self-rescue, so abandoned ship and started swimming out to the others. I used my paddle to swim, and this is where I noticed the lack of holding a feather, so it wasn't as efficient as I could have been.

I was wondering if the others saw me, as no one was coming in to get me (turns out I chose a big set to do this all in, and they had to wait for a window).

Learning’s from Peter:

- get my gear back up to snuff, especially paddle and dry suit. If wearing wet suit, overdress so I would want to roll (and be in better shape should I swim). That old "dress for the water" saying really is true.

- practice, practice, practice - get that bombproof roll back.

- If I don't get the benefit of seeing the line others took and the others are already outside waiting for me, let them wait. I need to treat it like I was the first person who was exploring whether it was a good route to take. Watch and see what the area provides and what dangers are there for different sized waves. The fact that the others wouldn’t rush in to help me, and that Bill wouldn't tow the boat out this stretch tells me (20-20 hindsight) that this area needed much more respect than I gave it.

Side note - in looking back at this incident, I don't think my life was at risk. Once I swam away from the rock, it was challenging to swim in that bumpy water, but I wasn't being washed into rocks and could keep my head above water. At any time I could have swum or been carried to a beach not far away, where I could have gotten help from the local golfers or tourists.

Our Group Learnings 

As a group, we have reviewed this incident to see what we could have done better (some of this you can see in the video, plus a lot more reflection after that). We definitely have some areas of improvement in our group and rescue response. Roger summed it up well up well, so we are printing his comments here:

Some thoughts by Roger Schumann 

I’ve been enjoying using the CLAP acronym as a debrief tool, and I think it works well here.


Radios would have been convenient, as mentioned. Even without radios, however, the guy with the boat (in this case Bill) and the one with the swimmer (me) should probably have been looking for each other to communicate with hand/paddle signals when Bill was up on the rocks. Also, as a group we could have done a better job using Allen and Tony as runners to send messages between boat and swimmer rescuers. We don’t need radios to assume that the next step is to get the boat and swimmer reunited. We could have done a better job reading each other’s minds on that one.

Line of Sight:

Could have helped communication between Bill and me, if we’d tried to maintain line of sight as noted above. Also, the group lost line of sight of Allen for several minutes when he went to scout the move in the first place. It turned out to be no problem, but probably not a good habit for the group to get into in such areas. Then we kind of turned our back on Peter during one of the more challenging moves of the day. Most of the day I think we did a great job of this, but kind of let our guard down for a couple minutes there and got a nice little reminder from the sea.


As a group we could have been more aware of the dangers of that particular move and set up better safety.

Position of Max Use: 

In a Class IV rapid, the group would be tuned in to the team effort of running the move, and would probably have set up safety, discussed the order of who should go first/last, etc. It is not about “babysitting” anyone; it is about group members watching out for each other. If it had been a class I was teaching, I’d have felt obliged to set up safety for the move. But just because I was paddling as one of a group of friends doesn’t make me feel like I should turn my safety radar off. We were kind of out of position as a group and I knew it, but did nothing about it. Having someone back in the channel would have given Peter a better option of which direction to swim and made the whole rescue take a lot less time in the water. He also could have climbed up on the rocks and gotten out of the water while Bill retrieved his kayak. But with all of us in deep water at the time, it makes sense that he’d swim toward his teammates.

In lieu of this, another thing I think could have speeded up the eventual boat delivery would have been teamwork with Bill and Tony or Allen for the tow. After dragging the boat across the rocks, Bill was not the team member in the best position to also tow the boat quickly. He was in the best position, atop the rocks, to see the best line for the tow, but the time it took for him to re-launch himself and hook up the tow was extra time Peter spent in the water. A quicker option would have been for him to slide the boat into the water to Tony or Allen who could have quickly clipped and started towing while Bill caught his breath and launched at his leisure.

Also, as Allen noted, we were slow to respond to the hypothermia. I for one was paying a whole lot more attention to my sandwich and my MMs during lunch than to my team mate. It was a good wake up call for me to remain awake to group safety even when I’m not on the clock. 

All in all we got the job done adequately, and although we could definitely have used a little tighter teamwork in a couple places, it was cool to be paddling with such a strong, competent group. I’ve always said that “Rock garden paddling is a team sport.”

My thoughts regarding the rescue on our recent Cypress Point paddle by Tony Johnson

When Peter came out of his boat I paddled to him and yelled many times for
him to go inside. I thought at the time, and still do, this was the best
course of action. The slot just to the north of Peter provided a safe place
to swim, recover, and retrieve his boat. Peter decided to swim to the
group. This was a longer swim in rough conditions. Roger went in to get
Peter and Bill went around the south section of the rocks to retrieve Peters
boat. I took the slot inside that I was referring to above to make contact
with Bill. I asked him how I could help. I had a difficult time hearing
Bill, I think the ear protection attached to my helmet made things worse.
How I miss understood Bill is troubling, watching the video its obvious that
Bill was telling me he was going to tow the boat around to the south. I'm
not sure how I came up with the plan was to get Peter to his boat. Watching the
video and hearing Bill say "I don't want to tow the boat through here" was
surely miss understood. I may have also thought at the time that towing
wasn't a good idea.

I made my way back to Roger and told him the plan. I could see that Roger
was not completely ok with this. He had Peter on his deck for ten or more
minutes in some real bumpy conditions. He was tired, and now I was
giving Roger and Peter some bad info to go inside. I do feel this slot was an option
to get Peter to his boat. I went through the slot twice, there was a safe passage inside.
Just as Roger started taking Peter inside I heard him saying Bill is coming with Peters boat.
If it wasn't for Roger being alert seeing Bill this could have been much more work, Peter
inside, his boat outside.

As soon as I realized my mistake in hearing Bill, telling Roger that going
inside was the plan, I felt terrible! This miss understanding on my part could
have really complicated things. In the future I need to make sure of
instructions given to me.

Roger and Bill did a great job. Roger kept Peter out of the water for some
time, Bill doing lots of work inside, then towing in big water.
Peter, swam through some rough water, he kept his paddle
and used it well to get to us.

I must say that I have become to relaxed with the folks I paddle. Many
things I could have done differently. I should have swept, let Peter go
ahead of me. I should have been aware that Peter once on the beach was
becoming hypothermic.

When I posted this trip, as the date neared I became concerned about the
conditions. I posted to those interested that I was thinking of cancelling
this trip due to the conditions. I was boarder line but thought that this
area may get some protection from the north swell. I haven't had the
opportunity to paddle much and wanted to get on the water so if two or more
folks were interested then I was in.
I learned a lot from this experience.

Pyranha Fusion and Goat Rock

By Bill Vonnegut
For Goat Rock info, just skip to the second half of this post.

The Fusion era:
Small conditions, lot's of smiles, 18 laughing paddlers, 8 with Fusions, buzzing like bees, bouncing like bumper cars and making the long boats look cumbersome. That is what I was thinking when I finished this Goat Rock video and viewed it for the first time. After a wonderful day when many paddling friends showed up for a trip I posted.

A little over two years ago I made the jump to another level of rock gardening by purchasing a Pyranha Fusion. At the time I was using a short sea kayak for this purpose, but was still looking for the perfect rock boat. At the suggestion of Sean Morley I decided to give the Fusion a try. I ended up taking the boat for a spin while on the coast, and all it took was a few minutes of getting up in some big rocky foam piles near shore. I immediately found myself driving deeper and deeper into the piles of ocean whitewater and wanting more, more! So I purchased that boat and never regretted it.

The Fusion has enough speed to keep up with your sea kayak buddies as long as they are just cruising. By dropping the skeg it tracks very nicely and is not bothered by the wind. The high volume makes it nice to punch through ocean waves and it's super stable when getting thrown around in the coastal white water. With the large cockpit and rear bulkhead, it makes it very easy to scramble or do a T rescue. The Pyranha's plastic is hard and stands up to the harsh sharp rocks of our coast line.

While white water boats have been used for years for the purpose of rock gardening, the Fusion was the right fit for me. Partially because our rock gardens tend to be spread out and this boat makes it nice to be able to cover some distance and also get in some rock play. I regularly do 10 mile plus paddles in this boat without any problem. These boats are very forgiving and so much fun they now are becoming the standard rock garden boat for our Bay Area paddling community. I would say the only negative thing I can think of regarding this boat would be surfing, the boat surfs like a pig.

For extra safety and to facilitate rescues I spent 15 minutes adding some deck lines to this boat. Very simply, untie the stock deck bungees and re route them to leave one of the holes open on the 4 way eyes on the deck. Then run some rope through all 4 hold downs and up through the grab handle in front. I also added a toggle handle to aid if I needed to pull a swimmer out of a not so friendly spot. Also a couple extra deck bungees and some foam inside to take up some of the volume and have more contact with the boat.
Tony Johnson has done a beautiful job outfitting his Fusion.

One more note on the Fusion, mine was recently stolen off my car and I have now had the opportunity to paddle the new P&H Hammer. There is a lot I like about both these boats, but being I really like to surf has pushed me over the edge to replace the Fusion with a Hammer.

Goat Rock:
I have to say that I would rate this area number one in the Bay Area for rock gardening play!

The north beach is shown in this shot with the rock gardens off in the distance. The put-in for this paddle is normally the south parking lot and beach directly below this bluff. It is more protected than the north beach and dose not have the dumping shore break. In the past we have been directed to land at the south beach by a lifeguard who was sitting on the north beach concerned for our safety. However, it may be more convenient if paddling a lighter whitewater boat to park in the north lot and do a short hike to the mouth of the Russian river to launch. Conditions tend to be smaller down there and would save a mile of paddling. The area at the mouth of the river tends to be a seal hall out, if seals are present it may be a good idea to just paddle from the south lot.

The south put in is a sandy beach and is protected from some of the ocean swell by Goat Rock. The beach is not as steep as the north side, the surf is more friendly but is typically overhead (sitting in your boat) so anyone heading out of this put in should have surf zone skills. If the tide is very low multiple lines of rocky offshore surf will appear, so take that into concentration when planning a trip Goat Rock, especially getting back in at the end of the day.

After launching there is a one mile paddle north to what I call the "entrance to the rock gardens". This is a double cave with a bonus side tunnel that you pass through to start your day of rock gardening.
The right tunnel is the entrance to the rock gardens and the left is the exit.

But wait! As you approach this cave, check out the left tip of the entrance to find a fun warm up slot.
Allen Shah, Sergey Yechikov and Bill Vonnegut in the warm up slot.
Many of the photos in this article are by Cass Kalinski
Thanks Cass!
After some play in and around this feature there are numerous places to check out over the next 2 miles, at that point it turns into more scattered rocks then beach. But have no fear, there is at least a full day of fun in this short section of coast, being that everything is so close together.

While we generally don't have much of a paddle plan, here is a run down of our typical day and some of the features for this area.

After heading through the first cave we generally play around on the features just to the other side, there is a nice pour over directly in front of this cave, but the tide needs to be fairly high for it to be working.
Allen Shah running the high tide pour over
There are a couple more pour over's directly off shore from this one that can be run at most any time. One being more of a pile of scattered rocks rather than a defined feature.

After some fun in this area there is a very short paddle to a small tunnel that can be paddled through. Be careful in this one, the north side is exposed to the open ocean and is shallow, so the exit can be very rough and breaking waves may be found when exiting, also this cave tends to close out on big days.
Jeff Hastings on a visit from the UK. The next wave closed out the tunnel.

From there are a couple of coves with lots of stuff to do including a couple nice pour over's and a hidden slot to run. Then you will be reaching my two favorite features in this area. The first I call the gauntlet, check out the map below for a look at many of the features in this area.                                                         Goat Rock Rock Garden Map

The Gauntlet is series of features that starts at a slot that runs across a point and ends at the lunch cove.
                                             (The Gauntlet run is from 1:15 to 2.31 in this video)

At the beginning there is a slot that needs to be timed to paddle or sometimes surf through, then ends in a spot with what looks like the waves are going to break across the exit, generally they don't. From here you cross this exposed section and can hide in the deep water behind a very large rock to get ready for the next challenge, a pile of rocks that spread across the path between the rock and shore. You must run this like a pour over then it finishes in another deep water protected spot. Now, what waits ahead is generally large piles of whitewater that look like a waves will be breaking through at any time, but thankfully deep water again. As you run through this section you will see a narrow entrance in the cliff to the right, going in here is a great spot to relax, a well protected hideaway and prepare for the exit through a small tunnel that will be obvious. You have run the gauntlet!
Gregg Berman playing hide and seek at the lunch playground

Now having arrived at the lunch and play cove there is a nice calm beach to stop and rest after wearing yourself out playing in one of my favorite features this area has to offer. Its like a little island of fun in the middle of a nice cove. There is double pour over that can be run straight across, or wait behind the rock and try to time and bank off a hidden wave on the other side. Its also a great spot for those who just want to relax, hang out and watch the show or head in to the beach while others are burning off some energy. There is a lot of footage of this spot in the two videos posted in this article.
Peter Donohue, Sergey Yechikov, Elizabeth Rowell and Tom Humphries at the lunch playground.
Now that everyone is re charged after lunch, there's even more! Continuing north around the next point we normally make a straight shot past the sandy beach cove to the next playground. There are a couple pour over's as you reach the reef just before the point. One on the tip the other a little deeper in. The deeper one is lots of fun, a very long ride. After pouring over the reef you drop into a hole than ride the water across a long flat section.
Tony Johnson and Bill Vonnegut running the long ride

After playing around in this section there is even more up north. As you round the tip of the point there will be a horseshoe shaped feature that is fun to paddle through. Getting in the back where it narrows can be a lot of fun because as the wave recedes you tend to drop very low, only to get an elevator ride back up as the water returns. After continuing on around the point the end of the good rock gardening nears. Following the shore line into the next little cove there will be a nice cave to explorer, the one in the opening of the Fun Side video above.

Now you have reached the end of the official rock gardens there you will find a nice pour over on one of the last off shore rocks. And if the tide is low, just to the inside of this spot the slap wall will be working, the rock in front of it needs to expose to get this feature working. There are some good shots of this wall at 5:24 in the first video near the top of this post.

The distance to this point is approx 3 miles from the put in. However, on a typical day the gps junkies will mention that we clocked 10-11 miles. That just go's to show how much fun this place is!!

Bonus Arch:
There is a big beautiful arch to explore off shore near the put in, if you have any energy left. This arch can be seen from the beach so there is no missing it.

Here is one more action packed Goat Rock video that combines the footage of myself, Tony Johnson and Sregey Yechikov. We gave all the footage to Sergey and he came up with a great video.

                 And if you are interested in even more great shots by Cass then just look here.