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.


  1. No real life rescue ever gets it perfect but it was clear that you guys did a really good job out there. Hard work but handled well. Your thoughts do a good job of explaining the little things that could have improved it - communication is almost always the biggest factor in effectiveness in these circumstances.

    Some thoughts in general that may or may not apply to this specific rescue:
    - When everyone is competent you still need a leader to dictate the plan for people to follow. Several different good plans being implemented add up to one bad plan. Take the time to let one person decide and have everyone on the same page.
    - Share work. Just cause one person can do it all doesn't mean they should. Having two people work on getting the boat where it needs to go and two people taking care of the swimmer would ease burdens. Take turns towing/carrying.
    - Everyone was jacked on adrenaline and talking fast in the debrief section of the video. Everyone except the swimmer. That's a key sign. Always focus on the victim until they are just as animated (and happy) as everyone else. The quiet can be a sign of hypothermia, shock, fear, embarrassment, etc. Don't debrief until it's done, which normally is a lot later than you think.

    Again, well done and thanks for sharing. This is a great learning experience and discussion starter.

  2. The video and commentary provide a vicarious experience to others and we can once again appreciate the ocean's power and dangers. It is a great learning opportunity and helps rock garden paddlers prepare for the worst.

  3. Thanks and kudos to all for sharing the learning! A link to your blog has been placed on the CCK staff blog: http://calkayak.wordpress.com/

  4. Video is such an incredible teaching tool! Thanks for sharing and for the lessons. I reckon a worthy debriefing point would be 'how was the decision to bring the swimmer back into the conditions that tipped him over' made, as one of the rescues mandates in 'removal from hazard'. The account mentions there's no designated leadership but it seems it was a assumed that Bill was running the rescue. Fact? For me a big lesson, also based on some personal experiences on rescues that involve several people being apart, is: when people are in safety (at least relative, sure there's always hypothermia) take your time and think through decisions/actions that will happen next. Cheers amigos

  5. I agree with everything Bryant said. This was a good lesson learned for me in many areas.

    Cabralia, going inside was an option, not the best, but I feel a safe one. There was safe passage into a protected area. This would have been a place to regroup and get Peter back into his boat. After the rescue I kept thinking that swimming in would have also worked. One of us (after Peter was safely put in one of our boats) could have been taken inside on the back deck, dropped off and swam to Peter's boat. I think this would have worked fairly quickly.

    Bill wasn't running the rescue, he did have a plan, its when I got involved things got screwed up.

    Yes,I agree, take our time and think through decisions.


  6. Glad everything worked out and everybody was ok. A great write up and a useful reminder that the sea is in charge when we are at play; it will let us know when we forget. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Stop looking everyone....there's been a great all round rockgardening boat out there for almost 30 years!It's called the Perception Dancer...yes a very basic boat which isn't at all sexy & comes in a limited choice of drab colours,has little possibility to modify & you'll need a slim waistline & legs to get but isn't that what everyone's looking for!Sorry Bill I just couldn't resist any longer & many thanks for the use of your faithfull model:) Super website guys miss paddling with you folks!
    Jeff Hastings UK.

    1. Hey Jeff! You and that Dancer was ahead of the times :)
      Miss paddling with you also!


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  9. The video indicated Roger was tired from a long paddle with swimmer on his back deck. A tow to help Roger paddle the swimmer out might have helped. Consider Roger possibly getting into trouble himself when tired and then not being able to help with his own rescue.

    The next time things will go smoother as will anyone else who needs to do a rescue in similar conditions and has seen this video and post. Thanks for that.

  10. I have been looking the World Wide Web for this information and I want to thank you for this post. It’s not easy to find such perfectly written information on this topic. Great Work!
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