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What, you may ask, is a pour-over? The short answer is “riding a wave over a rock”. I’m going to give you a longer version of the answer however and seek to de-mystify this apparently dangerous and flamboyant maneuver that combines the thrills of sea, surf and whitewater kayaking in a fusion of judgment, timing and skill.

Why, you may ask, would you want to ride a wave over a rock? Well to be frank, if you have to ask the question, this might not be a maneuver you would wish to add to your repertoire. But to the reader that thinks it might be something you would want to do let me say that it is perhaps the most dramatic, exciting and satisfyingly fun ‘stunt’ that you can pull in a rock garden. Does it have any practical application? Absolutely! You use the same judgment, timing and skills to perform a surf landing on a beach or a (last resort) seal landing on a rock. Master the pour-over and a surf landing becomes child’s play.

photo by Bill Vonnegutt

Perhaps it is because I come from the old school of kayaking when the idea was to miss the rocks but I have been a little alarmed at the antics of some ‘new age’ boaters who seem to think that stuffing your boat on the rocks is all part of the fun. I learned to paddle both on rivers and on the sea in 13ft fiberglass general purpose kayaks. If we hit a rock it often meant the end of the trip or at the very least yet another field repair patch. With the arrival of roto-molded plastic kayaks hitting rocks is no longer terminal and on the river this has enabled a whole new genre of boating. The Tsunami Rangers have certainly helped encourage the new breed of aggressive rock garden thrill seekers but remember that the TR boats are fiberglass and whilst they certainly took paddling in rock gardens to a new level, they also developed the judgment, timing and skill to keep their craft sufficiently together to get them home. Don’t let the fact that your plastic sea kayak will take a good beating cause you to neglect learning how to avoid the rocks. To be blunt, if you attempt a pour-over and end up stuck on a rock, you’ve screwed up. Yes, it has happened to me many times and it might be one of the more hilarious moments of the day, but it could also end badly so take the time to learn how get it right.


Let’s break it down:



Can judgment be taught? Perhaps…It can certainly be learned from trial and error on a sliding scale of risk. Good judgment begins with an understanding of risk factors and from knowledge of your environment.


  • Risk Factors:

When is a feature unsafe? You need to spend time looking at it. If you cannot control your speed and end up surfing in front of the wave, where will you end up? Avoid features that lead to a dead end (no pun intended!) Stay away from crevices, caves that narrow down to less than a boat’s width, or jumbles of rocks that offer no escape should you end up on them. Watch what happens when the wave recedes. Are there any nasty rock spikes exposed that could pin a kayak? Does a deep pit appear that could swallow or jamb a kayak? Can you see large barnacles or mussels that could shred gel coat, plastic or even skin?


  • Knowledge of your environment:

Research the conditions you are likely to face such as: wind (speed and fetch), swell (direction, height and period), tidal movements (vertical and horizontal). Understanding how these varying conditions will impact your ability to play within the rock gardens safely is the key.

What are the ideal conditions for mastering the pour-over? A fairly long period swell that is consistent in direction and low in height. The longer the swell period the greater the volume of water pouring over rock and the greater the horizontal velocity or surge. In theory you have more time to make it over the obstruction and will get more push from the wave. A low swell height means that the troughs are correspondingly less deep and it is usually the trough that gets you stuck if your timing is off.



As with many things in life, Timing Is Everything!

The key point here is that you are trying to ride the cushion of water created by the wave as it surges over the rock.

Too early and you will be in front of the wave. You risk hitting rock that is not yet covered and worse still you may end up surfing the wave at which point it becomes much more difficult to control your speed and thus your direction.

Too late and the cushion of water will dissipate leaving you sitting high and dry, likely off balance and a sitting duck for the next wave that might engulf you.


Getting the timing right requires observation and often several dummy runs before you go for the full move. The dynamic, inconsistent and often random nature of the ocean is part of its appeal but it makes timing your move quite challenging. Watch how the wave wraps around the feature. Which direction produces the strongest and more importantly the longest flow, the surge from the incoming wave or the resultant backwash?  If you can position yourself to utilize the backwash, this is often less energetic, more prolonged and thus safer than the incoming surge. The retreating wave can transform a rock face into a cascade of white and you can shoot the waterfall just like you would on a river.


Getting your timing right is all about practice so choose a feature that has minimal consequences to get your timing down. I have students paddle around a rock adjacent to a soft sand beach and within the break zone. It is a great feature to practice on as the consequences if you get it wrong are that you end up high and dry on the beach which produces much hilarity within the group.



An effective forward stroke is the pre-requisite to many sea kayaking skills. And so it is within rock gardens when the need to accelerate quickly is the key to nailing the trickier moves. You may know when you want to go, but if you can’t get the boat to move with you quickly enough, you will miss your opportunity or worse be too late and run the risk of running out of water.


Since the water will likely be receding on the ‘downstream’ side of the rock feature you are likely to be dropping bow first into aerated water which will offer little in the way of support so be ready for a solid brace. Remember to protect the shoulders by keeping the elbows in on the high brace!


If the drop on the other side is a big one, or if you are going to be punching through an oncoming wave, remember to spear the water with your paddle. Avoid having the paddle shaft across your body as you run the risk of snapping your paddle across your torso (or worse still your face!)


If you should get stuck on the rock resist the temptation to use your hands to push yourself off the rock. Wet skin on barnacles or mussel shells results in cut hands. You need to decide really quickly if you should remain in your boat (almost always my preferred option) or try to bail out before the next wave arrives. If you decide to bail, make sure you exit the boat on the ocean side and then get the hell out of there and let your buddy recover your boat.



The pour-over can be mastered by most intermediate paddlers and as long as you are sensible and don’t try to go too big too soon, you can enjoy this really fun move without harming your boat or your body. The key is to choose your features wisely and paddle with folk you trust to get you out of trouble if things go wrong. Consider attending a rock garden safety and rescue class before getting too heavily involved in that scene, and always, ALWAYS wear a helmet and consider wearing gloves and elbow pads (I wish I had recently and have a swollen weenus to show for it!)