Are Sea Kayaks
This article examines issues related to the
seaworthiness of kayaks in general and of sea kayaks in
particular, and discusses an alternative approach to sea kayak
seaworthiness based on the new W Kayak concept.
The readers are welcome to watch online videos
demonstrating performance of 11 ft long W Kayaks at sea, especially in
the surf. The subjects include launching, going over and through
incoming waves, going over lateral waves and playing with them, surfing
and paddling standing at sea.
Sea kayaking - Past and Present
"...safe on the sea is an oxymoron" Wayne
Horodowich, University of Sea Kayaking
-Simply well said.
Touring and sea kayaking were the two first kayaking applications
outside the traditional use of kayaks by native people of the arctic
zone. Nevertheless, after many decades these activities are still
practiced by a small minority of kayakers whose number has been
declining in recent years while recreational kayaking has become widely
popular and dominates the kayaking scene in terms of participation and
number of boats sold.
sea kayaks are faster than recreational kayaks, and paddling in the
ocean and in the surf is certainly more exciting and challenging than
'recreational' paddling. Also, younger generations are naturally
attracted to speed and more exciting outdoor sports, so why is the
number of sea kayakers small and decreasing?
Polyethylene sea kayaks are not much more expensive than the better
recreational kayaks, and are for the most part equivalent in
performance to FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastics) sea kayaks, so we'll
cost as a valid explanation.
It seems that in order to answer this question we'll have to first
determine what's a 'sea kayak' vs. 'recreational kayak': A sea kayak is
long, narrow, traditional sit-in kayak (SIK) in which the paddler sits
while being protected by a spray skirt, while a recreational kayak is
either a SIK or a sit-on-top (SOT) kayak that's wider (up to 42" wide)
where the passengers are not protected by spray skirts. Modern,
commercial sea kayaks differ from the native kayaks by the fact they
all equipped with seats and foot braces, and in many cases rudders too.
Since recreational kayaks are slower than sea kayaks they also have a
more limited range of operation, and since they offer little or no
protection to their passengers they are generally limited to more warm
and flat waters.
For these reasons many sea kayakers view sea kayaks as being seaworthy
boats, and in fact some sea kayakers have crossed oceans in them.
However this fact is by no means an indicator of seaworthiness since
people have crossed oceans in a variety of contraptions including
floating skis, sailboards etc. Similarly, the world record for
the longest unicycle trip is 9,136 miles but we
doubt this fact would inspire anybody to switch from bicycles to
But are sea kayaks really seaworthy, and if indeed they are why do the
overwhelming majority of kayakers prefer recreational kayaks? If sea
kayaks were indeed seaworthy shouldn't we expect most kayakers, or
at least a bigger number of kayakers to adopt sea kayaking as an
Apparently, the vast majority of kayakers do not perceive the narrow
sea kayak to be seaworthy although it offers superior speed and is
constantly advertised as being the true and ultimate kayak. Sea
kayakers are likely to find this incomprehensible, but to most
people the idea of being trapped in a narrow and unstable boat that
offers the 'Eskimo Roll' as an only safety option is perceived as
similar to being handcuffed to a motorcycle that has no breaks: It's an
equivalent to a death trap. Interestingly, the number of people who
practice board surfing is many times bigger that the number of surf
kayakers, which is extremely small. This means that under similar
conditions surfers prefer a board to a kayak that requires both a spray
skirt and a helmet.
Are the majority of kayakers right about this? Is the saying 'Vox
Populi Vox Dei' valid in this case? This article will attempt to
examine the seaworthiness of sea kayaks from a number of angles.
Seaworthiness and Capsizing
"For us the definition of a seaworthy kayak includes being "Forgiving
of the most egregious paddling and judgmental errors." John Winters,
'The Seaworthy Kayak'
-Indeed, this is a seaworthy definition.
Look outside the kayaking world and ask yourself the following question:
-"What type of small sea vessel needs to be seaworthy?"
There can be a number of answers starting from sailing crafts to
inflatable rescue boats, but all these examples would have one thing in
common: their stability, and more specifically - lateral stability.
Why? -Simply because all boats are narrower than they are long,
and therefore small boats are particularly narrow, that is highly
unstable and prone to capsize. The ways to deal with this problem are
multiple, from weighted keels in sailing boats to very wide beams in
traditional 'cats', rescue boats and some big canoes, but these
solutions are not applicable in kayaks.
Kayaks belong to a group of watercrafts that are just a little wider
than their passengers, and weigh even less than them. We like to
call the field of nautical design of such very small boats
Ask naval designers if they would consider a boat that's prone to
capsize as being seaworthy and you can be sure to get a categorical
'no' as an answer. Those of them who will remember the existence of
those little boats called kayaks might add -"Well, maybe if you're an
experienced sea kayaker then a sea kayak could be seaworthy for you, to
Sea kayaks are faster than most paddle crafts and speed is a good thing
in terms of seaworthiness: Slow kayaks that are hard to paddle expose
their users to fatigue and could make it difficult or in some cases
even impossible for them reach to their destination under unfavorable
weather and/or water conditions.
But the sea kayak is a singularity in the micronautical world since it
is the only seafaring boat that offers less lateral stability than what
is required to maintain balance without constant, active intervention
from the passenger/s.
This puts the sea kayak in an extreme position - that of offering
or no static (form) means to prevent capsizing. In practical
terms it is a watercraft designed to capsize.
sea kayakers might find this definition somehow harsh, and point to the
fact that sea kayaks are designed to be rolled and not to be
capsized. The problem with this argument is that rolling is not a
prevention strategy but a recovery strategy. In safety terms sea
kayaks simply don't offer considerable means of prevention other
than their passengers' skill in balancing the boat, and therefore are
seen as unsafe - a term that's is commonly perceived as the equivalent
of 'not seaworthy'.
In response to this sea kayakers and sea kayak designers may point to
origins of the 'Eskimo Roll' as the native arctic people's solution for
the safety issue, and therefore as a 'natural' and acceptable
one. We find this argument to be weak for a number of reasons:
1. Although kayak designs are at least hundreds and
possibly thousands of years old, it seems like some of the original
kayakers had their own doubts about the usefulness of the 'Eskimo Roll'
as the primary or optimal measure of seaworthiness and preferred to
exercise more caution by relying on form stability. While kayaks
in Central and Western Canada were used mainly in rivers, lakes,
estuaries and generally in protected waters, Eastern Canada kayaks
which were designed to be used in the ocean were wider and stabler, up
to 82 cm in width:
"The Inuit of Baffin Island, northern Quebec and Labrador used kayaks
that were more or less flat-bottomed and relatively wide,
characteristics that contribute to stability. With high, rising prows
that helped to override the waves, these relatively heavy kayaks were
well adapted to their primary function: hunting waterfowl and sea
mammals in the open sea."
'Native Watercraft in Canada" - The website of The Canadian Museum
2. The Labrador Inuit people used long sea
kayaks with a
23" beam, which should have made them easy
to roll. However, these skilled sea kayakers chose not to rely on the
kayaks were up to 24ft. long and had a beam of 23 in. They were never
rolled by their occupants, and in the event of a capsize the paddler
would need assistance from a companion in order to get back into this
Complete Book of Sea Kayaking' (1995..
Old Saybrook, Conn.: The Globe Pequot Press, Inc., p.166).
3. Native peoples' kayaks were never equipped with a
seat while all present-day sea kayaks are. This makes the latter both
less stable and more difficult to roll than native kayaks. On top
of this, the average contemporary North American sea kayaker is
significantly taller and heavier than the average native arctic kayaker
was, a fact that further reduces the sea kayak's safety from both
stability and rolling perspectives.
4. For the vast majority of modern paddlers the
Eskimo roll is impossible to practice and therefore not a safe
option. In fact, even seasoned sea kayakers can 'miss their
especially in emergency situations: It's one thing to roll your
kayak in a pool with nose plugs on and the water around you perfectly
still, and quite another thing to roll it in the surf after you've been
slammed by a breaking wave and hit the bottom with your head
There are countless accounts of experienced sea kayakers who
occasionally 'missed their roll', which indicates that the common
perception of the Eskimo roll as being unreliable is anchored in
5. Over the years sea kayakers and sea kayak
have developed a 'sea kayaking philosophy' that seems to have turned
things around: The highly undesirable situation in which you are
trapped inside a narrow and unstable boat that you can't even hold
straight without keeping your paddle in the water has become justified
by the glorification of an extreme, dangerous and unreliable recovery
technique that requires endless, tedious practicing that wouldn't even
guarantee results in real life conditions.
6. A common sea kayaking myth links native kayaks to
long journeys at sea, but it appears most native kayakers used their
kayaks for short trips and only the Greenlanders used their kayaks fro
long coastal summer expeditions:
"For long trips the umiak, and more recently the whaleboat, are used".
E.W. 1916. The Labrador Eskimo. Canada, Department
of Mines, Geological Survey, No. 14, Anthropological Series, pp.71-73.
"The other type of aboriginal boat, the kayak, was used by the men for
short trips and for hunting".
Garth. Labrador Eskimo Settlements of the
Early Contact Period. Publications in Ethnology. No.9. Ottawa: National
Museum of Man. 1974. pp. 39-40.
We conclude from these data that most native kayakers were well aware
of their kayaks' limited seaworthiness. The exception of the
Greenlanders can be explained simply by the fact that extreme climatic
conditions forced these people to stretch the use of their kayaks and
rely more heavily on them.
"A sea kayak's seaworthiness is entirely dependent on the paddler."
We found this sentence and similar ones in a number of seakayaking
It seems to summarize the situation where kayaks that are not seaworthy
naval or common standards have become synonym to seaworthiness, so much
that they are called as a group 'sea kayaks'
Is it any wonder that sea kayaking has not grown to be a widely popular
sport and has been continuously receding in recent years while
recreational paddling in stable kayaks is popular and still increasing
Unfortunately, some sea kayakers don't perceive people who paddle other
types of kayaks (e.g. recreational, SOT, W) as 'real kayakers' since
they don't roll their boats. These sea kayakers erroneously identify
with kayaking and vice versa. Unfortunately, so far such attitude
seems to have
resulted in further alienation of the broad public from sea kayaking.
Seaworthiness from a sea kayaker's perspective
In the first part of this article we examined the question of sea kayak
seaworthiness from a general perspective of safety, as viewed by the
overwhelming majority of boat designers, boaters and paddlers. In this
section we'll examine the seaworthiness of the sea kayak from its own
cockpit, in performance terms, and while comparing with solutions
offered by the new W Kayak concept:
the pitching inertia varies as the square of the distance from the
center of rotation ...
tremendous forces are involved and their reduction is advantageous." -John Winters, 'The Seaworthy Kayak'
the vertical rotation of the boat around its center of gravity (CG).
Pitching causes significant increase in residual resistance (Rr),
especially when the kayak goes through waves - The longer the kayak the
greater the loss of energy because of pitching.
All monohull kayaks are constrained by the need to place the paddler in
a fixed position in the center part of the hull's longitudinal
axis. This puts a strict limitation on the kayaker's ability to
control his boat's pitching. However this constraint is
nonexistent in W kayaks where the kayaker is free to travel forward and
backward along the longitudinal saddle inside the cockpit and thus
distribute his/her weight ad hoc where it is likely to be more needed
in a proactive manner. For example, when facing waves coming from
the direction of the bow it is highly advantageous to place yourself at
the back of the cockpit and thus lift the bow. This would not only be
helpful for riding up the wave instead of smashing right into it, but
also in reducing the impact and loss of momentum when descending on its
Rocker is a must in monohull sea kayaks since without it the boat won't
turn well. But rocker also decreases the monohull sea kayak's ability
track, and therefore its potential speed and by that its seaworthiness
since speed is a good thing to have in terms of seaworthiness.
Both tracking and maneuverability are desirable in terms of
seaworthiness, and the unwanted tradeoff between them is typical of
monohull kayaks only:
W kayaks can turn effectively by having the W kayaker lean into the
turn, which means That W hulls don't necessarily need not be curved
vertically to offer rocker. This, among other reasons enables W kayaks
to perform the impossible in terms of monohull kayaks, which is to both
track and turn very well and without requiring a rudder, which is a
considerable source of drag and added complexity in operation.
Primary and Secondary Stability
Monohull sea kayaks are
designed for speed and for rolling. These
two requirements make them very narrow below and above waterline, and
therefore lacking in both primary and secondary stability. There
is no way a monohull kayak can be fast if it is wide.
The first production W kayak was 25" wide, and each of its hulls has a
waterline beam (WB) of 6" when the boat is loaded with 200 lb.
The W500, which is the second generation of W kayaks is 28.5 wide, and each of its hulls is 8" wide.
Most kayakers are impressed with this W kayak's unmatched primary
and secondary stability, which allow for a 200 lb man to stand up in it as well as
jump up and down and from one leg to another (see demo videos).
"Part of the storage problem ...has always been hatches." -John Winters, 'The Seaworthy Kayak'
Adding weight above the boat's center of gravity (CG) is undesirable,
especially if this weight has no means of its to balance itself… This
is why the optimal storage solution should offer the possibility to
store things as low as possible. Since a monohull sea kayak must
have some rocker the bottom of its front and back hatches will
inevitably above the hull's lowest point, which is in its middle
On top of this, sea kayaks generally offer a very limited storage space
so that sea kayakers often find themselves obliged to attach gear on
of their boats. This is bad for stability and not particularly good for
the gear itself.
W kayaks don't present these problems since their hulls can have
a straight bottom and even a ten feet long W Kayak offers more
protected storage space than a big 'expedition' sea kayak does.
last but not least, hatches are prone to let water in not only when the
kayak is overturned but also in wavy sea, when water flows over the
deck. This is not just a storage problem but can also quickly
become one of speed and maintaining proper control over the boat.
'Narrow beam vs. wide beam' or 'speed vs. stability'
"Does this mean that narrow boats are more seaworthy than wide boats?
Absolutely not. So long as the boat can be heeled to present a
favourable attitude to the waves the adverse effects of beam can be
offset." -John Winters, The Seaworthy
Unfortunately, most of us don't look like we would have wanted to look,
and most monohull sea kayaks are not 18" wide as sea kayakers would
liked them to be for speed sake. In fact, most sea kayaks are
wider simply because even for experienced and dedicated sea kayakers
narrowest monohulls are too unstable for practical purposes.
Since speed is relevant to seaworthiness we would like to refer the
reader to another article on this website, which discusses
speed factors and particularly the effect of the beam on total
resistance (drag): http://www.wavewalk.com/COMPARISON.html
To make a long story short, stability is desirable in sea kayaks as in
all other boats - big or small. The problem with monohull designs
is that they can't be made both stable and fast since one has to come
on account of the other.
This constraint of speed vs. stability is nonexistent in catamaran
(twinhull) designs, and since W Kayaks have twin hulls they can be made
to be both very stable and very fast.
This has two implications:
1. sea kayakers who are willing to give up their
reliance on the Eskimo roll for a very stable kayak would be able to do
so without having to give up the speed that is so dear to them.
2. More important is the fact recreational kayakers
wanting to go on longer trips and paddle faster without giving up the
higher stability they are used to could do so and paddle W sea kayaks
that are as fast as ordinary (monohull) sea kayaks and offer a higher
level of stability than recreational kayaks do.
Kayak Seaworthiness and Comfort
"Sitting with stretched legs feels
comfortable for a little while but cramps are sure to follow if you
cannot get good circulation."
Sea Kayak' Article by Vaclav Stejskal
Seaworthiness and comfort are
two terms which are closely linked. An uncomfortable sea kayak is
dangerous as its paddler might develop fatigue, leg numbness, cramps
and back pains that could put him in jeopardy and create a severe
problem for other paddlers in the group.
The reason why present-day kayaks are equipped with seats and foot
braces is because unlike native kayakers, present-day kayakers are
unable to sit and paddle in the L position without support for their
backs and feet. These support elements known as 'seat' or 'lumbar
support' and 'foot braces' or 'foot rests' are the source of various
ergonomic problems that directly affect safety and therefore are
strongly related to seaworthiness.
sea kayaks are particularly narrow and offer no way for the passengers
to change or even modify their sitting position in case a problem
develops while paddling. Consequently, the overall seaworthiness of
present day sea kayaks is being further reduced.
These poor ergonomics typical to monohull sea kayaks are in contrast
with the ergonomic solution offered by W Kayaks, which includes a
number of interchangeable comfortable positions.
Kayaking biomechanics and ergonomics are discussed in detail in another
on this website:
Paddles and the Biomechanics of Kayaking
Some sea kayakers erroneously believe that shorter paddles offer a
better biomechanical solution and therefore the longer, 9 ft paddle
commonly used in W Kayaks are less ergonomic. Since this issue
relates to propulsion efficiency and fatigue it belongs to this
These people's error is triple:
1. The paddling positions in W Kayaks offers more
leverage on the paddle, which makes it easier
to use a longer paddle i.e. move the paddle faster. A longer paddle
enables applying longer
strokes aft while making a better use of the W Kayaker's own
weight and thus minimize effort. See demo movies.
2. The original, native kayakers sometime used very
long paddles, as the following paragraphs teach us:
"The Labrador paddle (pau'tik), is double-bladed, like the Greenland
type. It is quite long - 10 to 12 feet..."
Hawkes, E.W. 1916. 'The Labrador Eskimo'. Canada, Department
of Mines, Geological Survey, No. 14, Anthropological Series, pp.71-73.
in Baffin Island could reach 110 inches" -Chuck
a West Greenland Paddle'
The Canadian Museum of
Kayak Newfoundland and Labrador Kayaking Club: The Inuit Kayak
'The Seaworthy Kayak', article by John
'Making a West Greenland Paddle' Article
by Chuck Hols.
'Greenland Style Paddle
Building' Article by George Ellis.
"What’s most refreshing about the WaveWalk
is its lack of pretension. This is a boat designed and constructed to
liberate a paddler from concerns about paddling form, good technique,
expeditions, navigation, rescue ops or one’s rank in the pecking order
of local paddling hotshots. Though you can use such frills as
J-strokes, bow and stern rudders, sweep turns and so on,..."
"WaveWalk" Strory and Boat Review on the 10' W Kayak in
Speed Fundamentals, the Twinhull Advantages and the Principles of the W
Biomechanical and Ergonomic Solutions in Modern Kayaking
A Wet Ride -
Problem Overview and New Solutions
Getting Trapped In A kayak
Kayak Stability Factors
POPULATIONS HEIGHT and WEIGHT
Body Weight, Height and Body Mass Index, United States 1960–2002