Raising the Bar in Kayak Design and Performance:

New Standards For the Third Millennium

This article discusses the changes in kayak design, usage and performance over the past century and in recent years.

Part 1

Traditional vs. Modern Kayaking – From Survival and Utilitarian Use to Recreational Applications


In the beginning of the twentieth century kayaks were practically unknown to the wide public. They were self designed, hand made personal paddling boats used by native people of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions, in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Siberia, mainly for hunting marine and land animals.
These peoples seldom fished from their kayaks and hardly ever used them for recreation. They preferred to paddle their kayaks in protected waters such as rivers, estuaries and bays, and they neither surfed nor went in whitewater. They obviously didn’t paddle standing in their kayaks – although they sometime did so in their Umiaks, which were bigger and wider, multi-passenger canoes.
Native kayaks were not uniform: some were narrow and some not, and while some were over 20 feet long others could be half that length. The common building technique used then is known as ‘skin on frame’: The builder covered an internal wooden skeleton-like structure with animal skins.
None of those traditional kayaks ever featured a rudder or a seat, or even a backrest, which are all modern additions aimed at solving problems that are characteristic to present days kayakers.
The native people who used narrow kayaks often relied on the ‘Eskimo Roll’ for recovery, but not always. Some researchers assume that rolling the kayak was practically the only means of survival available to these people who didn’t have lightweight watertight suits, because swimming in extremely cold water while wearing heavy fur clothes is a recipe for disaster, and many native people didn’t know how to swim.
The wider native kayaks were designed to offer more stability and thereby provide safety through capsize prevention rather than recovery.
A much less known prehistoric personal paddle craft is the Caballito de Totora (‘Reed Pony’ in Spanish) used by Pre-Columbian fishermen on the Pacific coast of South America. Like the Inuit kayak, this sit-on-top reed watercraft is paddled with a double blade paddle. Its paddleboard design is very much reminding of modern sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks, except for its higher bow designed to go over big waves.
There are similar designs in other ancient cultures around he world as well.

Next Chapter >> 2. A Brief History of Kayaking as a Set of Recreational Activities

5 thoughts on “THE EVOLUTION OF THE KAYAK (1)”

  1. that caballito yak is pretty cool! can you trace the SOT back to it?

  2. It’s hard to tell. People have been paddling reed boats since prehistoric times wherever reeds were available, and that’s almost everywhere. Peru wasn’t the only place where fishermen used double-blade paddles with such SOT crafts – It was done on other continents as well. Lifeguards in East Mediterranean beaches have been using long double blade paddles to paddle large size paddleboards since the beginning of the 20th century.
    The first SOT kayaks were basically paddleboards that people outfitted for paddling. That was in the late sixties. Later, designers created more specialized paddleboards and called them sit-on-top kayaks. For decades many die-hard sea kayakers simply refused to recognize the SOT as being a kayak… maybe some of them still don’t 😉
    The line between paddleboards and SOT kayaks is not well defined – Recently a big kayak manufacturer came out with a product they called ‘Yak Board’ for beach applications.

  3. Sometime things are converging. Standup paddling is getting popular with board surfers in Hawaii and CA. They use long canoe paddles.

  4. Those are special standup paddling paddles –very light and they have just one blade

  5. Here is how a popular online dictionary defines a kayak:

    Quick definitions (kayak)

    # noun: a small canoe consisting of a light frame made watertight with animal skins; used by Eskimos
    # verb: travel in a small canoe (Example: “We kayaked down the river”)

    According to this definition only a handful of people worldwide are paddling kayaks, and millions of others are paddling… -what exactly?


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