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The Evolution of the Kayak (4)

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 2
Design and Manufacturing


There is a major difference between native kayaks and modern kayaks in their basic built: Native kayaks had a rigid, internal wooden frame covered with a ‘skin’. Such design is no longer in use except for folding kayaks, and nearly all other modern kayaks have an external, rigid skeleton (‘shell’) that serves a dual purpose and acts as the kayak’s ‘skin’ as well. The introduction of this non-ribbed, simpler design was key in the proliferation of new, mass-produced, low cost and durable kayaks.

Customers’ preferred kayaking activity is of critical importance for the designer since modern monohull kayak models are designed for one activity, or a narrow range of activities. The main activity categories are: Whitewater, Touring, ‘Recreational’ and lately Fishing too.
The whitewater kayak is very short and designed to offer maximum maneuverability. Similar designs are used for kayak surfing.
The Touring kayak design is usually narrow and long, and within this family of designs the sea kayak is longer and narrower. Touring kayaks are faster than other kayak categories.
Recreational kayaks constitute the bulk of the market today, and they are characterized by their higher stability due to their wider beam. These kayaks are seldom outfitted with a spray skirt because it is assumed that most paddlers can’t roll their kayaks.
Fishing kayaks are basically stabler recreational kayak designs accessorized for fishing that are sold within a higher price bracket. The reason this article mentions the fishing kayak as a separate category is that in recent years kayak fishing is growing in popularity, which reflects people’s tendency to prefer stabler models.

All monohull kayak designs except whitewater kayaks can be outfitted with a rudder system, and they often are since regardless of their type they all have tracking problems.

Another factor that kayak designers bring into consideration is the customers’ personal liking in terms of fashion. This goes to colors, materials, forms and accessories.

And last but not least, designers and manufactures need to produce products that fit their customers’ spending intentions and capabilities. There is no point in offering a cheap and durable Polyethylene kayak to a customer who has already decided to spend more on an expensive yet less durable kayak made from another plastic material reinforced with carbon-fiber or fiberglass (FRP, also called composite plastics)

Technically speaking, sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks further depart from native designs, as they can no longer be considered as vessels because they don’t feature a hollow compartment for the passenger/s. These modern kayaks evolved from paddleboards in the past four decades, and their general form is that of a flat board equipped with a seat and small depressions for the passengers’ heels. SOTs have become widely accepted as kayaks since they feature the essential characteristics of modern monohull kayaks (I.E. seat, feet support and double-blade paddle), and they are used for similar recreational activities. There are only few eccentrics left who still think of SOTs as being anything other than kayaks.

The dictionary defines Recreation as “Refreshment of one’s mind or body through activity that amuses or stimulates; play”. The dictionary also defines Touring as “Travel, as on a bicycle or on skis, for pleasure rather than competition.”
In this sense, all Touring kayak models are recreational in a broad sense since kayak touring itself is a recreational activity.
That is to say that the distinction between ‘Recreational’ and ‘Touring’ kayaks may be related to certain design characteristics such as width and length, but it is also related to marketing considerations – a process known as ‘segmentation’.

The Evolution of the Kayak (3)

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 2
Design and Manufacturing



In the old days, a native of the far North who wanted a kayak for himself would design it according to his personal liking and requirements while relying on his people’s oral tradition and advice. He would use materials available locally such as driftwood to make a rigid frame on which he stretched a sealskin cover.
It was the job of the women in this kayaker’s family to prepare the skins and sew the cover.
The native kayak featured neither hatches nor seat, and it didn’t offer support for the kayaker’s ankles or feet. No native kayaker ever used a rudder or floatation, and bungee cords as well as Nylon pad eyes were unknown as well.
That is to say that many basic features in traditional-style modern kayaks are the product of the late twentieth century design, and have little to do with the way native kayaks were originally designed, built and used.

Nowadays, kayak design has become a profession, and kayak designers use Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, often in combination with special kayak design software. There are practically no kayaks today that are designed without a computer being part of the process.

A modern kayak is conceived as a commercial product, that is an object that should be reproduced many times and sold to various customers. As such it is not meant to fit a particular individual but rather a group of customers within a range of physical attributes, skills, requirements and purchasing power. Some manufacturers offer customization of certain features such as accessories and colors, but this service comes with a price.

The Evolution of the Kayak (2)

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 I

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



The first popular recreational human-powered boats in North America were round or flat bottom or canoes, skiffs and dinghies propelled by oars or by single-blade (I.E. ‘canoe’) paddles. As the twentieth century progressed people enjoyed more free time, canoe paddles gradually became more popular than oars, and canoing became a widely practiced recreational activity.
Canoing was practiced in combination with fishing, tripping and camping or by itself, and it was performed mostly inland – on fresh water.
After WWII the American public became gradually acquainted with kayaks, but kayaking as a popular set of recreational applications became commercially viable in the early seventies, after manufacturers found ways to use rotational molding for making low cost, durable Polyethylene kayaks.
Around that time some improvements introduced to paddleboards gave birth to the modern sit-on-top (SOT) kayak, which has gradually become very popular in a wide variety of kayaking applications performed mainly in warm climates.
During those decades American society’s focus shifted towards the individual, and the kayak fitted the new trend better than the canoe since solo kayaking required less skill and experience than solo canoeing.
Today, in the beginning of the twenty first century, there are some three hundred thousand kayaks produced in North America annually, of which about one hundred thousand are SOTs. There are also one hundred thousand canoes produced every year.
Most contemporary kayaks are rotationally molded from Polyethylene, which is a durable, reliable and relatively inexpensive material compared to hand-laid fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP a.k.a. ‘composites’) used in smaller production series. Inflatable, canvas (folding) and wooden kayaks are made in limited numbers as well.
Modern kayakers use their kayaks in a much wider range of environments and applications than native kayakers did, and manufacturers offer an increasingly wider range of kayak designs and models.

Fishing from kayaks is becoming popular in recent years, mainly in the sunshine belt states where it is practical to use SOT kayaks. It is considerably less popular in colder climates.


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

Kayak Fishing From the Mounted (Riding) Position

While the advantages of fishing standing are pretty obvious to most fishermen, many who haven’t tried the Wavewalk Riding (mounted) position may wonder what’s so special about it, and why it is considered so advantageous when compared to the traditional L kayaking position or to fishing seated in a canoe.

The answer is that it has to do with how much support you have for your casting and reeling-in efforts, as well as when you’re fighting a strong fish:
The result of every physical effort you make, whether it’s jumping, running, pulling or throwing something depends on the kind of support your body gets from the ground you stand on. Soft, slippery or shaky ground doesn’t offer you good enough resistance.
Similarly, fishing from a big boat enables better physical performance than fishing from a small, unstable one: You can cast to longer distances and fight bigger fish more easily.
Riding the saddle of a Wavewalk kayak doesn’t offer you as much stability, support and confidence as the deck of a big bass boat, but it certainly gives your legs more support than a sit-in or SOT kayak does, and through your legs you get more support and power for your arms and upper body.
Imagine riding a pony, which is similar to riding a Wavewalk kayak saddle: The horse rider can gallop and jump hurdles, throw a spear or shoot arrows like ancient warriors used to do, or a lasso like modern days cowboys still do, and so on. -Now try to imagine all this being done when the rider sits on the horse’s saddle in the traditional L kayaking position… It’s practically impossible because the rider would lack stability and sufficient support from his legs.
Like any analogy this one is not perfect but it’s close to the truth: The combination of having two hulls on the W kayak’s sides and riding the saddle that you mount in a posture that’s advantageous from a biomechanical standpoint changes everything when you fish.

As Jeff McGovern put it:

 -“I would venture to say the Wavewalk design offers improved casting with any gear. From the riding position, I get more power with my casting and spinning because I can put my whole body into the cast and use my legs. The solid feel of the boat gives you a great sense of security. “

Riding (Mounted) position: Best for kayak fishing Riding (Mounted) position: Best for kayak fishing (2)