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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

Bow Fishing and Spear Fishing From a W Kayak

It sounds really exciting – the closest you can get to a hunting experience such as the Inuit must have felt when they hunted animals and birds with their skin-on-frame kayaks. This type of fishing is popular worldwide – not necessarily from kayaks but usually from other small boats that native people have traditionally used in different places.

It also sounds quite simple: You stand or ride in your W Kayak, scout the water, spot a fish, aim and try hitting it with your spear, trident or arrow.

There are however some issues to consider:
First of all, in some places it’s not legal to fish this way.
Second, the water conditions might not be suitable for this type of fishing: Murky water, vegetation and waves can prevent you from seeing anything even if you’re standing and looking down right near your kayak, where visibility is usually better.
Third, spear and arrow wounds are bigger and more serious than injuries caused by fishing hooks, which means that catching a fish this way and releasing it will most likely result in its death, and this defies the purpose of the ‘Catch and Release’ idea.
Fourth, some fish won’t just wait for you to come near them with your kayak, and some are too cautious and won’t get near you when you’re anchored somewhere and waiting for them.

Conclusion? It looks like it’s worth trying…

Bow and arrows on W kayakThis is Scott Johnson’s W kayak (MN). Scott hunts from it.

Children Kayak Touring and Fishing

Children normally find it harder to paddle and navigate than most adults do since they have less power and less developed motoric and spatial skills than adults have.
Kayak Touring is usually associated with the use of long and narrow traditional sit-in kayaks called Touring Kayaks or Sea Kayaks.
Paddling those kayaks requires either exceptional paddling skills or the use of a rudder (or both) for tracking, and it also requires the ability to roll the kayak in case it needs to be outfitted with a spray skirt.
These factors largely prevent children from using traditional touring kayaks and limits them to using wide, open cockpit sit-in or SOT kayaks known as ‘recreational’ kayaks that track poorly unless paddled with a rudder, which in its turn both impedes them as well as complicates things for them.
Therefore, it is quite rare to see children taking part in kayak trips in their own kayaks. The more common solution is using tandem kayaks, or canoes, but most kids love their independence and since they ride their bikes alone from an early age in most cases they expect to paddle their own kayak too, or at least prefer to do so.

The W Kayak tracks better than monohull kayaks, and therefore you never need a rudder to help it track. It’s also more ergonomic for kids than monohull kayaks are since the higher W paddling position adds power to both their paddling and control efforts.

Similarly, children can be taught to participate in kayak fishing trips in their own W kayaks from an early age. The problem in such cases is to make sure that they can operate their fishing tackle safely and independently.

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 W 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 W 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 W 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 lacks 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 puts it: -“I would venture to say the W 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. ” (Read More)

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