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.
Traditional vs. Modern Kayaking – From Survival and Utilitarian Use to Recreational Applications
1. THE ORIGINS OF MODERN KAYAKS
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.