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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

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.