The Evolution of the Kayak (6)

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 3
Ergonomics: From a single, uncomfortable position to the freedom to choose from a variety of ergonomic positions


Manufactures of monohull kayaks who tried to depart from the L position by offering higher seats found that they needed to increase their kayaks’ width considerably in order to compensate for raising the paddlers’ center of gravity (CG). This was done only to rediscover the fact that excessively wide kayaks track very poorly and are harder to paddle.


The W departed completely from both the monohull design and the L kayaking position.
By offering much better lateral stability and a high saddle the W Kayak has enabled a new set of comfortable positions and a wide range of intermediate positions, as well as the possibility to alter your posture anytime you feel like it.
This is achieved without widening the kayak – In fact, the current W Kayak models are only 25″ wide, which is as wide as some sea kayaks are.
The key to improving comfort and performance in paddling and fishing is the new, full role played by your legs: Instead of pushing horizontally against your lower back as they do in the L kayaking position, your legs support your torso vertically – from below, in the W Kayak riding (mounted) position. This is our legs’ natural position for locomotion and other major physical efforts. For this reason the W Riding (mounted) position is not only ergonomically better (I.E. more comfortable) but it’s also better biomechanically, that is more efficient in effort terms and more effective in performance terms of power output and control level.

The four basic W positions are: Standing, Riding (Mounted) with your legs on both sides of your body, Sitting with your legs forward (similar to sitting in a canoe), and Kneeling – a position preferred by some canoeists.

For more information visit Wavewalk’s website Ergonomics section.

The Evolution of the Kayak (5)

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 3
Ergonomics: From a single, uncomfortable position to the freedom to choose from a variety of ergonomic positions


The native kayak was a ‘man’s boat’ – that is a hunters’ boat. What it practically meant was that the native hunter in his kayak had to approach prey such as swimming caribou, beached seals or certain bird species from the shortest possible range in order to effectively shoot a harpoon or an arrow at them. To remain unnoticed from the shortest range the Inuit kayaker needed to stay low above water. In fact, for whaling and long sea trips the Inuit preferred to use their bigger and stabler canoe-like Umiaks.
Since stealth was important for native kayak hunters they paddled in the low, traditional L kayaking position with their legs stretched forward. People around the world used to sit on the floor in similar postures before nearly everybody adopted special sitting furniture such as stools, benches, chairs, sofas, armchairs and other seats.

The kayak is rather unique boat in this sense since native canoes around the world usually offered additional, more comfortable and powerful positions such as sitting higher, kneeling and standing.
Interestingly, the L is not the only position that monohull kayaks offer: Some whitewater canoeists take kayaks and ‘convert’ them into ‘canoes’ just by adding a very low saddle inside their cockpit. This arrangement enables them to kneel inside on both knees in one of the traditional canoe kneeling positions, and paddle with a single-blade paddle (I.E. canoe paddle). The reason why only few paddlers ‘convert’ kayaks into ‘canoes’ is because that particular kneeling position is even less comfortable than the traditional L kayaking position, and this may be the reason why some of these canoeists call themselves ‘pain boaters’…
This leaves modern monohull kayakers with just one position to choose from, and it’s not an ergonomic one. That’s not much in terms of freedom of choice, especially when one considers the fact that in their everyday life modern kayakers are used to a variety of seats and sitting positions that do not include the L position.


Seats and foot rests (a.k.a. ‘foot braces’) have altered the L position without improving much: The backrest prevents the kayaker’s torso from ‘falling’ backwards but it makes it slide down and forward. In order to counter affect this problem modern kayaks offer support for the kayaker’s feet: By anchoring their feet in those small depressions or ‘braces’ kayakers can stop their bodies from sliding down and forward.
However, the combined backrest and footrest system created a new problem, which is constant pressure on the kayaker’s lower back. This pressure is generated by the kayaker’s own legs pushing against both footrests and backrest like a powerful spring. The negative physiological impact of this pressure is felt as fatigue, discomfort in the legs and back pain. The problem is amplified by the kayaker’s inability to switch to other positions. Some kayak seats offer a rigid support for the kayaker’s back and other kayak seats offer heavily cushioned support, but four decades of experimentation proved the L position to be an ergonomic dead end.


Our legs have the most powerful muscles in our body and they are naturally best fit to do the hard work involved in locomotion and balance. The L kayaking position prevents paddlers from using their legs effectively for balancing, controlling and propelling their kayaks. Therefore, the kayaker’s back, abdomen, shoulders and arms must do considerable extra work. This effort distribution is insensible from a biomechanical standpoint, which means you’re spending energy for nothing and get tired more quickly while your kayak delivers less performance than you need.

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.