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.
Ergonomics: From a single, uncomfortable position to the freedom to choose from a variety of ergonomic positions
1. HOW THE TRADITIONAL, L KAYAKING POSITION CAME TO BE
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.
2. THE MODERN L KAYAKING POSITION – TRYING TO SOLVE A PROBLEM BY CREATING ANOTHER
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.
3. BIOMECHANICAL ISSUES WITH THE L POSITION
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.