A little sea kayaking history
boat. The boats primary purpose was to hunt animals on inland lakes, rivers and
the sea. In many places where the native kayakers lived they had to turn to the
water for food because the land was not fertile enough to support their
population. It was also used for transportation across open water and rivers.
Most but not all kayaks are considered seaworthy.
was made of seal skins and wood. The wood was driftwood that was collected off
of beaches. Many of the areas where kayaks were paddled are void of the land
based raw materials used in making birchbark canoes or dugout canoes.
have found evidence indicating kayaks to be at least 4000 years old.
word kayak appears in literature spelled different ways: kyak, kyack, kaiak,
refers to the double and triple kayaks developed by the Alaskan Aleut. It was
used for hunting and transporting those unable to paddle. Some groups considered
it a waste to have the second paddler be a capable paddler. The triples are
considered to have appeared after the Europeans appeared. The Russians are
thought to have forced the Aleut to make a third hole so they could travel along
with them and not have to paddle. The triples were also used to transport
umiak is an open decked boat made with seal skins and wood. It was paddled with
single bladed paddles and typically had more than one paddler. It ranged in size
from 17 feet to 60 feet. The umiak was typically seaworthy.
groups lived nomadically to follow animal migrations. In these groups, the umiak
was used primarily for transporting household goods, children, elderly and those
unable to paddle a kayak. The women of the village would paddle the umiak since
the men were paddling their kayaks. In other groups it was used for hunting
walrus and whale. It was paddled by men and sometimes women during these hunts.
is thought the kayak originally started out as a decked over umiak and evolved
into its traditional form.
is also called a baydar.
the umiak was used to hunt together with the kayaks.
Some groups used the two bladed paddle exclusively and some groups used the one
bladed paddle exclusively. It many times depended on the boats design. Some
groups that used two bladed paddles also kept one or two one bladed paddles with
them to use for stealthier paddling when hunting or for use as a spare.
were groups that used the single bladed paddle to roll.
The Greenland Inuits and the Alaskan Aleuts were well known for their rolls but
not all native kayakers knew how to roll or needed a roll.
Greenlanders were the masters of the roll. Their narrow boats, the conditions
they paddled in and unexpected complications during hunting required them to
develop numerous different rolls. In addition to the typical rolling with a
paddle, numerous "trick" rolls were known such as rolling with the
paddle held by one hand, using a harpoon shaft or using just an open or closed
hand. The reasons for this is during a hunt the harpoon line could tangle and
upset the boat or an injured animal sometimes attacked the hunter. In either
case if the hunter is holding something he does not want to drop (like a knife)
or the paddle is temporarily stowed, he had to use these rolls. The Greenlanders
also used the bow rescue described below.
native kayakers used several different methods instead of a roll. One is the bow
rescue where a paddling partners bow is used to pull one self up. This technique
relied heavily on somebody being close by. In another technique the paddler
pulled themselves into the boat and breathed the air inside the boat until
somebody showed up and a bow rescue could be performed. This technique required
a boat one could crawl into and someone showing up before the oxygen inside the
boat was used up. Certain groups added ballast to their boats to make them
stable, the weight varied from 50-100 pounds.
would be collected from beaches. The wood would be formed using the tools they
had. Tools would have been chipped or ground out of stone, such as obsidian,
chert, quartz, or slate; carved from antler, ivory, wood, or bone; or
cold-hammered out of meteoric iron or native copper. Wood used was typically
fir, pine, spruce and willow. The addition of iron-based tools did decrease the
amount of time spent building a kayak since iron does not dull as quickly as
traditional materials. Historians are not in agreement if iron improved the
quality of the kayak or not. Peterson, in _Skinboats of Greenland_, presents
some information that it did.
skins would then be sewn onto a complete frame. Typical skin used was from the
bearded seal but some groups did use the sea lion, caribou and walrus skins.
hair was removed from the skins. The skins were treated with oil for
waterproofness. Oil typically had to be applied every 4-8 days depending on the
skin used. Care was taken that when a boat was in daily use, that it was removed
from the water and allowed to dry once a day.
was used to lash the frame and sew the skins. The seam on the skins was
waterproof because the stitches did not completely pass through the skin.
are obvious differences in the materials used. In addition a modern rigid kayak
typically has several added safety features such as bulkheads and hatches.
and rudders appeared on some traditional kayaks but the design was thought to be
influenced by western cultures. Most of the features used in modern hull designs
can be found in traditional kayak hull designs. The modern skin boat is very
similar to a traditional kayak although the modern day skin used is typically
is important to realize the significant change in the boats use from traditional
use to modern use. No longer is the boat used for hunting but instead for
recreation. This represents a fundamental change that has affected the boat
design and its equipment.
the arctic of North America from the Aleutian Islands to the East coast of
Greenland. This included southern Siberia, the Bering Strait and Northern
Canada. Some groups were nomadic and were constantly searching for better
hunting grounds. Other groups were not nomadic and lived year round in the same
location. Some locations had only 90 days a year for open water and other
locations had open water year round.
the designs were specialized for the local conditions and needs of the hunters.
Some areas had exposed coasts and other areas were relatively protected. Some
groups had to transport their kayaks over a long distance to the water and other
groups were right next to the water. Transporting the dead animals back to the
village was a problem solved in different ways by hunters in different areas.
historian breaks seagoing kayak designs into five basic forms with minor changes
for local conditions. The different designs are found in Greenland, Baffin
Island, the Bering Strait south to the Aleutians, southeastern Siberia and the
used jackets made from skins which were typically waterproof. The wrists and
face openings were drawn tight for waterproofness. The waist fit tightly around
the cockpit coaming. These formed watertight seals so water did not enter while
performing a roll or punching through waves. The jacket used by the Greenlanders
helped provide buoyancy when sculling. On warm days they used the equivalent of
a spray skirt instead of the jacket. They used mittens made of skin to keep
their hands warm. Some groups wore hats with a large brim for protection from
the sun and salt spray.
on the inland waters and virtually any sea mammal at sea. The sea mammals
included the seal, sea otter, walrus and whale. Fish such as halibut and
assorted birds were also hunted. All the groups did not hunt all of these
animals. Some groups avoided hunting certain animals for practical and/or
depended on the type of kayak used. Some groups would carry the animal on top of
their deck. This method required a boat with a large volume so it could handle a
150+ pound animal (typically seal) on top of it. Another method was to land and
butcher the animal on shore and stuff the butchered meat into the boat. This
method relied on there being enough volume inside the boat for the meat. A gaff
hook was used to retrieve the meat since they did not have any hatches. Another
method was to tow the animal. Since a freshly killed animal would sink, air
would be blown into the animal and a wooden stopper used as a plug or an air
bladder would be tied to the animal. They would be tied along side the boat.
Floats were used so the dead animal could be cast loose and later recovered in
case another animal was spotted or the sea conditions became too rough. In the
case of birds or fish, they were often carried under deck lines and fish were
sometimes towed after being killed.
harpoon was used together with a rope and an air bladder. The harpoon tip is
attached to the air bladder with the rope. The harpoon tip was detachable from
the harpoon shaft to allow the animal to thrash about and not break the shaft.
The rope was typically made of seal skin. The rope would be coiled on the front
deck and allowed to play out once an animal was harpooned.
javelin was also used and is similar to the harpoon. The difference is the tip
and air bladder stay attached to the shaft with rope.
harpoon used a larger air bladder than a javelin which allowed larger marine
animals to be hunted. The harpoons air bladders also were used for adding
floatation to the kayak in case of puncture or water leakage. They were
sometimes used in rescues.
lance was used to kill an animal that was close by.
knife was carried to kill a wounded animal or to prepare it to be taken in to
darts were spears with three or four forward slanted spikes. The spikes allowed
a bird to be brought down if the spear tip did not penetrate the bird and
instead slid along its body.
throwing stick (sometimes referred to as a throwing board or an atlatl) was used
to boost the range of a spear or harpoon.
white blind was used by some hunters to camouflage their upper bodies so they
could sneak up on resting seals.
these could be carried on the deck and ready for immediate use. The deck lines
were skin with toggles and bone used to fasten items.
and arrows typically were not used. The reasons for this is the difficulty of
handling one in a kayak and water would cause the bow string to stretch
rendering the bow useless.
times a wounded animal wound attack the kayak. Walrus and whales were especially
dangerous when injured. Some times a walrus would attack a kayak even if the
kayak was not hunting it. Sometimes the harpoon line would tangle and upset the
is important to remember these people had no thermal protection against the cold
waters when they wet exited since there was no equivalent to the wetsuit or
drysuit (although in Greenland there was an equivalent to the modern drysuit but
that was only used by Umiak crews hunting whales). The water temperature they
paddled in could be as low as 27 degrees F since saltwater has a lower freezing
point than freshwater. Glaciers helped to lower the water temperature by calving
icebergs into the water. To wet exit the boat was considered suicide by many
groups. Also, there was no equivalent to the modern PFD.
South Greenland in 1888 there were 162 deaths. 90 were males and 24 of the males
died while kayaking. In 1889, there were 272 deaths. 152 were male and 24 died
while kayaking. The population consisted of 5614 of which there were 2591 males.
with most native cultures, outside cultural influences changed the native
culture and the peoples need for kayaking. Manufactured goods slowly replaced
the traditional materials. Lumber instead of driftwood for the boat frames, iron
for the spear tips, the gun replaced the hunting tools, and eventually the power
boat replaced the kayak. In some cases the depletion of the local animals due to
overhunting caused a decline in kayaking.
traditional kayaking is kept alive by schools run in Greenland and the Aleutian
Islands. Much of the traditional kayaking technology and skills have been lost.
Some boat designs survive only in drawings made by early explorers that did not
have any dimensions. Many kayaks stored in museums were improperly stored and
have been unintentionally destroyed. All this makes comparison of the modern
kayak and its equipment against the traditional kayak and its equipment
difficult or impossible.
modern sea kayaks can trace their ancestry via two paths. The first type are
those kayaks that are close copies of the Southwest Greenland kayaks.
the summer of 1959, Ken Taylor made a private one-man expedition to Western
Greenland and brought a kayak back to Scotland. This particular kayak excited
special interest because it was a more moderate example of the West Greenland
kayak has been copied a number of times, most noted being the kayak built by
Geoff Blackford in 1971. Blackford redesigned the boat to fit his own particular
dimensions, retaining the upturned stern, and ending up with a plywood model 17
ft (5.2 m) long with a 21 in. (533 mm) beam. In all other respects the craft was
identical to Ken Taylor's boat.
craft was used as the plug for a fiberglass mould and eventually found its way
to Frank Goodman of Valley Products who went into commercial production under
the name 'Anas Acuta'.
noted British mountaineer and exponent of outdoor education, Colin Mortlock,
proposed an expedition along the Arctic fiords of Norway to Nordkapp, the
northern-most cape of Europe. Mortlock and his team paddled the Anas Acuta
kayaks around the Isle of Skye but believed that a new sort of boat would be
needed, one that could take huge quantities of supplies without losing too much
manoeuvreability and seaworthiness.
Frank Goodman came up with a kayak design, having a basis in the West Greenland
kayaks, but incorporating elements of standard boat design, with a round bilge
capable of the extra payload required, and the 'Nordkapp' was born. Many modern
boats can trace their design lineage from this root.
second line of descent for modern kayaks is that of the 'Rob Roy' kayaks.
McGregor "canoe" was built in 1865 to resemble what John McGregor
thought he had seen when looking at sketches of Eskimo kayaks. In shape and size
it is fairly similar to a Coaster. The Kleppers were also of a similar style.
Many of the kayaks designed in the Pacific Northwest of North America have their
roots in this basic shape.
the designs of the Greenland and Alaskan kayaks are studied, it is obvious that
there are a wide range of designs. Each has evolved as suitable for the region
that it comes from. From this one can see why some designs are popular in one
region and not in another, the Nordkapp style in Britain and New Zealand and the
beamier, flatter boats in northwestern North America. Even in a country as small
as New Zealand there can be regional preferences, a highly rockered boat in the
north and flatter, lower windage boats in the South Island, for example.
and wood/fabric were common up until 1950's when fiberglass was introduced. This
was followed by plastic in 1984, the Chinook being the first of the rotomolded
History - PDF