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Kayak History and Evolution

Kayak Evolution & History 

The kayak may well be the world’s most versatile craft. When partnered with a skilled paddler it thrives in Mother Nature’s harshest conditions. Yet few know the kayaks fascinating history and evolution from Inuit hunting boat to one of today’s fastest growing outdoor activities.

Aleutian (Greenland Style) Kayaks

Inuit and Aleutian peoples have been accredited with the development of the first kayaks approximately 4000 years ago. In the Inuit language the word Kayak means “Hunter’s Boat” as the primary use of these small crafts was hunting waterfowl, seals, walrus and even whales. Long, narrow, quiet, unobtrusive and made for stealth, Greenland Kayak designs were widely used throughout the far north from Labrador, Greenland, and to as far west as Siberia until the 1950’s.

Extremely lightweight and maneuverable, Aleutian kayaks were designed to be both quiet and agile yet had to be sturdy enough to withstand heavy seas. The internal rib structure was made up of slender wood lashed together with rawhide. The external covering was constructed from caribou hide or sealskin. These skins were pulled taunt over the frame and sewn together with braided sinew. The seams were then oiled until watertight. A molded hoop for the decks centre made an opening for the paddler to enter the kayak. A sealskin jacket known as “annaraaq” created a waterproof capsule for both boat and paddler when the jacket and boat were stitched together and the hood and wrists were pulled tight.

Extreme conditions resulted in almost certain death for Inuit kayakers who fell from their boat into freezing cold waters. For those who tipped upside down… life meant rolling back up! An extensive repertoire of various kayak roll techniques was key to the Inuit paddler’s survival.

Today’s Greenland kayak design principals remain largely unchanged from original Aleutian creations. Advancements and modifications have largely been in construction materials, creature comforts, and marketing appeal to satisfy the masses recreational purposes rather than necessity. The creation of two modern features – the “Skeg” and the “Rudder” – evolved into two distinct versions of sea kayaks and two different schools of thought.

British Style Sea Kayak Evolution – Skegs

British research in the early 1960’s by Valley Sea Kayaks (one of the longest standing companies still in operation) led to the development of what has become know as the British style, Skeg sea kayak. These sleek designs created from composite materials such as fiberglass and Kevlar® incorporate a drop down, retractable skeg, which enhance tracking (paddling straight) and can increase stability in adverse conditions. Other United Kingdom based companies such as Nigel Dennis Kayaks (NDK Kayaks) and P&H Sea Kayaks soon followed suit. Today these companies are still widely heralded as the Grandfathers of modern “British Style” Sea Kayaks. 

North American Sea Kayak Evolution – Rudders

As the popularity of sea kayaking grew into the mid & late 1970’s, the sport attracted North American manufacturers who made slight modifications to the stern to flattened it and added their own unique feature – a Steerable Rudder. This foot controlled device provided kayakers with not only tracking ability but also the ability to steer the boat or compensate for winds and currents. Consequently, ruddered sea kayaks tend to be referred to today as “North American Style” Kayaks regardless of where they are produced.

Safety & Performance

As North American & British Style Sea Kayak designs continued to improve and evolve, so did their comfort, safety, and performance features such as:

  • Watertight Hatches when combined with Interior Bulkheads provide watertight storage compartments and add to the kayaks buoyancy factor.
  • Deck Rigging & Bungees for gear storage or safety 
  • Adjustable Seats & Thigh Braces for customized comfort and control
  • Retractable Skegs for enhanced tracking & stability 
  • Foot Operated Rudders for aided steering and tracking 
  • Adjustable Foot Braces for a versatile fit range

Note: Technical instruments such as VHF radio, compass, GPS navigation systems and E.P.I.R.B. (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) are increasingly found aboard today’s modern sea kayaks.

Evolution of Materials & Kayak Types

Composite Kayaks

As time progressed, kayak builders have refined manufacturing materials and processes using fibreglass, Kevlar®, and carbon-fibre. These modern materials have the advantage of greater strength, stiffer hulls, glossy looks, and in some cases, lighter weight. However, composite kayaks are the most expensive to produce.

Polyethylene Recreational Kayaks

Beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the introduction of roto-molded polyethylene manufacturing suddenly enabled kayaks to be built quickly and inexpensively in a mass production style that sharply reduced prices. The mass manufacturing of “poly boats” contributed greatly to the evolution of a new type of boat – the Recreational Kayak. A small, low cost, user-friendly craft which incorporates fewer safety and performance features but more creature comforts that appeal more to the occasional paddler and family use.

Touring Kayaks

Though kayak designs and features continued to evolve, potential consumers were still largely restricted to expensive, quality Sea Kayaks or inexpensive, low quality Recreational Kayaks. Offering consumers Touring & Light Touring Kayaks, a mid-range alternative in price and overall quality, largely didn’t occur to manufacturers until the late 1990’s.

Touring Kayaks are smaller than sea kayaks but are more performance oriented than recreational kayaks. With the most recent development of Thermoform acrylic cap stock material, consumers have more upper mid-range choices in designs and materials than ever making kayaks more affordable to a wider range of people than in the past.

A Tribute to First Nations

Frontenac Outfitters’ brief article on the kayak’s invention, history, and evolution is a tribute to the remarkable inventiveness and determination of the Aleutian peoples. Thank you for to the incredible gift you have given the world… the kayak!

Note: To keep our account brief, we dealt only with the evolution of Flat-water Kayaking, thus no mention was made to other types of kayaking such as whitewater kayaking, down river racing etc…

Should you have any suggestions or changes to improve it, please call 613.376.6220 or email [email protected]

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