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Sea Kayak History & Evolution:

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 todays fastest growing outdoor activities:

Inuit Kayaks:

Inuit and Aleut 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 craft was hunting waterfowl, seals, walrus and even whales. Quiet, unobtrusive, efficient and versatile Inuit kayak designs were widely used throughout the far north from Labrador, Greenland to as far west as Siberia until the 1950’s.

Extremely lightweight and maneuverable, Inuit 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 basic sea kayak shape and design principals remain largely unchanged from original Inuit 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 lines of sea kayaks and two schools of thought.

British Style Sea Kayak Evolution: – “SKEGS”


British research in the early1960’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 -the “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.

Kayak Safety & Performance Features:


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 and bungies, adjustable seats, thighbraces, retractable skegs, foot operated rudders, adjustable footbraces and so on continues to be refined.
  • Technical instruments such as VHF radio, compass, GPS navigation systems and EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) are increasingly found aboard today’s modern sea kayaks.


Kayak Materials & Kayak Types Evolve:


Composite Kayaks:

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

Polyethylene Recreational Kayaks:

Beginning in the late 1970’s and 1980’s the introduction of rotomolded polyethylene manufacturing suddenly enabled kayaks to be built quickly and inexpensively in a new 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 type of craft which incorporates fewer safety and performance features but more creature comforts that appeal more to the occasional paddler and family use.

Day 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 “Day Touring Kayaks”, a mid-range alternative in price and overall quality largely didn’t occur to manufacturers until the late 1990’s to present. “Day Touring Kayaks” are smaller than sea kayaks but are more performance oriented than recreational kayaks. With the most recent development of Thermoform acrylic capstock 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 ever before.

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


Further Reference:

Please search Frontenac Outfitters web site by: Kayak Companies, Kayak Types, Kayak Materials, as well as the Online Tutorial section of our site.

(*) To keep our account brief we dealt only with the evolution of “flatwater kayaking”, thus no mention was made to other types of kayaking such as; whitewater kayaking, down river racing etc.