Kayaks - Types, Features & Construction

August 28, 2015
Kayaks -  Types, Features & Construction

History of the Kayak – Is it a Canoe or a Kayak?

One translation of the word kayak is “hunter’s boat” – this gives you a pretty accurate idea of what they were originally used for. Kayaks are narrow lightweight boats, originally developed by the Inuit, Aleut and Yup’ik hunters of the world’s sub-arctic areas.

Depending on the Indigenous group’s location, hunters would construct their kayaks using different materials. Most would use seal skins as the outer surface that provided waterproof protection from the sub-zero temperatures of the surrounding water and enabled the craft to float.

The frame of the craft itself could be constructed in a number of ways. Some groups had a readily available supply of trees and so favoured a lightweight wood construction, whereas others lived in areas that were completely void of vegetation and so used whale and seal bone instead.

In some countries – mostly those in the UK – kayaks are often referred to as canoes. This can often lead to a bit of confusion as to what the real difference is between a kayak and a canoe. It’s pretty simple really, kayaks are propelled by a long, double-bladed paddle, while canoes are propelled by a short single-bladed paddle. They are very similar in terms of their design, but the techniques for making them move through the water is quite different.

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The Modern Kayak

Over time, the kayak has gone through some big changes, most notably in terms of the materials used in its construction, and the design and engineering processes themselves.

Typically kayaks are not made from animal products anymore, except in very remote Indigenous communities.

These days kayaking is a popular form of recreational activity, it’s performed as an Olympic sport, and by dare devil adventurers on some of the world’s fiercest and most dangerous river rapids.

Traditional kayaks were designed to fit the user, who was also often the builder of his / her craft. The dimensions of the craft were based on the builder’s own body. The length of the kayak was usually three times the length of his wingspan (arms outstretched), the width was that of his hips plus two fists, and the depth of the kayak was based on his fist including his thumb extended, like he was trying to hitch a ride.

Today, the dimension of a kayak will be based primarily on the type of paddling it will be required to perform. Some kayaks are very short – ideal for paddling down turbulent rapids – while others are long – more suited to long expeditions at sea or travelling at high speeds across calm bodies of water.

Modern Kayak Construction

Kayaks these days are typically made from lightweight composite materials such as fibre glass, and moulded hard plastics like polyethylene. This makes them stiff enough to provide good manoeuvrability, but flexible enough to deal with hard knocks on submerged structures such as rocks and tree branches.

Kayak Design

Designing the perfect kayak is a dream for some manufacturers, but usually, designing a kayak involves selecting for favourable characteristics relevant to its intended use, while accepting that it is not going to be good at other things. A very long kayak is faster than a shorter kayak, while a shorter, wider kayak is often more manoeuvrable. It’s a balancing act of attributes.

When you are that close to the water, it is important that you feel safe within your kayak; that you feel stable. Stability is something that every kayak needs, but, it is important to note that there are two types of stability for which designers have to plan: primary and secondary stability. A kayak’s primary stability is determined by how hard it is to capsize from a level position in the water and how much it rocks when the paddler shifts their weight. Secondary stability relates to how much the boat rocks when it is on edge – being hit from the side by swell or when riding a wave at an angle.

The shape of the kayak greatly affects its overall stability. Sea kayaks for example are designed with very high secondary stability to cope with rogue waves that could potentially capsize them in deep water, while recreational sit on top kayaks may focus more on primary stability featuring wide flat bottoms, as this makes them comfortable for young or inexperienced paddlers to pilot in calm conditions.

What are the different types of Kayak?

Kayaks have evolved into a huge range of different styles and forms, designed for specific types of paddling. They can first be neatly separated into two distinct categories: ‘sit in’ and ‘sit on top’ kayaks.

Sit in kayaks are the traditional form; designed to enclose the paddler’s legs within the craft itself, protecting them from the wind, the rain, and from waves that might crash over into the boat. Kayakers often wear a spray skirt (also known as a spray deck, or skirt) that stops water getting in, allowing skilled paddlers to perform the infamous ‘eskimo roll’, capsizing the kayak and flipping it the right way up, keeping any water from entering the boat.

Sit on top kayaks are a more modern variant of the traditional form that was influenced by surfboards in that they are unsinkable, more like surfboards with a deep profile and a curved indented section that acts as a seat for the paddler. Sit on top kayaks are great for young paddlers and those paddling in surf conditions because you can fall off without the fear of being stuck in the kayak, confident that it also cannot sink.

Most modern kayaks are designed to reflect their environment and intended use.

Some types of kayak include:

Sea kayaks – built for the open ocean, sea kayaks are long, stable and sometimes feature additional structures such as outriggers and rudders to help with their performance.

Whitewater kayaks – capable of being paddled through turbulent wild water, these kayaks require a skilled paddler who knows how to not only control the craft, but flip it right way up if it should capsize.

Fishing kayaks – while people have been fishing from kayaks for thousands of years, the modern fishing kayak is outfitted with all the tools, accessories and compartments you need to bring home dinner.

Sprint kayaks – typically used in flatwater racing events, sprint kayaks can be piloted by one or more paddlers. Long and narrow, these kayaks are all about speed.

Inflatable and folding kayaks – the two types of easily transportable kayaks enable users to easily pack down and carry their kayak across land between bodies of water. Folding kayaks are deeply influenced by the animal skin kayaks used by sub-arctic peoples. These days they feature a wooden or aluminium frame that is covered in the removable synthetic skin so they can be packed down easily. Inflatable kayaks are constructed from strong lightweight plastic or chemical based compound materials that are inflated using floor or electric pumps.

Kayaking Parts and Accessories

Kayakers use a range of additional equipment during their time out on the water, enabling them to paddle more efficiently and to perform other activities at the same time as paddling their boat. Most locations around the world require you by law to wear a personal flotation device (life jacket) while paddling your kayak at all times.

Transporting your kayak if you are on your own can sometimes be a tricky affair. If you are within walking distance to your launch point, a kayak trolley is the perfect tool for getting you and your boat to the water's edge in one piece.

A spray skirt is ideal if you are using a sit in style kayak, especially if you are paddling down rapids or out in the ocean where waves can catch you by surprise. Make sure you know how to effectively exit you kayak with a spray skirt attached if you intend to use one.

Kayak Paddle

Without one of these you won't get very far. Your paddle is your propulsion device, ergonomically designed to scoop the water, pushing you and your boat forward. Manufacturers use a range of different materials constructing paddles, typically using lightweight composites and plastics, that are strong and also water resistant. A leash is a great addition to your setup, acting as a lifeline between your boat and your paddle, ensuring that if you happen to let go of your paddle, you won't lose it.

What use is a kayak?

Your new kayak is a portal to the outdoors, a means by which you can explore the rivers, oceans and lakes near you, at your own pace, quietly and calmly. There is nothing quite like gliding across the surface of the water, watching the marine and animal life up close – you won’t scare them off because you won’t be using a noisy engine. Get out there and explore the world from the seat of a kayak!


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