A kayak is a little, straight boat, propelled by human-power with a double blade paddle. The conventional kayak has a covered deck and one or more cockpits, each seating one paddler. Their cockpit might be covered by a spraydeck (or “skirt”). It is used for stopping the entry of water from waves or spray. With the help of this skirt, a skilled kayaker can roll the kayak which means to capsize and regain posture without it filling with water.

Modern boats can be very differently designed from the traditional looking kayaks.  For example there are the so-called „sit-on-top” kayaks where the paddler has to sit on top of the boat; some other types have inflated air chambers around the boat; at certain models the single hull is replaced by twin hulls (“W” kayak), and instead of paddles they use other human powered propulsion methods, such as foot-powered rotational propellers and ‘flippers’. The first kayaks were made and used by the native Ainu, Aleut and Eskimo hunters in the northern regions of Asia, North America and Greenland.

History of kayak

The very first kayaks were developed by the Eskimos. By means of their boats they could go to hunt on inland lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Their kayaks were made of stitched seal or other animal skins fitted over a wood or whalebone-skeleton frame. Kayaks are estimated to be at least 4,000 years old. There is a permanent exhibition of the oldest kayaks in the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich.

In the old times the methods of designing and building kayaks passed on through oral tradition among the generations of native people. The meaning of the word “kayak” is “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat”. Native kayaks were handmade. The wooden or bone structure was made by the man who used it while his wife sewed the skins in order to closely fit them on the frame.  Then a special skin jacket was secured to the kayak, creating a waterproof seal. This enabled to capsize and right the boat. Even today this maneuver is called the „Eskimo roll”.

Among certain Eskimo peoples the skin-on-frame kayaks are still being used for hunting because their smooth and flexible skin glides silently through the waves. In other parts of the world  the tradition of the Eskimo’s skin-on-frame kayaks is continued by the modern synthetic fabric or canvas kayaks.

Up until the 1950s, wooden kayaks and kayaks on wooden frames were the only ones seen on the market. Later on, fiberglass boats appeared in the US, and inflatable rubberized fabric boats appeared in Europe. The roto-molded plastic kayaks were first introduced in 1973, and since then most kayaks are made from roto-molded Poletheylene resins. These plastic and rubberized inflatable kayaks can be smaller, stronger and more resistant than the fiberglass ones. Due to these characteristics some think that these kayaks started off the developement of freestyle kayaking.

New generation of kayaks

Even though kayaks have considerably changed through time , their form, conception, design, fabrication and usage  is very different today from that of the native boats. Modern kayaks are designed with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, often together with CAD customized for naval design.

Modern kayaks are used for various purposes.  For instance: slow and easy paddling on still water;  racing and skillful maneuvering in fast-moving whitewater;  or fishing and long-distance ocean riding.. The form, material and construction technique of the modern boats enables them to efficiently  serve these needs while respecting the  inventions of the initial Arctic kayakers.

Various types

Modern kayaks are specialized in divers types in conformity with their application as sea or touring kayaks, whitewater (or river) kayaks, surf kayaks, racing kayaks, fishing kayaks’ and recreational kayaks. Today the broader kayak categories are ‘Sit-In’, which is the traditional kayak form, and ‘Sit-On-Top’ (SOT), which eliminates the cockpit by seating the paddler on top of the boat, and he uses a double blade paddle.  Nowadays, kayaks design is so diverse that the only condition is to use a kayak paddle featuring two blades in order to propel the boat. However, even this single definition is being challenged by other forms of human powered propulsion, such as foot pedals combined with rotating or sideways moving propellers, electric motors, and even motors fitted outboard.

Racing Kayak

White water racers combine a rapid, unstable lower hull section with a wider upper hull section in order to achieve flat water racing speed with extreme stability in open water. They are not equipped with rudders but still have identical maneuverability to flat water racers. They usually demand extra skill to gain stability, because of their extremely narrow hulls.

Whitewater racing kayaks, likewise all racing kayaks, are of regular length, usually of fiber reinforced resin (usually epoxy or polyester reinforced with Kevlar, glass fiber, carbon fiber, or some combination of the above mentioned). This kind of material is stiffer and has a harder top layer than non-reinforced plastic construction such as rotomolded polyethylene: stiffer means faster, and harder means it gets less scrathed so it can keep its speed.

Canoe sprint

There are three kinds of Canoe sprint kayaks (occasionally called ‘sprint boats’) are K-1 (single paddler), K-2 (two paddlers) and K-4 (four paddlers). A flat water racing K1′s maximum length defined by the ICF is 17 feet (5.2 m). These boats are raced at the Olympic level by men and women over courses of 200, 500 and 1000 meters. A K-3 kayak has been developed in South Africa, and is particularly popular for competing in the Fish River Canoe Marathon.

World Championship events:

  • distances: 200, 500, 1000
  • boat units: men and women K-1, K-2, K-4; men canoe C-1, C-2, C-4. All units compete at all distances.

Olympic events (valid for 2012 Summer Olympics):

  • distances: 200, 500, 1000
  • events: men K-2 200, K-1/K-2/K-4 1000; women K-1 200, K-1/K-2/K-4 500, men canoe C-1 200, C-1/C-2 1000 Each country can send one unit per event.

Flat water racing kayaks are usually produced of extremely lightweight compounds  such as Kevlar, carbon fiber, or fiberglass, but the older ones are made out of wood. They are not meant to use for anything other than flat water. They are narrow, very unstable, and costly. However a skillful paddler can reach a very good speed on them. The beam of a flatwater boat is usually almost as wide as the hips of its paddler  and the paddler  has to to bend his legs in the boat, this way letting the long and straight shape to  decrease drag.

Due to their length, a K-1 ( is 5.2 metres ,17 ft long) and a K-2 (is 6.2 metres, 20 ft long) sprint boats are mounted with a rudder to make their maneuvering easier. The paddler is the one controlling the rudder with his feet (it is the front paddler in multi–person types). These kind of boats have a rather large turning radius in spite of  their  rudders.

Canoe sprint kayaks are very similar to sprint canoes, usually clubs or teams use both types of boats.

Sprint boats are propelled with carbon fiber or fiberglass  paddles. At the consideration of the paddler, the paddle may be custom-made to fit with the paddler’s stroke. What’s more “wing tip” paddles  are often used to help to increase speed and control in turns and drag while keeping the balance. It is a kind of paddle which forms a cup at its upper part.