Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Apple #188: Kayaks

Another thing I did on my vacation (I know, it's been a while, but things have been crazy around here) was tool around in a kayak. It wasn't one of those white-water things, just some placid paddling action. I had been in a kayak once before, also on vacation, when I went to Vieques once. That was a great experience -- both the trip to Vieques as a whole, and also the part where I was in a kayak. So I was looking forward to the chance to get in a kayak again, and I was not disappointed. Even though it started raining halfway out. Even though my watch fell in the drink. I saw lots of shore birds, may or may not have seen an alligator, and just generally enjoyed zipping around in the kayak.

  • The kayak is an Inuit (Eskimo) version of the canoe. Canoes were first made some 8,000 years ago by digging out the innards of a tree and then covering the hull with some protective layer of animal skins, bark, or fabric.
  • Canoes are made depending on how and where they're going to be used. Deep-hulled, enormous dug-outs that seat 8 to 10 people were used on the Pacific Coast for navigating the ocean. Smaller canoes lined with bark were used on inland lakes and rivers. And the kayak, which typically has a deck that closes around a single person, was designed for zipping through the cold, icy waters, and giving extra protection to its paddler.

This photo of an Inuit kayaker with his harpoon was taken around 1913 or 1914.
(Photo by Robert Flaherty, from the Royal Museum of Ontario)

  • I found the kayak to be much more manageable and responsive than a canoe, and that's probably because kayaks were originally made for hunting, when swiftness is key. The word kayak actually means "hunter's boat."
  • They were also made to make the transition from water to land and back again more easily. Kayakers might hunt for seals, narwhales, or fish, as well as birds, caribou, or other land-dwellers.
  • Back in the day, kayaks were made from wood frames with either sealskin or caribou hide stretched over the frame. Materials used today include wood and fiberglass for the frames with kevlar coatings. But the shape and structure are still much the same as they were before the Europeans got to the Americas.

This current Alaskan kayak doesn't look all that much different from the 1913 model.
(Photo from Homer Ocean Charters)

  • Kayaks are also different from canoes in the way they're paddled. Typically a canoer gets a single oar with one paddle at the end of the oar. And usually, but not always, a canoe holds two or more people, each with his or her own paddle. A kayak's oar has paddles at both ends. This makes it easier for one person to navigate the craft.
  • Here are some tips for more efficient and easier paddling:
    • Sit up straight and don't allow your shoulders to slump
    • Bend your elbow as little as possible all the way through each stroke

Note the position of his arms relative to his face and the side of the boat
(Photo from Kayak Lake Mead)

    • Think of a stroke as spearing a fish. Start with your paddling arm in front of your face, then plunge the paddle nose-first into the water. Get the whole paddle blade in the water, and make sure it enters the water close to the side of the boat.
    • Then pull the paddle back at an angle of 45 degrees to the boat so that your supporting arm moves in front of your face. Lift the paddle out of the water when it's near your hips.
    • The stroke will feel short at first, but this keeps you from bending your arms and from putting extra strain on your shoulders. Instead, your lateral and back muscles will do more of the work, as they should, since they're bigger muscles anyway.
    • For pictures of what the stroke should look like, see these paddling tips.
  • That's just the forward stroke. There are many others, for steering or slowing the boat as needed. When you're really advanced, you can try the "Eskimo roll."

(From the Four Elements of the Eskimo Roll)

  • If you want to buy a kayak, depending on the type you choose, it can cost you anywhere from $250 for a beginner's single-seater to $4,500 for a top-notch double-seater foldable kayak. For some tips on how to choose a kayak, see Kayak Online.
Virtual Museum of Canada, Living Traditions, The Canoe & Kayak
Chicago Kayak, A little sea kayaking history
Hickock Sports, History of Canoeing & Kayaking
Deep Cove Kayak, Paddling Tips
GORP, Essential Paddle Strokes for Kayaking

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