In this brief history of kayaking, I will talk about the kayak evolution from basic tool to Olympic sport.
As a kayak, canoe and boat builder I have a big liking for hand-crafted boats, which I paddle endlessly and make them to order to fit the individual and their needs. But before I started doing this for other people, I really wanted to know more about what the different boats were and how they worked.
The information I gathered in the years before I started making kayaks and canoes, helped me a lot in finding out where they came from and what they were used for. Here’s what I found out about the kayak.
The tribes of Arctic America and people from the Aleutian Islands were the first to make kayaks. Usually using driftwood but more commonly whalebone they were covered with animal hides to form what we would now call a ‘skin on frame kayak’. These were usually kept waterproof by the liberal application of some sort of fat, mainly whale grease, and the first buoyancy aids for a kayak were inflated seal bladders.
The role of these early kayaks due to their naturally stealthy lines, was mainly for hunting and the word kayak means ‘hunters boat’. But they also built larger kayaks, called Umiaqs, with evidence showing them being built up to 60ft in length for transportation of entire families and their belongings.
The style of the kayaks differs from region to region. With the long sleek baidarkas of the Aleutian Islands to the bulbous wide and stable boats for the rougher water of other areas.
Before the use of modern materials for the spray deck, the Inuit people used what is called a Tuilik. This was made out of seal skin, and formed a watertight seal around the body and the coaming (cockpit) of the kayak.
They used to have either a long or short cut, and the long cut allowed them to leave the boat and get their head above water if they couldn’t roll. The problem is the Inuit people couldn’t swim! The Inuits didn’t even have a word in their language for it.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the kayak was introduced in Europe. But it is an important chapter in the history of kayaking.
Back then it was a soft sided boat, and it wasn’t long before the French and Germans started using kayaks for sport. They were also used for practical purposes. Most notably, kayaks were favoured by adventurers exploring the icy waters of the North and South Poles.
With the rise of Hitler, the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin will always be remembered with historical significance. But it is also an important footnote in the history of kayaking as this was the year it was introduced as an Olympic sport. It was still considered a fringe sport back then, but the Olympics pushed it into the mainstream.
Throughout the history of kayaking there has been huge leaps forward in construction methods and materials used. It is now a mainstream sport around the world. But, kayaking is still used in many countries as a means of living with transportation and fishing.
It is hard to know what is next in the kayak evolution. They will continue to push the boundaries on material, making them lighter and smaller (if possible!). Also making them more practical and easier to use such as the recent increase in popularity of sit on kayaks.
With the explosion in popularity of adventure sports and more and more people wanting life experiences for their thrills, kayaking will continue to gain popularity around the world. The history of kayaking doesn’t stop here. This is just the beginning.
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