man kayaking
History, Kayaking

The Evolution Of Kayaking


The word kayak means “man’s boat” or “hunter ship”, as they were first developed in northern regions of the world for the purpose of hunting and exploring.   Kayaks were originally a one-person boat, and at one time they were expressly built by and for the hunter with the help of his wife, who sewed the skins to make the boat.  It was adjusted to the hunter’s size for maximum maneuverability.  It was a relatively light boat used in rivers, lakes, and seas.  

early kayak inuit

Today, the kayak is used almost exclusively worldwide for both sport and recreation, and much less so for hunting, as it was in the early days.  A kayak uses a paddle with two blades … one on each end of the paddle, which is used for steering and balance.  A kayak is sometimes confused with a canoe, which is a different type of water craft.  They do look similar, and behave in similar ways, but they have differences too.  Their design is one main difference.

canoe vs kayak

Typically, a kayak involves sitting in the craft with legs extended in front, whereas a canoe involves sitting on a raised seat or sometimes kneeling.  Some kayaks really do look more like canoes, such as the “sit-on-top” variety.  The paddle types are another difference between the kayak and the canoe.  The kayak has a blade on each end of the single paddle, while the canoe has a blade on only one end of the paddle.  This creates a different style of paddling.


Kayaks were developed by the Inuit people, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region.  These residents of the Arctic used these boats for fishing and hunting along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic, as well as the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.  

old inuit kayak

Kayaks are at least 4000 years old.   You can see some of these old boats in the Museum of Ethnology in Munich Germany.  Most Inuit peoples, from the Aleutian Islands, all the way to Greenland, relied on the kayak for hunting a variety of prey, such as seals, whales, bears and caribou.


Traditional kayaks, circa 1880, show the way kayaks were built by Yupik and Inupiak hunters off the coast of Alaska in the 19th century.  

yupik kayaker hunting

There were 3 main types of traditional kayaks.  

The Baidarka or Aleutian kayak used an older architecture, with a rounded shape, and sometimes a double or triple cockpit, which was intended for hunting and transporting passengers or goods.   These kayaks needed to be extremely durable to endure the notoriously rough Alaskan seas.  

Here is a modern video showing what navigating those waters in a kayak is like.  Such a voyage is certainly not for beginners!

The Qajaq people of West Greenland used a more angular design and less chines (angles), with beginner gunwales at the bow and stern.  

The Qajaq natives of East Greenland, used a kayak which somewhat resembled the ones in West Greenland, but often integrated more closely with the paddler, and possessed a steeper angle between the gunwale and stern, which gave better handling and was excellent for performing rolls.

Arctic indigenous people also used the Umiak, a large wooden (or whalebone) canoe covered with sealskin, for the transport of goods, women/children, and whaling.  It was originally powered with simple paddles, usually by several paddlers.

The construction of these traditional Greenlandic kayaks was very practical, and the people used what was in their environment to do the job.  Seal skins and sometimes skins from other marine mammals, were sewn and stretched over wooden frames.  The skins were washed, soaked and fermented in urine.  The women depilated the skins, (removed the hairs), before doing the sewing.  The seams were coated with seal fat to ensure a better seal.  The wood was usually driftwood, since many of their territories were treeless.  As they were made from the elements themselves, these kayaks were made to brave these same elements in order for hunters to go out into the dangerous waters and hunt large prey.

greenlandic kayak with walrus

The elements of the structure were traditionally assembled with wooden pegs and leather links.  Native builders designed and built their boats by using their experiences and traditional knowledge, which was passed down orally.  

Kayak building is a labor intensive process, even now.  Here is what it looks like to make one of these kayaks today…

In the past, the maker of the kayak used a personal measurement system of his own body to create a kayak of perfect size for him.   For example: the length of the kayak was usually equal to three times the distance of his outstretched arms.  The width at the cockpit was equal to the hip width of the manufacturer, adding two fists (sometimes less).  The typical depth was a clenched fist over a tense thumb.

The typical dimensions were approximately 5.2 m. long, 51-56cm. wide, 18cm. depth.   This custom measurement system had confused early European explorers, who tried to duplicate the kayak, because each kayak was a little different.  Kayaking dimensions varied according to the user, and his environment.  They were long and stable to navigate the ice-free water, or they could be light, short and handy, for when they encountered fragmented ice.  

As you can imagine, an encounter with ice flows will render some areas impassible, regardless of a kayak’s construction…


The tuilik was a waterproof anorak with a hood and narrow sleeves, fitted around the face, and tightly fitted around the manhole or (cockpit).  


A waterproof apron (agivilisaq, ancestor of the modern skirt) fitted around the cockpit, and around the chest of the paddler.  This created a seal between the bust of the man and his craft, which allowed the ‘Eskimo roll’, a technique used to recover its initial position after turning over.  Few individuals could swim, and the waters were too frigid for a swimmer to survive long.

The paddles could be single or double.  They were made of wood, with reinforcements made of bone or ivory ends.

kayak paddle

The Greenland paddle was dual (two blades), longer and thinner than the contemporary European paddle, and was more maneuverable in strong winds.  The traditional wooden paddle of Greenland was approximately 2.10 m long.

The deck of the kayak was equipped with all the tools and weapons for hunting….. knives, harpoons for hunting marine mammals, spears for hunting birds, harpoon thruster (norsaq was also a backup tool for the Eskimo), stopgap parts (to repair skins), float (inflated sealskin), tow straps, and a carrier strap (circular support for the peeling leather straps connecting the float and harpoon head)  

kayak deck rigging

At the end of the 19th century, gun racks appeared (keeping the guns dry and ready to fire), as well as camouflaged shooting screens.  These elements were fixed on the deck by leather straps tightened by small elements of bone or ivory.

Change Is Coming

Contact with Europeans gradually created changes for Aboriginal people.  Beginning around the 17th century, some Inuit began to buy Scandinavian wood from merchants to manufacture kayaks.  

Over the centuries, kayaks began to lose diversity and decoration.  The Inuit peoples began to use nails, nylon strings, and metal plates.  Anthropologists noted that by 1968, some kayaks were built entirely of plywood.  

Plywood Sea Kayak

Despite the extreme skill of the hunters of this Ammassalik region for example, kayaking accidents were frequent, and one of the main causes of death for the men.  By 1900’s, the explorer Knud Rasmussen noted that some tribes, in contact with the whalers since the 1860s, abandoned kayaking and hunting marine mammals, to concentrate on whaling with modern techniques.

Around 1960, the Inuit of Greenland, were introduced to powerboats, and left behind the kayaks and umiaks.  Similarly, the sedentary populations chose the abandonment of hunting by kayak, as it was very dangerous compared to other hunting techniques such as using nets.  Finally many young people no longer wanted to spend time hunting, and thus abandoned the skill of learning to kayak.  

Kayaking Today

Today the traditional kayak culture has been almost abandoned or forgotten by many Arctic peoples.  Since the 1960s, fathers no longer teach their children about kayaking.  It is an optional subject in their schools.  

Recreational kayaking started very slowly around 20th century in Europe and North America.  Perhaps the art of making them was lost, or too difficult for the new generation.  A boat such as the French périssoire, which was in vogue from 1900 to 1960, was perhaps derived from the kayak.

From 1970 on, with the first kayaks constructed of molded plastic, this boat began to have marked success, especially in France. Although the traditional kayak was dedicated to navigation at sea, modern kayaks are designed and built primarily for whitewater navigation.

Kayaks, with their solid short deck, allowed navigation in previously inaccessible rivers.  By 1990, the craze for this sport attracted many young practitioners.  On calm lakes and rivers, kayaking appealed to beginners because it was more manoeuvrable, lighter and cheaper than the canoe, and it allowed solo practice.

Modern Constructio

The polar hunting kayak of yesteryear inspired the modern construction of kayaks sailing under all latitudes, and in all bodies of fresh or salt waters around the world.  There are a variety of materials used in construction these days, from stretched waterproofed canvas on a rigid frame, to plywood, and now with laminates and plastics.  The forms have diversified to fit many sport specialties, and recreational activities.


The design for contemporary kayaks originated mainly in Alaska, northern Canada, and southwest Greenland.  Kayaks entirely made of wood, or kayaks made with a removable cloth on a wooden structure, such as the Klepper, dominated the market until the 1950’s, when fiberglass kayaks were introduced in the U.S.  

At the same time, inflatable and rubberized kayaks were being introduced in Europe.  The first molded plastic kayaks appeared in 1973.  The plastic and inflatable kayaks were probably initiated by the recent development of freestyle kayaking.  These boats were smaller, and more resistant than the fiberglass ones.

Today, kayaks built with modern materials compete with wood, which is still valued for its beauty and lightness.  Fibreglass and   kevlar are used to build strong, lightweight kayaks.  A colored stucco is often applied to give color to the boat.  Not only have the materials changed over time, but also the form of the kayaks.


touring kayak review

Sea kayaks are larger than the leisure kayaks, which are meant for smaller bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes.  Sea kayaks are primarily used on the ocean, which can be very unpredictable because of the wave sizes, and strength of the currents.  This large kayak could be up to 6 meters in length.  It will probably come with a rudder or maybe a sail.  There might even be some compartments in it to transport food and camping equipment.  

There is also a whitewater kayak, which is much smaller and lighter, so that the kayaker can handle the quick turns more easily.

sun dolphin sit on top kayak review

If you are looking for a kayak for a beginner, or a small child, there is a SOT (sit on top) kayak. Some people use it for surfing waves or even fishing.  There is no cockpit to put your body inside.  These kayaks are very heavy, but easy to handle, even though they move slowly.  They could come with pedals for powering purposes.  They should not be used in deep water or water with fast moving currents.  Fishermen sometimes use this type over a row boat.

Modern equipment

Instead of a tuilik, modern kayakers use a ‘skirt’ of waterproofed plastic, coated nylon or neoprene, sufficiently fitted snuggly between the deck of the kayak and the body of the kayaker.

kayak skirt

This skirt can be quickly released to allow for evacuation.  The kayak and its user become an integral unit, as the skirt forms a waterproof seal between the cockpit and the paddler.  A waterproof jacket is also worn.  In case of capsizing, also called desalting, the kayaker can regain his position using the centuries old technique of the Eskimo roll.


The kayaker sits on a low seat in the boat.  His/her feet rest on the fixed adjustable blocks, commonly known as the footrest.  The kayaker paddles alternately on both sides, driving the water backwards.  

In fact, it is mainly the paddler who pulls forward on the water, whereby the water acts as an anchor for the paddle, and transmits motion to the boat via the paddler’s contact of their buttocks and thrust of their feet.  

Propulsion and steering are simultaneously provided.  Corrective actions by paddle stroke, may be required.  On racing kayaks and some sea kayaks, the paddler controls a rudder bar with his/her feet.  The rudder bar is attached to the rudder by pulleys.


Once you’ve figured out how to paddle a kayak, and also how to stop or turn the boat, it’s time to learn something more advanced.  Even seasoned kayakers have accidents, so it is very important to know what to do if your kayak tips over, and you find yourself under the water.  

Knowing how to perform the Eskimo Roll might save your life one day.  Just before you feel the boat tipping over, bring your paddle parallel to the kayak.  Now that the kayak is upside down, turn your paddle and reach out to grab the water.  Bring your paddle up and use your hips to make the kayak upright again.  You will discover that your hips are doing most of the work.  Of course you need to practise this a lot in a pool before you get out on the ocean, or in a river with your kayak.  So back to being under the water.  Throw your hips to the left, and to the right creating a momentum that will bring the boat over to a safe position.

If you fall out of your seat and the kayak turns over, stay calm and get the boat upright as soon as you can.  Reach under and grab onto both sides of the cockpit and turn it back over.  It will flip back to the proper position quite easily.  Now reach over to the other side and pull your body onto the kayak.  Slide yourself into the seat.  If there is some water in the cockpit, don’t worry.  Paddle to shore and haul the kayak out and empty whatever water is still inside.  This might seems like a fun activity, but stay alert and remember to keep calm.

Marcel Bardiaux was a former French kayak champion.  He discovered the Eskimo roll in 1932.  There are different ways to do it, but this way works well, and it’s not too difficult.  Maybe you will come up with a better way.


Kayaks can be tricky to embark, and to get out of, sometimes.  Again, take your time, and think about a few things.  Minimize the distance between your hands when reaching for the boat.  You might also want to experiment where you place your hands.  

Keep the kayak close to the bank when putting your weight on it, in order to stabilize it, so you can slide into the cockpit.  Keep the paddle close by.  Maybe you could place it along the side of the cockpit.  Your legs go in first, one at a time, and your buttocks last.  Once you are in the cockpit, and you have the paddle, push away from the shore just a little, and then move straight ahead employing your paddle skills.  

After you complete your kayaking adventure, you will disembark from the kayak in the reverse order as to how you got into the boat in the first place.

Did you know?

Before the White Man came to North America, kayaks were found on the coasts of Norway, Scotland, France, and Germany.  Maybe storms or currents from North America carried these kayaks following the Gulf Stream that moves in a clockwise direction from North America across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and back again.  Such kayaks were kept in the churches in Scotland and Norway.  Historians also tell stories of kayak type boats used in Roman times.  Kayaks have been around a long time and are still popular today.


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