A Brief History Of Kayaking

A Brief History Of Kayaking

Kayaking is one popular water sport whose history stretches back to around 5000 years ago. Kayaks were first invented by the Inuit and Aleut people who resided in areas of Greenland, Alaska, northeastern Russia, and the upper regions of Canada.

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The kayaks helped people travel swiftly across the water, and these tribes would construct kayaks from any available materials like wood, animal skin, and bones. The Inuit used layers of rendered down whale fat to waterproof the kayaks.

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Like the modern white water or touring kayaks, the initial kayaks were wider or shorter, while others were longer or thinner. The kayaks allowed kayakers to lift themselves back into the boat in the event they turned over.

Who Invented the Kayak?

History narrates that Kayaks were invented by the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik tribes. These tribes can be generalized and called the Eskimo people.

While it might sound safe to use the word Eskimo to represent these tribes, it’s imperative to note that the Eskimos are a conglomerate of various tribes spread across the Arctic part of the world.

The Eskimos inhabited the northern parts of the globe. To date, some tribes still occupy the wildlands of Greenland, Siberia (eastern Russia), the United States, and Canada. The Eskimos used the kayaks to navigate water during the summer months.

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History states that these tribes invented kayaks with the sole purpose of hunting. They used kayaks for hunting waterfowl, walrus, seals, and whales. The kayaks were extremely lightweight, quiet, maneuverable, and agile, yet were sturdy enough to withstand heavy sea waves.

The name ‘kayak’ comes from the old Greenland language meaning a ‘hunter’s boat.’ As a hunting vessel, the kayak helped hunters silently stalk unsuspecting prey on the ocean bank and give way for the ancient tribes to transport their catch from the hunting grounds to their villages.

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The ancient kayaks were not made with durable materials compared to modern-day kayaks. The tribes did not have materials or facilities to help craft molded polyethylene or inflated kayaks made from rubber.

Interestingly, the original kayak designs made by these tribes are no different from the modern sit-in kayaks. The method may have changed slightly, but as far as the basic structure is concerned, the ancient technology of the Eskimo still applies to date.

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During hunting, the kayaker rowing the vessel would wear sealskin (tuilik), a water-tight and loose-fitting jacket that is sealed around the jawbones, the face, wrists, and at the opening of the kayak to prevent water from seeping in.

The tuilik also provided warmth and freedom of movement as the hunters sailed through the sea. The air trapped in the tuilik made it easier for hunters to roll, and in case the paddler fell out of the kayak, the tuilik would offer buoyancy and draw legs up into the air pocket.

Whale hunting had a cultural significance to the Inuit tribe. It formed part of their ancient tradition. Since their diet consisted primarily of meat, the Inuit would not have survived without hunting.

Whales were a symbol of harmony between humans and nature. This is because a single whale would feed many people for months.

Also Read: Tandem Kayak vs Canoe

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Hunters who carried their families and possessions used larger kayaks also known as umiaqs. The umiaqs were as large as 60 feet. People started making umiaqs 5000 years ago.

These vessels were used in places far north like the North American Arctic (the Aleutian Islands and Greenland), and Siberia.

Larger families preferred umiaqs because they could maneuver well in big waves and carry 10 to 12 people. To date, people still use umiaqs.

Where Was the Kayak Invented?

Kayaks were invented by the native people of Arctic North America. At this time, there were two known types of kayaks in the region. One was made from light driftwood, and another was made by stretching animal skins over whalebone frames.

In the periods of the early to mid-1800s, kayaks came to Europe as soft-sided frame boats, and it wasn’t long before the German and French began kayaking for sport.

Kayaks continued to be used in icy waters by explorers of the North and South Pole as they carried them on their expeditions.

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As days went by, kayakers became more adventurous. Adolf Anderle became the first man to kayak through the Salzachofen Gorge in 1931. This move later birthed modern-day whitewater kayaking.

As kayaking continued to gain momentum and recognition, 1936 marked its entrance into the world Olympics, where it featured as part of the Berlin games. Kayaking continued enjoying modest participation in the US as a fringe sport until the 1970s, when it drifted towards becoming a mainstream sport.

The modern kayaks came into being in the 1900s when the Europeans started adding a modern touch to the hunting boats initially used by the Inuits.

With more accessible raw materials, the vessels became easier to make. Advances in technology and the growing public interest in kayak racing transformed kayaks. To date, the transformation continues. We can only look forward to better versions of kayaks.

Kayak Evolution

The information we have gathered so far can give us a glimpse of what kayaking was and what it has become. We now understand that the Inuit created kayaks using available materials to make these vessels.

Kayak Evolution: Europe

The kayak entered European space in the 1800s, marking a crucial chapter in kayaking history. It eventually started to gain popularity for recreational purposes. The Inuit also used Kayaks for practical purposes, where they could handle the icy waters of the North and South Poles.

The residents of Europe embraced the kayak design, and instead of using the vessels for hunting, they went ahead and created a sport called kayaking.

The first kayak to hit this market was the soft-sided kayak, whose popularity saw it being added to the Olympics as an official sport in 1936.

Photo by IOC Media via Flickr

By this time, kayaking was still referred to as a fringe sport, but the Olympics pushed it into a mainstream sport, which saw the rest of the world start buying into it, especially the United States.

Kayak Evolution: The Arctic

It’s no doubt that the kayak has become a national symbol for Greenland. Not only does it remind its modern residents of their area’s past, but it also serves as an attraction to tourists.

Greenland kayaking has since become a popular way for people worldwide to experience the rush of extreme sport. Among the people who participated in the Arctic cruise expeditions are kayaking enthusiasts.

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Every Inuit who took a kayak into the waters knew that a single miscalculation would lead to death since there was no one else to save them from the cold water.

The cold Arctic weather can be lethal as three minutes in the dangerously chilly waters shuts down the body. The hunter needed to prepare properly by executing the Eskimo roll.

From early childhood, Greenland boys would practice balance and take countless turns and rolls in the sea in their miniature oars if they suddenly capsized. This was equipped with tactics to get out of critical situations.

Luckily, today’s kayaking enthusiasts can enjoy modern safety equipment and the security of having people around. Kayaking is no longer a death-defying way to feed a tribe but an exciting adventure that helps you explore gorgeous waters and the best of Greenland’s scenery.

Kayak Evolution: United States

White water kayaking became an exciting adventure to conquer the world’s most challenging rivers, including the Colorado River in the United States and Salzachofen Gorge in Austria.

In the 1950s, fiberglass kayaks came onto the scene and took precedence for over 30 years before polyethylene took over. Polyethylene proved to be cheaper and easier to manufacture.

As a result, more people purchased it, transforming kayaking from a sport to an affordable recreational activity.

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The popularity of sea kayaking in the US grew into the mid and late 1970s. The sport attracted many manufacturers who made slight kayaks, flattened them, and added a unique feature called the steerable rudder.

The steer-controlled kayaks could track, steer the boat, and compensate for winds and currents. These kayaks are considered North American Styles regardless of where they are produced.

Kayak Evolution: The Umiaqs

Traditional umiaqs were made from wooden frames covered with walrus or seal skins. There were no tall trees in the Arctic; therefore, the Inuit tribe had to use whatever materials were available.

Builders preferred using the thin female walrus skins to cover the boats since they did not wear out quickly and absorbed less water than male skins. Female walrus skins were also more expansive and would fit around frames more quickly.

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These skins needed to be replaced every two to three years. If hunters kept the frame in good shape, it could last 30 to 40 years. Umiaqs were used to move families’ possessions, children, and people who were sick or too old to paddle.

Paddling umiaqs were left for women in the village while the men paddled kayaks. At some points, umiaqs were referred to as ‘women boats’. In cases where umiaqs were used primarily for hunting walrus and whales, the umiaqs would be paddled by men.

Construction of umiaqs changed in the 1920s. Driftwood was replaced with wood bent through heating with boiling water.

The frames are now made with oak, yellow hickory, or red cedar. The outside of the umiaqs is now made with polyurethane-coated nylon instead of skins.

Types of Kayaks

There are two main types of kayaks: one made from driftwood and another made from whale bones. Both classes were covered in animal skin and coated with whale fat to make them waterproof.

The Inuit made kayaks shaped precisely to the hunter’s figure, size, and height. For this reason, the Inuit believed that anyone who fell or died from a kayak while hunting might have borrowed someone else’s kayak.

Aside from being custom-made for hunters, kayaks were also made for specific waters. For instance, kayaks from the Bering Strait area were made more stable with massive storage spaces. On the other hand, Baffin Island kayaks were flared, broad, and long.

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For buoyancy, seal bladders would be filled with air and attached to specific boat sections. While these kayaks were lightweight and easy to carry around, they were not durable.

With time, kayak builders refined materials using fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber. These modern materials offer more strength, glossy looks, stiffer hulls, and are even lightweight. These composite kayaks are costly to manufacture.

The beginning of the 1970s and 1980s paved the way for introducing roto-molded polyethylene that enabled kayaks to be built inexpensively, quickly, and in large volumes.

The mass production of poly boats gave rise to a new kayak called the recreational kayak. Recreational kayaks were small, user-friendly, and less costly, and they incorporated a few safety and performance features to make them more appealing to an ordinary kayaker or family.

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People had gotten used to expensive, high-quality sea kayaks or the inexpensive but low-quality recreational kayaks until the late 1990s when touring kayaks came onto the market.

Touring kayaks are the mid-range alternative in price and quality and are smaller than sea kayaks. Touring kayaks are performance-oriented.

The recent version made of thermoform acrylic cap stock material gives kayakers better choices in terms of designs and materials.

Kayaking Now: Greenland Style

If you are not a kayaker or don’t know one, perhaps you might not understand the dynamics of this sport. Kayaking is a unique culture that celebrates both individualism and camaraderie. With kayaking, safety comes first, but the fun comes first-est.

Greenland kayaking style has grown over recent years. Every major kayaking symposium involves a paddling workshop or a Greenland rolling demonstration.

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Greenland kayaking was made popular by a Texan man named John Heath, who began his mission of reaffirming the traditional designs of Arctic kayaks in the 1950s.

John traveled from Siberia to Greenland measuring boats and interviewing kayakers. Until his passing on in 2003, John continually praised the advantages of the kayak designs by the Inuit.

Modern-day kayaking exploded at the arrival of YouTube in the 2000s. The kayaking video scene exploded tremendously with Lunch Video Magazine dominating the game for years. It didn’t take long before the magazine brought whitewater entertainment and beta to desktops all over the world.

To date, the traditional kayak is still available in many towns as witnessed at the kayak meeting. The traditional kayaks are for recreational purposes as more robust versions made of fiberglass have gradually taken over traditional versions.

Ancient Kayaks Versus Current Kayaks

The Size

Ancient kayaks came in different lengths just like the kayaks you are used to today. For instance, the umiaks (the large open-skin boats) measured 60 feet or even more. Kayaks of this size could carry an entire family with their possessions.

Smaller kayaks, on the other hand, were used by kayakers to sneak up on animals in the water. These vessels were agile, lightweight, and easy to control just like modern-day kayaks.

Today, kayaks are made from heavy-duty polyethylene plastics. If taken good care of, these vessels can last between 10 to 15 years. Today’s kayaks also come in many different colors, lengths, and styles to choose from.

If you wish to share your kayaking experience with a friend, then tandem kayaks are best suited. These kayaks are easy to manage and harder to flip.

Photo by Rachel Claire via Pexels

The Construction 

The construction of kayaks was done by both men and women. Men were responsible for making the kayak frame where they could shape the kayak precisely to their body shape and not according to standard dimensions.

The kayaks were constructed from driftwood carried by the currents from Siberia’s rivers to the west and east coast of Greenland.

Women were responsible for sewing the fabric together. They could bring together from three to four skins of the harp seal, stretched out over a frame, a perfect combination that created kayaks from which modern manufacturers still draw inspiration.

Modern-day kayaks vary a lot in price, a factor that has everything to do with construction. It is always said that you get what you pay for.

Since buying a kayak can be daunting, it’s paramount to understand the different construction types and their pros and cons to make decisions based on your budget and needs. There are three types of modern kayak construction: composite layups, rotomolded polyethylene, and thermoform.

Composite kayaks

You are likely to bump into these kayaks in the showrooms. They are glossy and colorful with beautiful sharp lines. These kayaks are made from fabrics such as fiberglass, Kevlar, or a hybrid bonded by resin.

The glossy coating on the outside protects the laminate. Oftentimes, cores are inserted in the laminate to stiffen the boats.

Composite boats are lightweight, best performing, easy to repair, and last longer. Composite kayaks can be repaired using fiberglass fabric and resin, while small holes can be repaired with resin alone.

On the flip side, these kayaks are expensive, especially Kevlar, and might not withstand a hard impact, just like plastic boats.

Polyethylene kayaks

Polyethylene kayaks are good at absorbing big impacts and sliding over a rock since they are made of tough and fairly soft plastic.

Whitewater boats are made of polyethylene and there are a lot more models of touring and recreational kayaks that are made of polyethylene as well.

Polyethylene kayaks are made through a process called rotomolding. Rotomolding involves pouring poly powder into a mold with two parts and then rotating as heating goes on in a huge oven.

As heating continues, the powder melts to form a coat on the inside of the mold. This allows the kayaks to have the same color on the decks and hulls. This process is short, hence low labor costs.

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These kayaks do not have a glossy finish like the composite ones and tend to be heavier than the rest. Polyethylene kayaks are the most affordable, durable, and impact resistant.

Their main shortcomings include their being heavy, difficult to repair, deform in the sun, and if scratched over time, could lead to fuzz developing, hence creating drag.

Thermoform kayaks

Thermoform kayaks can be looked at as a compromise between composite kayaks and polyethylene kayaks. Their prices are mid-range and are determined by variations in their material quality. Thermoform kayaks possess a good quality of plastic, are easy to repair, and are almost as stiff and light as composite kayaks.

Thermoform kayaks have excellent UV protection, are less expensive than composite kayaks, won’t distort in the sun, and are easy to repair with fiberglass cloth. Thermoform kayaks may not last as long as composite boats and are not as light and stiff.

Kayaking: The Future

Throughout history, kayaking has undergone a tremendous evolution in terms of methods of construction and materials used. While it can be considered a mainstream sport in many countries around the world, kayaking is still being used as a means of living through fishing and transportation.

It’s not easy to know what is in store for kayaking. But what’s for sure is that manufacturers will keep pushing the boundaries on kayak materials and make them as light and as small as possible.

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Manufacturers will also continue making them more practical as evidenced by the rising popularity of the sit-on kayaks.

There is an explosion in the popularity of adventure sports and as more people want to experience it, it’s no doubt that the kayaking star will keep shining. The history of kayaking, therefore, doesn’t stop here.

Final Words

Anyone who takes part in kayaking today owes gratitude to the Greenland Inuit tribe, who invented the water-skimming vessel called a kayak. What started slowly birthed an encyclopedia and archive of paddling sport that enthusiasts still refer to today.

What stands out about kayaking is that from the beginning, the Inuit and Aleut people demonstrated extreme engineering genius, and a testament to their creative skills is still demonstrated in modern kayak construction.

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Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of KayakHelp.com. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of KayakHelp.com. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.