Kayaks were invented by Inuit 4,000 years ago for hunting and transportation. They were originally made from animal skin stretched over a wood or whalebone frame, with a hole in the centre of the deck just large enough for someone to squeeze their legs through and sit inside. The paddler wore a seal skin jacket which was laced into the kayak to create a watertight seal, and used a hand held double bladed paddle to propel it forward.
These days there are two main types of kayak. The first is the traditional or sit inside kayak. This is very similar to the original Eskimo design. The paddler sits in the hull of the boat, covered by a deck at the front and back. The second is a more recent development known as the sit-on-top (SOT) kayak. This doesn’t have a cockpit. Instead the seat is a moulded depression on top of the deck with strategically placed drainage holes to allow collected water to escape.
Sit inside kayaks have the best protection of any paddle propelled watercraft from the sun, the wind, the cold, and the waves, particularly if used with a spray deck. The low seat position translates into a low centre of gravity and greater stability. This allows for narrower designs and therefore faster kayaks.
SOT kayaks won’t trap you inside or fill with water if you capsize, and they are much easier to get on and off. However, the higher seat means that they need to be wider to achieve the same stability. This means that they are often slower than sit inside kayaks of the same length.
Kayaks are usually available as singles or doubles. A single kayak has one seat, and a double kayak has two. If you’re the only person you know that is into paddling, then a single kayak is a no brainer. If there are two of you, then a decision needs to be made.
Two single kayaks give you more flexibility than a double because you don’t always have to find someone to sit in the other seat. Double kayaks are usually cheaper than two singles and often faster because you have two engines. This is particularly useful if one conks out. On the other hand, they can be heavy and difficult to transport, due to the extra length. Doubles have also been labelled divorce boats because of the propensity for arguments to break out between the paddlers. “No, the other left!”
It is possible to get kayaks with more than two seats. There are several SOTs with three seats, and some manufacturers have created modular designs which enable you to bolt on as many seat sections as you like. In 2012, US outdoor retailer L.L.Bean bolted together a 100 seat kayak for their employees to paddle in celebration of their 100th year in business.
Rudders and skegs are often fitted to touring kayaks and sea kayaks. They are two different ways of using a retractable blade at the rear of the boat to assist with directional control. Despite how it sounds, neither is meant to be used for steering. Like the keel, they are designed to help the boat run straight and resist weather cocking. Without one, it can be necessary to paddle with significantly more effort on the upwind side to maintain your course, and this can be very tiring over long distances. Rudders are attached to the back, and foot pedals are used to swivel them left and right to control the direction of the kayak. Skegs don’t swivel like rudders, but where they are retractable, the paddler can adjust the amount of skeg in the water to suit the amount of wind resistance required.
Some white water boats are as little as 2 metres long. Recreational kayaks start from about 2.5 metres, touring kayaks from 4 metres, sea kayaks from 4.5 metres, and racing skis from 5.5 metres. Some sea kayaks and racing skis can reach over 7 metres in length.