Kayaks have been a means of navigating waterways worldwide for thousands of years. Over the millenniums they have changed dramatically but the overall design and concept has stayed more-or-less the same. From the rustic boats of the Inuit’s to the to the lightweight carbon fibre racing kayals you see today, the kayak has come a long way.
In this article, we will be looking 10 facts you may not know about the humble kayak and its uses. Enjoy!
1 - The Kayak was Invented Over 4000 Years AgoThe kayak is believed to have been first invented over 4000 years ago by people often referred to as “Eskimos”. The oldest surviving kayaks can be seen in Munich, Germany in the Five Continents Museum. The oldest one here is a staggering 450 years old. That’s some incredible build-quality bearing in mind these kayaks were handmade completely from natural materials!
2- The Kayak Came from the NorthThe first kayaks all those years ago were invented in the northern regions. The kayaks were crafted by the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik tribes that resided (and still do) in the Arctic lands of the world. Although it is impossible to put an exact location and date on when the first kayak was crafted, evidence shows use of them across North America, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.
3 - The First Kayaks were Made from Animal Skins and Whale BonesThe first kayaks were made from animal skins, usually seal and other water mammals. The skins were stretched over a whale bone frame to create a buoyant open-top style watercraft for navigating the cold waters of the north.
Kayaks evolved from there and started developing around the world with different construction techniques. Pine frames were covered with birch bark to create lightweight canoes and kayaks by the North American Indians and north-eastern tribes of Europe. Large buoyant logs were carved to create the dugout canoe and kayak by the Australian Aboriginals. Moving forward to modern times, kayaks are still crafted using ancient techniques as well as modern innovations too.
You will find kayaks crafted from wood, fiberglass, hard-plastics, carbon fibre, and light alloys today. Kayaks come in a range of shapes and sizes, but the overall design isn’t far from the 4000 year-old skin and bone boats used by the Eskimos.
4 - There are More than 10 Different Kayak TypesAlthough all kayaks are used for navigating the water, there are more than 10 types of kayak for different purposes. Kayaks are crafted differently depending on the situations they will be used in. An Olympic racing kayak is far from a whitewater kayak just as an open-top sea fishing kayak differs from a freshwater touring kayak.
Kayaks are designed with conditions in mind. If you’re hurling down class 5 rapids, you’ll need something that is durable enough for the task at hand. If you are heading out into the open ocean, you’ll need something that can cope with the harsh saltwater environment. If you are heading on a week-long tour down the river, you will need something that can accommodate your food, water, and camping gear. Wherever you want to paddle and for whatever reason, there is a kayak type for your needs.
5 - Kayaks were Invented for HuntingKayaks were originally designed for hunting and fishing. In fact, the work kayak means “Hunters Boat”. Although nowadays, you are less likely to see someone hunting from their kayak and more likely to see them taking in the views on their local water, they were originally a vital tool to survival.
For the same reasons we love the kayak for peacefully gliding into nature, ancient tribes loved them for hunting. The kayak is silent on the water and can float past wary wildlife unseen. This made them perfect for creeping up on unsuspecting prey both in the water and on the banksides. They also made transporting prey long-distances much quicker and easier.
6 - The Longest Kayak Trip on Record Lasted Over 7 YearsThe longest kayaking trip on record was set by the world-famous Oskar Speck — a legend in the kayaking community. Speck set of on the Danube river, Germany in 1932 to reach Australia in his 18-foot folding sea kayak. He ended up traveling a staggering 30,000 miles over seven and a half years.
During the journey, world war two broke out while Speck was in New Guinea, the only reason he found this out was by stopping at the fishing village of Daru and hearing the news from a local. Regardless of Europe’s situation, the German kayaker paddled on determined to complete his journey. Oskar Speck battled with sharks, malaria, and hostile locals throughout his travels and tragically once he reached Australia he was arrested as an enemy foreigner.
Oskar Speck spent the remainder of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp on Australia. When the war ended, Speck was released and started working as an Opal cutter at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales. He then moved to Sydney becoming a successful Opal merchant.
If you haven’t heard the full story of Oskar Speck, then I thoroughly recommend looking it up and reading about his epic journey. His story was almost lost in history because of the war and surprisingly not many people know about his feat.
7 - Kayaking was First Seen at the Olympics Just Under 100 Years AgoKayaking was first seen at the Olympic games as a demonstration sport in Paris, France. The VIII Olympiad in Paris 1924 featured flatwater canoeing and kayaking however the sport was not accepted as an Olympic discipline until 1936. The true Olympic sport of kayaking started in the Berlin XI Olympiad games.
In 1948 the first Olympic women’s kayaking event was added. This event was the 500 metre single kayak sprint and took place in the XIV Olympiad in London, England. The first whitewater kayaking event premiered in Munich, Germany 1972 (the XX Olympiad). In current times, over 15 separate kayaking events are held at the Olympic games.
8 - The Roots of the International Scale of River Difficulty started in 1931The international scale of river difficulty has given kayakers a way to gauge the difficulty of river waters for decades. From class 1 to 6, the international scale rates rivers on the severity of their water. Class 1 sections are considered easy waters with small waves and few obstructions whereas class 6 sections are considered as extremely dangerous and unpredictable whitewaters with many hazards.
The scale was created by the American Whitewater Association, but its route may lay in Europe according to some sources. Its creation came shortly after Adolf Anderle navigated the Salzachofen Gorge, Austria in 1931. Adolf was the first man to successfully navigate the gorge, and some say, this is when the sport of whitewater kayaking began. The same scale that he rated the Salzach River with is still used today with some modification and it is now an international means of rating whitewater.
9 - Europe Dominate Olympic and World Championship KayakingEuropean countries dominate kayaking as a sport. Over the Olympic games and the world championships, on average European countries win 90% of medals up for grabs. Germany is the Olympic leader out of the participating European countries, with a total of 81 gold, silver, and bronze medals from kayaking and canoeing events.
10 - The First Atlantic Crossing Was Made in 1928 by Franz RomerAnother lesser-known story of great kayak achievement was made by Mr Franz Romer in 1928. When you look up who first crossed the Atlantic in a kayak, you will likely find the story of Aleksander Doba. Doba wasn’t the first to achieve this feat though because 82 years earlier, Franz crossed the ocean in his collapsible sea kayak “the Deutscher Sport”.
Franz Romer, an ambitious 29-year-old German navigator, started his adventure from Lisbon, Portugal alone to make the first recorded Atlantic crossing in a kayak. He paddled from Lisbon to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where he made a short stop before continuing. He then paddled on without touching dry land for 58 continuous days.
Early in the morning of August 1st, 1928 Franz Romer was found sleeping in his kayak anchored in the Harbour of Charlotte Amalie, the Virgin Islands U.S. The tired kayaker was then towed into the harbormaster’s wharf where he was helped onto land by the locals. He was unable to move his lower body because he had been sat in the kayak for so long and his face was burnt red with blisters, and salt crystals covered his entire upper body.
If you haven’t heard his incredible story, be sure to check it out!