The history of watercrafts is in a way, the history of man. Humans and water are inseparable.
While across the Earth man has been floating and paddling some form of vessel for thousands of years, the origin of the kayak is to be found in the subarctic and arctic climates of the Northern Hemisphere in what is now Siberia, North America, and Greenland.
More than 4,500 years ago the native peoples of these lands, the Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut developed the kayak which drastically changed their lives and gave them the ability to navigate around their environment. Even though we now call these kayaks, they called them slightly different names but with quite similar pronunciation (Qajaq by the Inuit, Qayaq by the Yup’ik and Qayaq by the Aleut).
The meaning of kayak literally translates into “man’s boat”, which is the simplest description, for it is purely that; a boat built by humans and meant for humans.
The Build of the Early Years
The build of the kayak varied from place to place as well depending on the environment and the ability of the indigenous people to have access to the materials needed to construct their watercrafts. When wood was accessible, either through driftwood or access to northern forests, it was used as the frame. But, if none was available a common practice was the use of a whale’s skeletal frame. A method which was shared by all three tribes was the use of animal skins, most commonly seal since this was most easily accessible. The animal skin would be stretched over the frame of the kayak and then stitched and covered in whale fat in such a way that the boat would be waterproof. Having a kayak that was completely waterproof in those freezing northern waters was essential for multiple reasons. First and most apparent was the fact that on long voyages if water began to seep inside the kayak that eventually if none of the water was bailed out the kayak, it would begin to sink and ultimately be completely submerged which would spell doom for the person inside. Second, the way the paddler(s) were attached to the kayak was what was called a tuilik or now called in modern day a skirt. This was also animal skin and fit tightly over the waist/midriff of the paddler and was then sewed down to the edges of the kayak to make one complete covering which the kayaker was attached to. There was no way for the person to reach into the kayak and bail out water without first landing and disassembling himself from the skirt and boat. Thirdly, and what pops into most people’s head first is the absolutely frigid temperatures of the Arctic and subarctic waters that if exposed to would easily freeze limbs and lead quite quickly to hypothermia and death. This is where the lovely term Eskimo roll comes from as well.
Since the paddlers were completely connected to the kayak, similar to how kayakers are today with a skirt (though I imagine pulling off a skirt as easily as it done today was not nearly possible) if you found yourself capsized one would need to immediately roll back over as they did...Eskimo roll. There are stories of children practicing “air paddles” on land and doing simulations (similar to how today many kayakers will practice in a pool or a large eddy in a river) until they were fully confident to perform the roll in life-threatening conditions. Our current state of kayaking is because of the past, for we truly stand on the shoulders of those before us, well, float really.
For thousands of years, the kayak stayed in the Northern Seas. The rest of the World was using canoes; Polynesian explorers, Natives throughout the Americas and Caribbean, African and Asian traders and fishermen all over the planet. Pretty much every community of people around water had developed some sort of watercraft, most common a dugout canoe. But the peoples of the Arctic solely, from what is now known, developed the kayak. The key differences are the double-bladed paddle (rather than the single blade of canoe paddles) and the full attachment to the boat in the way of a skirt. It was a unique approach to paddling across water which allowed a high level of control, the ability to brave cold and strong seas and the use of water technology which enabled them to become expert hunters.
Transition into Modern Times
The first account of kayaks in European history is believed to be in the 1600s by Dutch explorers when encountering the indigenous peoples of the Arctic by their large exploratory boats. While it is said that a kayak was brought back over to Holland during that time and even discovered roughly 100 years later by Russian explorers, kayaking did not take hold in Europe until the 1800s and then in mostly a recreational manner. French, German and British sport societies took a keen interest in the watercraft and began to use kayaks as ways to explore waterways in a new and exciting way. Kayaks also attracted many Europeans as a form of fitness and exercise since it focused on the upper body and was an idyllic way to engage in fitness while being surrounded by the beauty of nature. This transformation of the use of kayaks, from a hunting-based vessel to one of recreation and sport is the root of what kayaking has evolved to today.
Modern Day Kayaking
Kayaking has continued to evolve and whitewater kayaking is an approach that takes knowledge as well as expertise and is arguably the epitome of sport kayaking today. The first reported experimentation with whitewater rafting occurred in the 1930s in Europe but there is a high likelihood people had successfully ran whitewater before just never on record. In the continuation of kayaking on a World stage, kayaking became an Olympic sport during its debut in the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. America began to turn an eye toward kayaking during the mid-1900s as well and there were reports of successful runs down both the Colorado and Green rivers which still to this day are home to a strong whitewater culture.
In the 1950s fiberglass was introduced into the kayaking world and allowed boats to be a fraction of the weight of previous models made of wood. This not only changed maneuvering of rivers, lakes, and oceans but also opened up accessibility to new places that had never before been paddled. But, the history of kayaks in the past 40 years has perhaps been the most drastic of the near 5,000-year history and the limits of what is possible with kayaking are being pushed daily. Nearly 40 years ago the construction of kayaks took a wild turn with the introduction of polyurethane plastic and kevlar which allowed for ultra lightweight, tough and molded designs. Today humans are crossing oceans on kayaks, dropping waterfalls that before were only outrageous dreams, performing flips and tricks that take incredible skill and navigating rivers that had in the past been deemed unrunnable. The history of kayaks is one that spans human history and the future is bright for this amazing craft.
Is all of this deep-rooted kayaking history inspiring you to get out there yourself? Make sure to check out our best kayaks main page if so!