The Kayak: An Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Kayak: An Introduction

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Often incorrectly described as a canoe1, the kayak is a small boat, usually made of plastic2, which is propelled by one or more people using a single two-bladed paddle.

Originating in the icy Aleutian Islands, south west of Alaska in some of the most inhospitable seas imaginable, the kayak or Qayaq, is the most efficient human-powered watercraft ever built. Aleutian paddlers spent thousands of years perfecting the boat, not to fight the oceans, but to yield to the seas.

Kayak Sports

The kayak is pivotal to several adventure sports:

  • White Water kayaking - involves going down dangerous stretches of river. The boats tend to be cylindrical in shape for maximum buoyancy, but this depends on the class of white water. Kayaks come in other forms, which on calmer waters, enable kayakers to carry out special moves and tricks. Beginners are able learn the basics in a month or two, while dedicated kayakers will go in search of rivers that haven't been travelled by kayak before, risking life and limb in the process.

  • Slalom is similar to white water kayaking, but it takes place on class III white water. The aim of slalom is to go through a course of 'gates', made from sets of two poles suspended above the water. Slalom kayaks have flattened ends and low profiles so that they lie low in the water. There are two different types of gates on a slalom course: red gates are taken against the flow of the water; green gates are taken with the flow of the water. The winner of a slalom race is the one who goes fastest through the course with the fewest mistakes. If you hit a gate with your paddle or boat, then two seconds are added to your time. If you miss a gate 50 seconds are added to your time.

  • Marathon kayaking involves paddling at least 26 miles on flat water. Marathon boats are long and have a large opening for getting in. These boats are mistakenly believed to have rudders, but this is not the case. In actual fact they usually have a 'skeg' which enables the kayak only to go straight forward.

  • Sea kayaking takes place against the elements and the waves. Sea kayakers stay well away from commercial sea routes as it is illegal to hinder other ships, especially ones which are so large that it takes a long time to steer them. Sea kayaks are long and are equipped with extra survival gear, such as global positioning systems, semaphore flags, and they often come with special compartments to store camping gear.

  • Surf kayaking is an alternative to surfboarding. Sea kayaks can survive waves that a surfboard would not. The boats are flat-bottomed and have a flat deck, which means that they respond well to waves.

  • Polo kayaking is comparable to rugby or American football with each team (of five players) trying to score goals against the other. Players usually wear a swim-vest for protecting the ribs and a helmet and facemask for protecting the head. Before taking part in a polo kayaking game it is important to learn how to do an Eskimo roll really well, as fellow players are allowed push the person with the ball under the water.

Kayak Safety

To survive to tell kayaking tales, it's best to observe some safety precautions.

  • It's important to learn the basic Eskimo roll3, this is of course a natty little trick, but it is also important to be able to exit the kayak remaining calm. Before kayaking properly first learn how to get out of a kayak, empty it of water, and get it to the shore. After that, if you're feeling confident enough if overturned, then you can consider learning a few basic Eskimo rolls. You can do this by using the paddle in various ways, and by using your hands to right both yourself and the kayak.

  • Beginners should go kayaking down rapids, guided by an experienced kayaker.

  • Make sure you research the stretch of river you're going to travel thoroughly. Decide how far you are going to travel and locate entry and exit points.

  • Equip at least two kayak with throwing lines and survival kits.

  • Know how to get help if the situation gets dangerous and ensure you have contact to the outside world. This can be a problem if you're in a wilderness area where there are no phones. Locate nearest places where to get help if needed, before setting out.

  • Choose your route with care.

  • Practise throwing lines to people in the river. This might seem easy when you're not under pressure, but if somebody is being dragged away by a strong current it is hard to aim accurately. Make sure your foothold is strong because if somebody grabs your line suddenly, you risk being dragged over the rocks into the river. This is usually not pleasant. Ouch.

Fun in White Water

Once the kayak is under control, then its time to strut your stuff:

  • The cartwheel - this is one of the more difficult moves. Try to find a good wave and then, by leaning to one side of the kayak, let the wave roll the kayak around and around, with your body as the axis of revolution. This can be done with the kayak doing a horizontal spin.

    The vertical cartwheel is an even more difficult move. Lean to one side of the kayak so that your body is almost parallel to the wave and your kayak is perpendicular. The wave will take the front tip of the kayak and drag it down below, while the back tip will be swooped up in the air. As the back tip hits the water it is dragged down below by the wave. It's then possible to keep the cartwheel going for a few rounds.

  • Forward Loop this manoeuvre is much the same as a cartwheel. Try to surf on a wave facing the source of the current. Then accelerate towards the beginning of the wave on which you are surfing. The tip will dive in the water and be swept away. This will cause the back tip of the kayak to rise in the air so that the kayak will flip over and land upside-down in the water. To get out of this, do the basic Eskimo roll (doing any special moves will usually mean you'll end up upside-down.)

  • Backward Loop - the same as forward looping except that the kayak has to face away from the source of the current. Ensure that no kayakers or rafts are coming towards you.

  • Chandellen find a place where two currents flow together. Precisely on the point where they meet, kayak into the current. Let the current grip the back tip and it will be dragged down, the whole kayak will be vertical in the water. Then make a paddle-stroke to turn, the kayak will revolve on its back tip.

1A canoe is a similar craft, but is paddled in the kneeling position. Kayakers sit.2Traditionally, kayaks were made of wood, bone and hide. This was later replaced first by canvas, and then by fibreglass. Nowadays, though, kayaks are made of kevlar or carbon fibre.3The Eskimo roll is a means whereby an upside-down kayaker rights themselves without getting out of the kayak.

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