Kayaking for Beginners: Naming the Parts

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A white kayak.

There are one or two things the tyro should know about canoes and kayaks if for no other reason than to be able to talk about kayaking like the cognoscenti. So today we have the 'Naming of Parts'.

There are all sorts of Kayaks which generally take their form from the style of traditional fishing craft used by the Inuit (Eskimo) hunter, but the ones I'm concerned with are those used for flat-water racing. In that context we blithely refer to single-seat racing kayaks as K1s, those with two seats are K2s and perhaps unsurprisingly those with four, as K4. Also, loosely connected on the racing scene, are canoes which are configured in the style that was used by the North American Indians, and are generally referred to as 'Canadians'. Single seat racing canoes are C1s and two-seaters C2s, but in the case of canoes there is no class above the double-seater.

Hull: Most modern racing kayaks are of one-piece fibreglass construction and the hull is moulded as a monocoque shell. A fairly average K1 (single) kayak in fibre-glass will usually weigh in at around 13 kilos, but much lighter boats of the same size can be made by using composites of fibre-glass, Kevlar and/or Carbon Fibre, which is a great advantage if the race includes having to carry the boat any great distance. (That's 'Portaging' by the way).

Tippiness: By their very nature kayaks are quite unstable and easy to fall out of, particularly when stationary. When occupied, the overall centre of gravity is above the waterline making it top heavy and requiring some sort of a balancing act to be performed by its occupant. Beginners kayaks are designed to be as stable as possible, which is largely achieved by an increase in the width of the hull around the cockpit area, so that if the boat heels over, and the paddler becomes less than perpendicular, the shape of the hull displaces a greater amount of water which tends to resists the rolling motion. Just as a handy reference, kayak manufacturers rate the 'tippiness' of their racing canoes with a 'wobble factor' between 1 and 10 so that would-be racers can get an indication of how likely they are to fall out of any particular craft. Kayaks rated at 10 are the most stable and those rated 1 are the least so, and almost impossible to stay in.

Buoyancy: When it comes to floundering around in the water you really don't need the kayak to sink every time you capsize, as it's very comforting to have something to hang on to when your feet can't feel the river's bottom. Consequently, kayaks have a built in buoyancy aid, usually in the form of a large block of plastic foam at the widest part of the boat, just behind the front seat. The foam block also doubles as a former to maintain the shape of the hull.

Buoyancy Aid: Equally so, you personally, don't need to sink each time you fall out of the kayak, which can occur with monotonous regularity. To keep your head above water you should use a 'Buoyancy Aid' (also known as 'BA' for short, or PFD, Personal Flotation Device). This is a tight-fitting waistcoat type of affair that is padded out with foam blocks that will add buoyancy to your vulnerable, little pink body. It should be noted that this is not the same thing as a lifejacket which will not only keep you afloat but hold you in a position where your face is out of the water. This has the added benefit to enable you to continue breathing if by some mischance you have been rendered unconscious. A BA does not have that degree of sophistication, it only helps to keep you afloat.

Rudder: Not all kayaks have them. The beginner's boats very often are not 'blessed' with one as for a beginner it's usually quite enough to cope with staying upright and paddling at the same time. Directing the boat by varying the stroke on each side is often enough to send the boat around in circles anyway. But once advanced beyond beginner-ship the rudder is thrown in as an extra hazard to cope with, and there are two types. The under-stern rudder simply pokes out under the boat near the rear end and despite its small size is very effective. But it is prone to being fouled by river weed or damaged when the boat is manhandled in or out of the water. The over-stern rudder overcomes these problems by being attached to the very rear point of the boat's hull and is collapsible so that if fouled or knocked, it folds out of the way. Its only detraction is that it has to be larger to be as effective as the under-stern option.

Tiller and Footplate: The rudder is connected to a foot-operated tiller by flexible cables which run the length of the boat. The tiller is attached to, and protrudes from, a crosswise slot in a footplate. Together these allow the paddler to guide the boat by movement of the toes while bracing his/her self to apply power to the paddle.

Paddle: The Kayak paddle has two blades, one on each end of a central shaft as opposed to a Canoe's paddle which has only the one. Generally, there are three types of kayak paddle. The basic paddle has a blade that is flat and symmetrical when looked at face-on, and doesn't give very much of a mechanical advantage over two flat boards nailed to the ends of a broom-handle. The second type is the Asymmetrical paddle. The difference is that the lower edge of the blade, (the edge that enters the water first), has a cut-away outer end which makes for a cleaner entry into the water. The whole surface of the blade is also curved to help to prevent water 'spilling' over the end of the blade. Both of these paddles have the blades offset to one-another at an angle usually about 45 degrees. The reason for this angular difference, termed the 'feathering', is so that when the blade is out of the water and is on the return part of the stroke, ie up in the air, it is edge-on to the direction of travel and giving the least drag resistance against its forward motion.

The third type of paddle, referred to as the 'Wing' type, is probably the most efficient of the three, but it requires a modified stroke by the paddler to utilise that potential extra efficiency. The blade is shaped rather like an aeroplane's wing aerofoil with a definite concave 'spoon' shape to the inner face. During the stroke the blade has to enter the water as near to vertical as possible and the motion of the stroke moves it outward diagonally at about 30 degrees away from the side of the boat. This motion through the water, like the aeroplane wing, not only pushes against the water but produces lift on the forward face of the blade which should produce a greater forward motion for any given effort.

All paddles are made in different lengths to suit the individual paddler and can be right or left handed. To get the correct sized fit, the complete paddle should just fit under your fingertips when it is stood vertically next to you and your arm is raised up to the tip of the paddle.

Skeg: This is a small retractable fin on the underside of the hull. It is mainly used on sea-going kayaks to minimise sideward drift caused by wind on the hull's profile area. It's retractable into the hull to minimise drag when not required, but they are not usually used on racing kayaks. Sometimes there is a small v-shaped fin just in front of an under-stern rudder on racing kayaks which is often incorrectly referred to as the 'Skeg'. Its purpose is to assist with the directional stability of the boat in the same manner as a flight feathers on an arrow. It also helps to ward off weed from fouling the rudder.

Cagoule: Otherwise the 'Cag'. A one-piece waterproof over-garment for wet weather touring. It has waterproof seals at the wrists and neck to keep out rain and spray. The BA is worn over the Cag.

Spraydeck: A shaped waterproof sheet that is elasticised around the edge to fit around the cockpit coaming and the paddlers torso, preventing water spray getting into the cockpit.

Pogie: A mitten-like glove that fits over the paddle shaft to provide a water and wind-proof handhold protection on the paddle during cold weather. A gloved hand can be inserted into the pogie to prevent icing up of the extremities.

Dry-bag: A waterproof bag with a watertight seal to store articles that need to be kept dry during an excursion. They come in various sizes to store anything from a change of clothing to a mobile phone.

Naming the boat

It may seem a tad ostentatious but I have been toying with the idea of giving my kayak a name, and a couple of options have occurred to me. One is 'Kingfisher', not necessarily because of that little bird's propensity to throw itself into the water and that I'm likely to follow suit, but because I just happen to have a hang-up from the time when the very first Dan Dare story appeared in the Eagle comic of the '50s, and featured an ill-fated spacecraft of that name. I dunno why that seems appealing but it's always stayed with me since reading that original copy way back then. But in view of that Kingfisher's fate, perhaps it's not such a good choice. The other option is to name it after Mrs D who has supported this venture since its inception. I'm fairly sure that most women would be pleased to have a boat named after them, but the only thing is that I fancy that Mrs D's expectation of said boat would be something more of a floating gin-palace than a kayak.

So... do I or not? Answers on a postcard please....

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