The precise origin of kayaking remains obscure, although we do know that the Inuit1 were the first to practice it. According to some historians, the word “kayak” stands for “clothing to move in the water”, as this vessel was built following the exact measures of the paddler. Other scholars, however, believe that the term actually means “man-boat”.
The Inuit also created special garments for this activity – such as the anorak, made with bird guts, among other materials -, and developed a type of spray skirt that covered all but the face of the paddler.
Furthermore, the Inuit coined techniques such as the roll, which allowed them quick recovery of their upright position after overturning, as exposure to the ice-cold water would kill them after a few seconds, not to mention the fact that these people had no swimming knowledge.
In modern times
In 1865, a Scottish attorney named John MacGregor rowed the Thames on a vessel built in accordance with Inuit standards. This kayak, wholly built in cedar and oak, was 15 feet long by 30 inches wide.
While gaining mastery of the kayaking technique, MacGregor published his experiences, and thus attracted a large number of enthusiasts. As a result, The Royal Canoe Club came into being, the first kayaking club in the world.
In 1880, the American Canoe Association was founded in the United States, although more inclined to the Canadian canoe.
In 1885, Fridtjof Nansen from Norway made use of kayaks in his attempt to reach the North Pole, especially during his return trip, when he was forced to travel on water courses formed on the ice masses.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Italy organized an expedition to the North Pole known as Polar Star. Amadeo, Duke of Aosta and expedition leader, reported having had the occasion of using small kayaks as dog-pulled sleds. The Duke was most likely referring to the “pulkas”, reindeer-pulled vessels similar to kayaks used by Laplanders to travel on the snow.
In the year 1900, an architecture student from Munich named Alfred Heurich built a dismountable kayak model in wood and glued canvas which he christened “Dolphin”. Five years later, he sold his patent rights to Johann Klepper, a tailor from Rosenheim, soon to become a powerful businessman through the manufacturing of dismountable kayaks designed with the aid of Carl Luther, a seaman. These vessels were light, easy to dismount and transport, and became quite popular in Germany, so much so that kayaking was incorporated as a discipline in the Olympic Games held in Berlin during 1936.
The French Canoeing Federation was established in 1904, more oriented towards Canadian canoeing than to kayaking. The Monneret brothers imported these canoes, and rivalry started building between the supporters of the kayak – a faster and more agile vessel – and those favoring the canoe – more stable and with higher capacity. In 1909, C. E. Layton crossed the English Channel on a Klepper kayak.
Long outings became popular, and in 1923 Karl Schott rowed on a Klepper kayak from Germany to India.
During the summer of 1927, a rower from the Vienna Kayak Club named Hans Eduard Pawlatta, following the reports of explorers Nansen and Jophansen, perfected the roll technique, making it simpler and more efficient. This maneuver remained in history as the Eskimo-Pawlatta technique, and helped kayakers lose their fear of overturning in rapids, thus making the sport even more popular. Pawlatta was also the first to roll using his bare hands, without the aid of a paddle.
One of the most significant voyages ever recorded took place in the spring of 1932. Oskar Speck from Germany rowed solo on a double kayak for seven years, covering a total distance of 34,175.42 miles.
Heinz Peppenberger was another great touring kayaker, one of the first to navigate Southeast Asia. He took off from the Gulf of Siam, arriving seven years later in the city of Hong Kong after covering a distance of 26,719 miles.
In 1933, Fridel Meyer rowed the eastern coastline of Great Britain, in a much-publicized voyage.
At the request of Austrian enthusiasts, in 1932, the IRK – the first international organization in the field, founded on January 19, 1924 – set a scale of grades of difficulty, from 1 to 6, that was applied until the end of the 1970s.
The first true slalom competition took place in 1933, in Switzerland.
After the war
During the war, some commando groups began using kayaks to travel on water.
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) was founded at the end of the Second World War.
In 1956, Dr. Hannes Lindemann succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on a two-seat Klepper Aerius II kayak. He set off from Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, carrying 176 pounds in his hold, and reaching St. Martin 72 days later, after covering nearly 3,729 miles.
A new kayak model based on the downriver canoe was introduced for the 1959 competition. Anton Prijon, a rower from New Gorica, Slovenia who later became a German national, also patented a type of paddle with an oval spoon-shaped blade, and used for the first time a neoprene spray skirt.
The 1970s marked the end of the Klepper canvas kayak monopoly with the use of plastic reinforced with fiberglass.
In 1971, Tom Derrer set up Eddyline Kayaks in Boulder, Colorado. Furthermore, the kayaking technique was refined when Milo Duffek coined a maneuver presently known after him, which allows the swift movement of the bow, essential to carry out a quick turn between two opposed water currents.
In 1976, Perception was established in the US, yet another leading business in the field of kayaking.
In 1981, Anton Prijon procured a gigantic 131-feet-high machine for the manufacture of kayaks through a new extrusion method known as “blow molding”. The first kayak of the type was thus achieved in 1982. Known as the “Taifun”, it proved to be much more resistant and flexible.
In 1993, Prijon launched the “Hurricane”, the first kayak to be wholly designed on a computer.
In more recent years, we have witnessed a wide surge of kayaking at world level. New materials and designs brought faster and safer vessels. We hope the future will bring many more kayaking enthusiasts.
‘Inuit’ is the term preferred by the inhabitants of the Artic to refer to themselves over the white-imposed ‘Eskimo’, as ‘Inuit’ means ‘man’, while ‘Eskimo’ literally means ‘raw meat eater’.