And so, what is a sea kayak? [41]

By Norm Sanders

A few months ago, Dave Winkworth and I attended a Sea Kayak training and evaluation session at Phillip Island, Victoria. During the long hours of driving, we discussed a lot of topics, one of which was: What is a sea kayak?

Some thoughts which emerged were:

  • a sea kayak is a narrow, decked craft propelled by a double bladed paddle in which the paddler sits in a cockpit capable of being covered with a waterproof membrane.
  • a sea kayak will generally be less than 20 feet long (a longer, single seat craft being difficult or impossible to manage in sea conditions which could be encountered).
  • a sea kayak will have no minimum length, but will be capable of being safely paddled after executing a re-entry and roll (this would preclude white water boats).
  • a sea kayak will have watertight bulkheads arranged to provide minimum cockpit volume and will have watertight hatches.
  • a sea kayak will have sufficient sheer to allow the craft to rise over waves instead of punching into them (this would rule out most flat water boats).

I put these thoughts on the Internet and got the following replies:

“Norm — The definitions seem to rule out sit-on-tops, some of which I gather can be good sea craft — eg. the Tsunami Ranger boats. Whatever you think of the Tsunami Rangers themselves, surely their boats are sea kayaks. On the other hand some sit-on-tops should really be ruled out — they are glorified barges. I’ll reflect on this.” — Nick

“Norm — you wrote: ‘l. A sea kayak is a narrow, decked craft propelled by a double bladed paddle in which the paddler sits in a cockpit capable of being covered with a waterproof membrane.’
“I would insert ‘human-powered’ in your definition to stop people fitting engines and sails and other evil stuff, and ‘with the occupant/s facing towards the bow’ to rule out rowing boats… and perhaps ‘with a non-planing hull’ to rule out those surf slipper things.
” ‘5. A sea kayak will have sufficient sheer to allow the craft to rise over waves instead of punching into them (this would rule out most flat water boats).’
“It would also rule out a number of ‘sea kayaks’ — the Rosco’s are almost straight and plough through anything. And what about that horrible English Vinek thing that John Wilde owns?
“What about bow to stern grab lines, towropes, etc?
“Perhaps you could get away with a much simpler definition: ‘A sea kayak is a kayak designed, constructed and fitted out to be able to be paddled safely in a wide range of open sea conditions.’
“Even the best designs should be given the flick if they are shoddily made, made out of minimum spec materials and not fitted out to go to sea.
“Sit-on-tops are problematic — they sort of look like kayaks and are powered as such, but they are probably closer to surf skis, which are pretty close to K1’s with a flared bow, and the ‘Rocket’ is somewhere in between.
“The problem is we are dealing with the continuum of human imagination and it is difficult to know where to draw the line.” — Jim

I also asked Chris Cunningham, Editor of the US ‘Sea Kayaker’ magazine and a builder of classic Inuit kayaks, to comment;

“Hi Norm — Thanks for giving me a look at the kayak definition piece. It is an interesting discussion. By the way, regarding your double paddle requirement, many of the Alaskan aboriginal paddlers used single bladed paddles (Aluets, Hooper Bay, Kodiak Island). Some even paddled from a kneeling position (Kodiak Island). I still think of their boats as kayaks.” — Chris

This interchange got us a lot closer to a working definition, but one basic point still has to be made. Nowhere did anyone say that a sea kayak is a CANOE with certain attributes. Nobody I know (with the possible exception of John Wilde) calls their sea kayak a canoe. If this is the case, why are all the bodies which oversee sea kayaking (Australian Canoe Federation, NSW Canoeing Board of Canoe Education, etc.) listed as CANOEING organisations?

Blame it on the POM’s (for our overseas web site visitors POM is an Australian name for English persons — not complimentary. Perhaps derived from early convict “Prisoner of Mother England”, thus POME, or more frequently, POMMIE Bastard. May also be a corruption of “Pong”, meaning to smell badly. Pom’s bathe only infrequently and NEVER wash their socks).

The bloody Pom’s, with typical Imperial hubris, simply called all indigenous paddle craft ‘canoes’ (which word comes from the Carib Indian ‘kanu’, later Spanish ‘canoe’). This linguistic arrogance also resulted in that transcontinental traveller, the short-tailed shearwater, being called a ‘Mutton Bird’ and the highly prized abalone a ‘Mutton Fish’. Perhaps all the bully beef had affected their taste buds.

Of course, for many years, explorers had been using native American canoes for their expeditions. These light, swift craft were ideal for the vast system of lakes, rivers and streams the New World offered. The Iroquois and Algonquins could quickly outdistance any European boats and were in demand for exploration. But when the white men and their Native canoeists met up with the Inuit in Northern Canada, the kayaks blew their doors off. The Inuit could paddle away from the Algonquins even more easily than the Algonquins could swamp the Europeans. Instead of finding out the true name of these racy craft, the unimaginative and linguistically challenged British simply called them ‘canoes’.

Now we are left with the problem of sorting out all this intellectual laziness. The Poms attempted to solve the dilemma by calling canoes ‘Canadian Canoes’. This may work in the UK and Australia, but brings blank stares in North America where a canoe is a canoe and a kayak is a kayak and all the canoes in Canada are Canadian.

The origin of the name ‘kayak’ is a bit obscure itself. Zimmerly used the title ‘Qajaq’ for his excellent book on the Kayaks of Siberia and Alaska. Qajaq is simply Inuit spelling for ‘kayak’. Of course the Inuit had no written language, and this spelling was invented by missionaries. Zimmerly doesn’t mention where the word came from in his book. It could well have been a local name which was picked up by the white men and spread by them as a generic term as a matter of linguistic convenience. If I understood Larry Gray correctly as he spoke about his Greenland experiences, sometimes each specific type and even individual kayak had a certain Inuit name. Chris Cunningham wrote “Qajaq shows up in HC Petersen’s ‘Skinboats of Greenland’ glossary as the Greenlandic term for a kayak.”

The Aleutian ‘Baidarka’ offers no clues. Baidarka simply means ‘small boat’ in Russian, the language of the first explorers of that vast chain of islands.

Anyway, what is a sea kayak? I like Jim Croft’s definition:

“A sea kayak is a kayak designed, constructed and fitted out to be able to be paddled safely in a wide range of open sea conditions.”

Whatever a sea kayak is, it is NOT a canoe. It is time to throw off the tyrannical yoke of sloppy Imperialistic language. Kayakers Of The World, Unite!

‘The End,’ or as us old time journalists say:

— 30 —

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