The Art of Kayak

Nick Schade grew up around canoes and other boats, so after he graduated from college in 1986, he thought he’d get a sea kayak.



Nick Schade grew up around canoes and other boats, so after he graduated from college in 1986, he thought he’d get a sea kayak. But the dealers’ offerings were too expensive for someone just starting out. So he did what kayakers have done for thousands of years: He pulled some materials together and built his own. “I sat down on my parents’ living-room floor and planned out a kayak from looking at tiny pictures in a magazine,” he recalls. He made the boat out of thin cedar strips, bending them around a form and gluing the ends together, then coating the finished boat in fiberglass and epoxy. Impressed, Schade’s older brother asked for the plans and made a kayak for himself. Then Schade made another, and another. In a few years, while he was working as an engineer for the United States Navy in Connecticut, he had created Guillemot Kayaks, a sideline business selling plans to boaters and woodworkers.

In 1995, Guillemot became his full-time job. Ever since, that business—designing kayaks, building prototypes, selling plans, occasionally building a complete boat and always thinking up more designs—has thrived. As kayaking has increased in popularity, so has the mix of modernity and tradition that is involved in making, or even designing, one’s own boat: the great pleasure, as Schade puts it, of “converting a pile of nondescript strips of wood into a fine, fun, functional craft.”

For thousands of years, Arctic peoples made kayaks with frames of driftwood or whalebone, with hulls made from the skins of seals, sewn together and waterproofed with blubber. The boats were 16 or 17 feet long, less than 2 feet across at their widest, and after thousands of years of life-or-death testing and design evolution, they were perfect for their purpose: to carry hunters across often-rough seas in water so cold there was no point in learning to swim. Then, some 150 years ago, the kayak was adopted by other peoples, and went through several cycles of product evolution.

First, there was a phase in which traditional skills were diverted to new purposes. In the 19th century, for example, the Aleuts of the Pacific Northwest made their version of the kayak, the baidarka, in new forms that suited the purposes of their Russian colonial overlords (which were, above all, to hunt down every last sea otter they could). Then new workshops and craftspeople took up the “native” design: By the late 1800’s in Europe, canvas-and-wood versions of the kayak were being made by scores of new companies and sold to a growing middle class as a new kind of recreation. This phase led to the evolution of new shapes and sizes—stubby whitewater kayaks for shooting over rapids, broad “touring” boats for a quiet day on a lake, surfboard-like contraptions with indentations for seats that also include fish-finders and peddles for anglers, “folding boats” with frames like tent poles and hulls of thick polyurethane, and racing boats so knife-like they can’t stay upright unless they’re speeding forward.

Later, new materials and technology led to disruptive change; in the 1950’s, for instance, the availability of fiberglass permitted mass manufacture that more closely resembled the original Arctic designs. And in the 80’s, a new manufacturing technique—filling a mold with plastic pellets, then heating them until they melt together into the shape of the mold—allowed companies to make plastic kayaks, which were cheaper and less delicate, but they attracted many more people to the sport.

Yet this era of lower prices and mass marketing coincided with a resurgence of interest in the spirit and techniques with which kayaking began. For the past few decades, more and more paddlers have taken an interest in kayaks made by the hands that will paddle them, with material that has been neither synthesized nor extruded, but grown. Some have used wood (“nature’s own composite material,” Schade calls it) and fiberglass; others, wood and modern materials that mimic animal parts (for example, one kayak maker, Brian Schulz, uses artificial sinew for his thread and the type of nylon in bulletproof vests for his skin). The 1980’s, that decade of the “rotomolded” kayak, was also when writer George Dyson delved into the lore and physics of the Aleut baidarka, recreating those skin and wood boats with nylon and aluminum, and paddling his experiments for thousands of miles. (His book, “Baidarka,” is the best account of the culture, history and physics of these craft.) As the definition of “kayak” has been stretched across new purposes and materials, many paddlers have returned to its roots, with appreciation for the kayak makers’ ability to deal with unforgiving physics.

The problems that have to be solved to design one of these boats successfully might sound familiar to anyone who has tried to run an organization. A successful kayak design emerges from the tension between competing imperatives: Be sturdy but agile, fast but stable, simple to keep on course but easy to maneuver in quick-changing conditions, true to an ancient tradition but informed by the latest engineering, obedient to the laws of physics and the demands of a fickle market. “No aspect of a kayak functions in isolation,” Dyson has written. “It’s a series of compromises,” says Schade. “If you want maneuverability, you want the boat to be short; if you want fast, you want the boat to be long. If you want a fast, maneuverable boat, you’ve got to decide where you want to come out in between.” It is not a job for the impatient, or for anyone who doesn’t want to get their hands (literally) dirty and their feet (literally) wet. When Schade has a design idea that he believes will make a workable boat, he paddles the prototype for at least 1,000 miles before he’s convinced the design will work. Testing can easily take a year.

A well-designed boat stays upright in one of two ways. It can resist any shift in the alignment of the center of gravity and the center of buoyancy, “wanting” to stay level on the water (which calls for a broader hull with a flatter bottom). Or it can compensate well for tipping, by being shaped so that whenever the center of gravity moves, the center of buoyancy slides under it in time (which requires a narrower hull and a curved or even V-shaped bottom).

Keeping the paddler up is, of course, only the first of many design challenges. Slight variations in conditions— even in water temperature—will affect how quickly and easily the kayak does what the paddler needs it to do.

As a kayak moves forward, propelled by the paddle pushing rhythmically on one side and then the other, over and over, the water around it pushes back. In accordance with Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), the water displaced by the boat will come back. The act of displacing water creates waves at the bow and the stern, which also bump up against the boat and slow its progress. In other words, some of the resistance to a kayak’s motion is created by that motion itself.

Meanwhile, the natural waves of the sea also create resistance (the amount of which is a function of wave height and length), because as they well up, they increase the volume of water that the kayak has to push out of the way to advance. Moreover, unlike longer boats, kayaks must also reckon with the effects of wave frequency. All vessels in water experience a natural oscillation as they push water aside and the water then pushes back up. If this oscillation happens to match the frequency of waves hitting the boat, the effect of the waves can be amplified by mechanical resonance, bouncing the kayak around and slowing it further.

Water molecules are tightly bound and resist being pulled apart (which is why rain beads up into drops, and why you can fill a glass of water above the rim). This means every unit of water in the sea is subject to friction as it is tugged by other units of water that are moving faster or slower than it is. This friction gives every liquid, be it water or honey or mercury, its characteristic viscosity. Viscosity in paddling is the kayaker’s friend—it fosters an orderly relationship between a moving kayak and the water it passes through, in which (as Dyson quotes the 19th-century Scottish naval architect John Scott Russell to explain) “the whole skin of the ship is covered with a thin layer of water, which adheres to it firmly and travels with it; to this first film a second is attached, which moves with it but which has to drag along with itself a third resisting film, which sticks to it; a fourth, fifth and sixth film, all in the same manner hang on to one another, until at last we reach a film which stands still.” This “laminar flow” minimizes the water’s resistance to the boat’s forward motion.

Modern naval designers have a variety of conceptual tools to cope with these hydrodynamic challenges. There is, for example, the “prismatic coefficient” used by naval architects. The prismatic coefficient is found by dividing the size of the immersed section of a boat by the size of an imagined rectangle whose length is the length of the boat and whose width is the boat’s width at its widest point. (It is as if they were comparing the actual boat’s shape with that of a board from which that shape was sawed.) A kayak whose waterline tapers to delicate points has a prismatic coefficient around 0.45, Schade writes. A more canoe-like kayak with a blunter bow and stern might have one closer to 0.6. That boat will be capable of higher speeds, but if those higher speeds create turbulence, the resulting drag will make that higher speed impossible to maintain for long. As Schade puts it, “You don’t want a design that sacrifices efficiency at cruising speed for a maximum hull speed that will be used only in a sprint.”

In our 21st century of high-tech materials, computer-aided design, a globalized supply chain and precision manufacturing, there are many more possible solutions to challenges like these. Kayaks are made these days out of Kevlar and carbon fiber, and designed with the same tools used for yachts and battleships. Schade says he got an idea for one of his designs from a 1923 powerboat. “I saw a picture of it and thought to myself, ‘There’s a kayak in this,’ ” he says. Yet the fundamental insights into these challenges emerged in the Arctic thousands of years ago.

Each kayak must be fitted to the individual who will paddle it. After all, for thousands of years, each kayak was made by a particular man and his particular family, for his own particular body and requirements. (Dyson, for example, recounts how in 1933 an Aleut man named Black Stepan Britskalov explained his rules for building a baidarka: “diameter of the first man-hole, one lower arm plus the hand; width of the lower prow, three to four fingers, width of the upper prow, three to four fingers,” and so on.)

One of the biggest mistakes potential paddlers make is to assume that there is such a thing as the right kayak that works for everyone. “This one friend of mine,” Schade says, “he buys two or three boats a year, looking for the perfect boat. He’s switching so much he’s never improving himself. I like to say, ‘There’s no such thing as a fast boat, only a fast paddler.’ ”

You might say, then, that the kayak has come full circle: It is now, as it was thousands of years ago, the ultimate personalized product—a form of self-reliance and self-expression that weds the universal physics of motion and fluids with the needs and taste of the one adventurer who will take it out onto the waves.  

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