A canoe and paddle


Kayaks & Canoes

Can you see yourself, with the eye of your mind, on a warm sunny day, exploring the shallow bays and secluded beaches, going where no other boat can go, sometimes only 10-15 cm of water below you, sometimes out there crossing a deep, moving silently over the sparkling surface in total harmony with the nature around you, all the time surprising fish that feed and bask in the sun on the surface as you get only 2-3 m close, using the strength of your body to slide ahead...

A kayak and its paddle

Riding a canoe (the picture above) or a kayak (the picture to the left) is a unique experience that you can truly appreciate only once you've tried it. They are rather different in style and general purpose. The first thing you notice, a kayak top is covered except for the cockpit in the center (if it is a single-kayak; a double has two cockpits), while a canoe is open almost in its full length. Then, the paddle you use is completely different. With a kayak, you always use somewhat longer two-blade paddle. Better quality kayak paddle blades are positioned at about 760 (a natural range of twist of your wrist) relative to each other, with a difference in the direction of the twist between a right-handed and a left-handed paddle, and an oval-shaped shaft where your hand knows the position of the blade without you looking at it. A canoe paddle is much simpler, shorter and single bladed, and you control the direction by changing the blade angle in the water, changing the side where you paddle, or by using it from time to time as a rudder.

A kayak has relatively limited load-carrying capabilities. It may have one or two sealed hatches in its ends through which you can access the cargo compartments, in which case it is called a touring kayak. It may also carry some light, not bulky items tied down on its deck. But that option must not be over-used, as any weight higher up makes the kayak less stable and easier to turtle-pitch (turn upside down). Unless specially designed, wider in beam to increase their load-carrying capacity, larger single touring kayaks are designed to carry about 120-150 kg of total weight, which includes you.

Most kayaks are singles. Much less frequent are double kayaks, with two cockpits, one behind the other.

Canoes can be much bigger in size, designed to carry more substantial loads and/or larger number of people. When they grow in size, typically their length is extended, while the beam remains narrow enough that the rowers sitting one behind the other can still paddle at either side.

Like for the any other boat, the type of use determines the choice of the design parameters. If you plan to fish, or take a friend or two, a wider and roomier canoe is the obvious choice. If you prefer to sit almost like in a chair, and to occasionally move around the boat, again the choice is a canoe.

You don't move around once sat in a typical kayak. You move together with it, not within it. You sit wedged between the seat, the foot braces and the knee braces (if your kayak has them), almost like wearing your kayak. You move your arms and your torso to paddle, while the muscles of your legs rhythmically contract and relax in tune with your paddling strokes without your legs moving. Unless designed extra wide and roomy, sacrificing speed and directional stability, kayaks are not very good for fishing. But than, a kayak is generally much faster than a comparable canoe, much better in choppy waters, much more stable and capable than a comparable canoe. As in a kayak you sit very low down, with better designs even below the water surface, you add additional stability with your own weight. Compared to that, in a canoe you sit much higher, so the craft has to be wider in order to maintain stability. But increased width may feel safer in calm waters, yet it will adversely impact the canoe's wave handling.

Kayak Experiences

Paddling a well designed kayak gives you one of the very best physical exercises, and far more interesting than a floor static rowing unit at home or in a gym. Again, depending on purpose, kayaks are designed in different ways:

  • White water kayaks are short, wide and rounded. Not very fast in calm waters, requiring constant direction corrections, they are designed for quick manoeuvrability between rocks in rapids.
  • Calm water kayaks are long, designed for speed (long waterline).
  • Fast sea going kayaks are long, with additional accent on good stability (low center of gravity) and good buoyancy that pulls the kayak quickly out of the wave.
  • Sit-on kayaks, some hybrids that are called kayaks, yet are more like some open-plan canoes, where you sit on top. Typically with a wider beam and slower, this is the only design where you can climb back up without any special skills if knocked down by a rogue wave.

When paddling your kayak in waves, it is essential that you wear a tight spray skirt attached around the coaming of the cockpit. All white water kayakers do, and so should anyone using the kayak in an area with waves higher than 5 cm. As kayaks have low sides, without a spray skirt you are at risk that any wave comparable to your side (20-30 cm) may splash into the cockpit and fill it. Any passing boat may create waves like that and inadvertently put you in trouble. And for those people worried how would they get out of the kayak if capsized when strapped into a spray skirt, you may try that in calm conditions: It is much easier to kick out of the kayak's cockpit, even if strapped in with a spray skirt, than to stay in. Besides, we should all learn the basic techniques of the Eskimo roll (more about that later), stay firmly wedged in the cockpit and roll up again.

A narrower kayak is effectively more stable

Fast sea-going kayaks are long and reasonably narrow. A good example is the K520, with only 53 cm beam and 5.20 m (17 ft) LOA. A well designed narrow kayak is more responsive and effectively more stable on waves. You can react and lean against the wave in a narrow kayak faster than in a wide one. When hit by a wave, especially from the side, you can react much easier and much faster by tilting against it to prevent a capsize. A good kayak design achieves stability by keeping a low center of gravity. As you are by far the heaviest component in that, the design of the cockpit and your seat are very important. You should sit practically below the water surface, acting as a stabilizing element.

In addition, one of the very basic skills to master is how to stabilize your kayak with every stroke of your paddle. Your paddle, while on the move, offers a very significant support. Once you get a good, almost-instinctive feel of that, you will be able to keep your balance in almost all cases by just lowering the paddle blade into the water.

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Last upd: 19-Aug-10 F150806