Saturday, May 28, 2005

So many kayaks!

Ahhh...what a lovely Brooklyn day. Every now & then I need one of those - just a nice, quiet day where my face is not seen outside of the borough of Brooklyn & if I set foot in the mass transit system at all, it's to bring home a load of groceries. Or maybe go to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I slept in until an hour I don't want to admit, the apartment's, well, reasonably tidy, and there's a big pot of lamb curry gently simmering on the stove which should be scrumptious after a night in the fridge lets all the flavors mingle...aaah. Life is good, as they say.

The symposium last weekend was a lot of fun - as you could probably tell if you went to look at the pictures of all those happy people in boats I linked to a couple of days ago! I think a whole lot of learning happened there; the proprietor of Hudson Valley Outfitters seemed quite happy by the end, as did the instructors & the students.

As I mentioned, I'd never participated in a symposium before & certainly not as an instructor. I'd heard a lot of stories from other symposiums, good and bad - on the good side, the stories were of these amazing weekends where skilled instructors and paddlers from all over came to meet, share skills, laugh together, fall in the water, make fools of themselves cheerfully (I'm sorry, but if you can't make a fool of yourself cheerfully kayaking may not be the right sport for you - there's nothing dignified about learning rescues, or rolling, or even getting out of your boat - if you can laugh as your boat-bound legs fail to work quite right and you land dry, but rolling on your back on the dock, you'll do great!), and enjoy a couple of beers (mmm and we had s'mores at this one too - toasted marshmallows don't go well with beer but they go VERY well BETWEEN beers, y'know?). The stories I've heard from people who came back from various symposiums less satisfied were generally stories about instructors who were busier showing each other what hotshots they were than imparting skills to the participants. Fortunately I've heard more of the former than the latter. At any rate, I went into this figuring that if I was ready to just be flexible & go with the flow, it would go well.

An interesting aspect of this symposium was that it was really a general kayaking symposium. I would say - possibly erroneously, I'm just going on my gut sense of what I've heard - that most symposia are a little more specialized - American Canoe Association, or British Canoe Union, or Greenland - I suppose there are whitewater symposia too although I am less aware of how things happen in whitewater-land. This one was, well, sort of an "interfaith" workshop.

To the non-paddler, the divisions in the paddling world may not be that clear. Assuming that not everyone that reads Frogma is actually a paddler, I think I'll just do a little rundown here - Know Your Kayaks. Kayak 101, shall we say.

For starters, let's go to for a definition, courtesy of the American Heritage Dictionary:

VARIANT FORMS: also kai·ak
NOUN: 1. An Inuit or Eskimo boat consisting of a light wooden frame covered with watertight skins except for a single or double opening in the center, and propelled by a double-bladed paddle. 2. A lightweight canoe that is similar in design.
VERB: Inflected forms: kay·aked, kay·ak·ing, kay·aks
INTRANSITIVE VERB: To go, travel, or race in a kayak.
TRANSITIVE VERB: To go or travel on (a body of water) by kayak: kayaked rapids of the Colorado River.
ETYMOLOGY: Canadian and Inuit qajaq.

So, there you have it. I am a kayaker who has kayaked in a kayak. Boy that sounds dopey. Oh well, what was I saying about making a fool of yourself cheerfully being a prerequisite (or at least helpful) when learning to kayak? There you are.

Warning to experienced paddles - Uh oh. I sense a basics lecture coming on. Call me selfish but I think it might be fun to just sit here & list all the different boats I know about & what I know about each kind. heh heh. You may or may not find it entertaining. You may rather go practice rolling. On the other hand if I've missed anything, heck, I'm just brain-dumping here, say something in the comments!

BTW I will offer a list of links showing the various types of kayaks I'm about to describe at the end, just to avoid too much hyperlink giddiness.

About that definition - here's a note I've always found interesting. The A.H.D. is actually being generous with their definitions compared to genuine Greenland paddlers - that is, paddlers who live in Greenland and don't have to look at the cheatsheet to remember the words "Ujaqqamik tigumisserluni" and know that that's the name for a hand roll performed while holding an 7kg brick (worth 9 points if done sloppily & 10 if done perfectly). To these folks, a kayak - more properly spelled "qajaq", plural "qanaat" - is only the boat described in the dictionary's FIRST definition. To them, even my lovely, agile, reliable Nigel Dennis Kayaks Romany is not a kayak - it's a "qajariaq", which means "like a kayak". Close, but not the real thing. Hm - if a Romany is merely "like a kayak", I wonder what an Ocean Kayak would be called...oh, the mind reels...

Anyways, for convenience's sake I'm going to go with the American Heritage Dictionary version. Without further ado, here are the types of kayaks I can recall & describe off the top of my mind.

The major subdivisions are sea kayaks, whitewater kayaks, and flatwater kayaks.

Sea kayak varieties:

Common materials - Skin-on-frame, Plastic, Fiberglass, Carbon Fiber, Kevlar, Wood (strip or stitch & glue).

Sit-atops - This is the term for the version you'd most commonly run into a kayak stand at a resort in the Bahamas - generally a relatively flat-bottomed, stable boat (although there is at least one maker that offers a more traditional hull shape). The paddler is actually sitting on top of the boat, in a slightly sunken well molded with a seat & a series of dents for footrests. I wouldn't trade my Romany for one of these and a thousand bucks but neither am I gonna talk stink about them, really - I have had a lot of fun knocking around Kailua & Kaneohe Bay on one of these - it's nice to get sun on your legs, and in hot weather it's nice 'cause you can jump on & off - plus great for snorkeling. On the minus side - well, these are super user-friendly boats, pretty much anyone can jump on one & move it around no problem, which is, on the surface, a plus - but that's also a problem because it's really easy for one of these user-friendly boats to quietly carry a novice into non-user-friendly conditions (there's a local proponent of sitatops who cheerfully refers to a certain very stable make as "idiot-proof boats" - this always drives me crazy because anybody who knows anything about boats knows that "idiot-proof boat" is a HUGE oxymoron & IMHO anybody who thinks there is such a thing is profoundly misguided...sorry, had to give in to minirant there). The ubiquity of sit-atops at tropical resorts is a constant source of headaches to outfitters who run trips in less forgiving waters - if I had a dime for every time I had to explain to someone that a few jaunts on a sitatop in the Caribbean does not an experienced sea kayaker make & that they really should take Paddle Basics before attempting a tour back when I was working at Manhattan Kayak, I'd at least have gotten enough over 3 years for a really good sushi dinner. Sorry, just a little grumble...

Don't ask me about the Hobie sit-atops with the pedal-driven penguin flippers. Answer is - I don't know.

Decked kayaks - Now this is what I would think of if you said "sea kayak" to me. Some sit-atops are very seaworthy & a good paddler can do well in them, but this is the sort of classic design that came to us from the original "qajaqs". I think the shortest ones I've run across are 14 or 15 feet long - most are 16 or more, max hull speed is directly proportional to the waterline of the boat (size matters here!) & sea kayaking generally involves covering some miles, so the person in a 14' boat is going to be at a huge disadvantage paddling with people in 18-footers. I even find myself having to work when I paddle with my friends in my good old cow-pony Romany - they all seem to have switched up to 17 or 18 footers & while I adore my Romany for how she handles & the way she just sits herself down & surfs in conditions where all the other boats are just wallowing, at 16 feet, she just ain't the fastest boat out there. There's no one-size-fits-all decked sea kayak, designs try to combine speed, stability & manueverability but there tend to be tradeoff - longer boat will be faster, but harder to turn - that sort of thing is just inherent in the physics of the way a boat moves through the water. A buyer just needs to know what they want from a boat & focus on that - and on what fits 'em, definitely no one-size-fits-all there - a boat that works great for one person may be lousy for another person. I've known people to struggle with not-quite-right boats for ages, get very frustrated, and then switch to another boat and suddenly, voila, all better. Definitely good to try boats, and lots of boats, and take lessons too, before buying a boat - the big stable barge that is incredibly comforting to a beginner is going to get boring to that person as their skill level increases. That's probably true of all these boats I'm describing, not just decked sea kayaks. These boats are decked over; the paddler sits with their legs inside the boat, wearing a sprayskirt attached to an oval or round coaming. That way, you're sealed in, making the entire boat a watertight unit (although due to the fact that a paddler can fall out, a sea kayak HAS to have positive flotation, either from inflatable bladders called "float bags" that fit in the bow & stern, or from bulkheads just aft of the paddler's seat & forward of the paddler's feet that form airtight compartments fore & aft). Extremely seaworthy in the hands of a skilled paddler.

Surfskis - these are FUN for experienced paddlers that like to go fast (although Bob Twogood makes a great one for less advance paddlers, but then he can teach anybody to use a surfski, he's awesome). They're racing boats; they are open boats with the paddler sitting in a well. they tend to be longer that the average sea kayak and very narrow. They tend to be very tippy when sitting still - but once you get moving it's sort of like a bicycle where the faster you go, the steadier you are. Because they're all about going fast, they steer with rudders, so there's no wasting time with turning strokes. You do get very good at braces (slapping a paddle blade flat down on the surface of the water to keep yourself upright) when you're first learning to use one of these!

Marathon racing kayaks - Sort of like a cross between a surfski & a sea kayak - long, skinny, fast & not wildly stable, steers with a rudder, but you do have a deck & are sealed in with a sprayskirt.

Waveskis & other surf kayaks - these are the kind I'd say I know least about - waveskis are basically surfboards with a seat & footwells - there are also decked kayaks that are designed along the same lines. Designed to be nimble, super-manueverable surf boats.

With the waveskis & surf kayaks, you're almost making the transition into

Whitewater boats!

Common materials:

Don't worry, I know less about these kinds so this'll be shorter - just like the boats! In whitewater, you're generally going to be moving with the current, so overall hull speed doesn't matter as much as manueverability. Whitewater boats spin like tops. They also roll really easily, especially rounder-hulled old-skool riverboats, most rolling classes at which I've taught have used these which is why I know even the limited amount I do (whitewater is Amazingly, Incredibly Fun but I don't have a CAR to GET to the whitewater which is all OUT OF TOWN so I've only gotten to do it a couple of times)

Basically, uh, let's see, I've heard of...

Materials - Mostly plastic 'cause you're going to be bouncing off rocks - squirt boats do come in fiberglass & I imagine they'd do the carbon fiber or kevlar as well (don't know that for sure though).

Playboats. These are short little boats, very chiselled-looking with lots of edges to bite into the water. They tend to be pretty low volume fore & aft so that you can get your bow or stern to slice into the water for cartwheels & endo's, planing hulls for better surfing & flat spins. These boats are totally designed for what the whitewater tribe refers to collectively as "throwing down". They can be a bit on the twitchy side for a beginner - for whom a boat that's not really designed to be right-side-up all the time is not necessarily a good thing. RCS, who taught me a LOT of what I know early on in my sea kayaking career, is also a good whitewater paddler - he tells really funny stories about how guides frequently get entirely brand-new kits, boats and all, when beginners buy these things, almost drown themselves several times over, and eventually just hide the entire setup in the bushes by the river, hike back to their car, and go home to consider safer hobbies.

River Boats - OK - not sure if that's exactly the right term - I would also think of these as "old school" whitewater boats. Slightly longer, rounder-hulled (displacement hulls rather than planing), and a lot less slicey than a playboat, I'd say these are more about getting from point A to point B than a playboat, which is more about finding a good hole at Point A & staying there doing tricks until courtesy demands you give the next guy or gal a turn. Great boats for learning to roll - or honing your Greenland technique, there're a couple of Dagger Crossfires up at the classes I was teaching at this winter & I had a bad habit of hogging those.

Squirt Boats - these are extremely low volume boats designed to get under the surface of the water. I guess some of the more slicey playboats are almost squirty but of all the kinds of kayaks these are the most mysterious to me. And that's a joke 'cause what I tend to think of (from my sea-kayaker perspective) as the hallmark of squirtboaters is actually a thing called a "mystery move" where the entire boat sinks from view...and if the squirtboater's really good the paddler does too. sounds pretty cool...

And then you have your flatwater boats...primarily 2 very different types, one very advanced, one just for kicks:

Advanced - Flatwater racing kayaks (called K-1, K-2, K-3, etc, the number indicates the number of paddlers the boat holds). These are the ones you see in the Olympics on the flatwater course. Very light, very fast, very round-bottomed & unstable; they steer with a foot-controlled rudder; the paddler is attached to the boat with a sprayskirt but unlike most decked kayaks, your thighs don't really have anything to grab onto (your legs are really working in the racing stroke so they actually need the free play that you gain by not having thigh braces) so it's not really a rollable setup, if you flip it's pretty much swim the boat to the nearest dock for a remount. I got to paddle one of these once up at Lake Sebago, where the ACA has a camp, and I had a blast - it was so funny, the first time I capsized, my sea-kayak instinctive roll tried to kick in & I found myself in sort of a compromise of a halfway-up brace - but then the brain started to work & said "Nothing to get purchase on to bring THIS one the rest of the way up!". They do move, though. Good fun. Materials - Fiberglass, carbon fiber, kevlar (lighter weight=faster!)

Then you have the user-friendly, just for fun flatwater boats - those are

Beginner - Recreational. These are your Loons, your Kiwis, your kicking-around-the-pond boats. Again, some kayakers look down their noses at these guys but once again - I've had a lot of fun playing around with one of these that Auntie K & Canoe-Buildin' Uncle own in Michigan - in fact one of my most memorable wildlife encounters involved a full-moon paddle in that boat on the Manistee River where I found myself in the middle of an extremely hard-working beaver colony (that was WAY cool). However, if I saw somebody getting ready to launch one of these onto the Hudson River at Pier 63 I would definitely swallow my deep-seated innate aversion to playing Ms. Big-Shot 4-Star Paddler and go ask them nicely just what the hell they think they are, I wouldn't say "hell". But I'd definitely grill them. As gently as possible. Rec boats are great fun in the right place - the right place being the sheltered ponds & gentle rivers for which they are designed.

And then you have inflatables - once again, a lot of people look down their snoots at these guys & I would not trade my Romany for one, but my first non-raft whitewater experience was in a "ducky" rented from the Nantahala Outdoor Center and MAN that was fun! It was also my 2nd EVER whitewater experience, 1st was in a raft on the Ocoee River in North Carolina & I liked that so much I dragged the whole family into doing this ducky adventure the next day. And there's also a lady by the name of Audrey Sutherland who's written a whole book about her adventures paddling an inflatable kayak in Hawaii, it's called Paddle My Own Canoe - again, in the hands of a good paddler, great fun, but with the one odd drawback of being maybe a little too user-friendly to the point that an unwary novice could find that this easy-to-use boat has delivered him or her into some hard-to-handle conditions.

Well...that's all the types of kayaks I can think of right now! OK, quick, somebody tell me what I missed. That was definitely entertaining, for me at least - and I might even edit it down some for use as a handout in the event I ever find myself teaching an Intro to Kayaks type class (and they had one of those at the symposium & unless they changed their minds about me, I think I will get invited to come back next time).

Diff'rent boats for diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks - now here's the pix!

Ocean Kayaks - your basic flat-bottomed, very stable, resort-type sit-atop - the Scupper Pro I've linked to is actually pretty good, it's long enough to maintain a reasonable speed & "tracks" (goes in a straight line) better than some of the shorter one
Heritage Kayak - sit-atops designed to handle more like a traditional sea kayak - not bad boats at all (funky suntan alert - to edge these boats you use the thighstraps - we had a client at MKC that ended up sporting stripes on her legs for quite some time!)

Decked Kayaks - a few representative samples:
QANAAT. "Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby"...although I do rather like my

Romany - qajariaq or not, darned good boat...

and then there's strip-built or stitch-and-glue (at this point I'm getting lazy, there's a site that has both).



Marathon kayak (mmm...looks schpeedy)


playboat (Riot Orbit - btw that's kind of normal behavior for a playboater)

river boats, creek boats, old school, this site's calling 'em "general purpose"...sigh, I should ask my whitewater friend what HE would call these - anyways, there's the Dagger Crossfire, #2 on the list - you'll notice the hulls on these are longer, and more rounded - the one that one that looks like Darth Vader's kayak, the Riot Booster, that's getting a little more into playboat turf - actually I must mention, my definitions of the 3 common schools of whitewater boats may be a little misleading, there's more of a continuity from big, long stable boats good for beginners & folks who don't need to "throw down" to have a nice day on the river down to skinnier, edgier, sliceier boats. It's just like sea kayak design where the designer decides what they want the boat to be good at, and then shape the hull to try to make it do that well, and the buyer needs to decide what they want to do with that boat & then find one that suits their needs & ability - no one-size-fits-all here either.

Squirt boats (enough commentary already...


Olympic champion Greg Barton in a K-1 (all those people that find my blog doing google searches for "shirtless athletes" - well, here you are, and if that's not good enough for you...well, what's WRONG with you?

Recreational kayaks - silly little boats but great fun in the right place!

That's it! Yay, I'm DONE! Them's the boats, folks! Sorry that took so long, congrats if you actually made it to the end...I bet if you did, you're a paddler...

The good thing is, now I've done it & next time I start making references to types of boats, I can point to here for the less-informed but curious.

Now I can get back to talking about the symposium on my next post!

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