My first experience with a kayak was on the spring-maddened waters of a Colorado river. The experience lasted until the first "haystack," when the kayak and I parted company to continue separate paths down the stream. It should have confirmed my belief that kayaks were only for Eskimos stalking polar bear among Arctic ice floes and mysteriously equipped by nature to stay afloat in those fragile little vessels. Yet that first short voyage hooked me. In the years since then I have learned rather a lot about kayaks, though I don't claim to be in the same class as Nanook of the North.
A kayak basically is a decked canoe. Some experts maintain that to qualify as a kayak, the boat must be fabric covered, but in this day of fiber glass and plywood I believe it saves confusion to classify all decked canoes as kayaks whether they are folding or rigid, fabric or solidly skinned. Kayaks are designed as one-or two-man vehicles (singles or doubles), and either kind will usually carry an extra passenger for short distances if that passenger is small and loyal. Doubles supply company but require high skill in synchronization of the paddlers. Singles are easier to manipulate, but a bit lonely. If you do need company in your aquatic endeavors, perhaps the best solution is two singles paddling in company.
Kayaks are generally propelled with double paddles, the paddler sitting snugly in the bottom of the boat. The clue to success here is the if "snugly." If the paddler is given proper hip, back, knee and foot support, if he doesn't have to fight to avoid sliding about, he becomes one with the boat. With its crew properly chocked, a kayak is very difficult to up set because of the low, nonsliding center of gravity that the seated paddler pro vides. Comparison to the high kneeling weight of a paddler in the standard canoe should illustrate the difference an. serve to explain the heroic voyages that kayaks have sometimes accomplished.
Facilities for storage and travel and the use to which you will put your kayak dictate to some extent the type of kayak you use. If you dwell in a cave high above the bustling city or qualify as a starving student without garage and automobile, then a fabric-covered, folding kayak is your best bet. I have pitched my folded kayak into railroad baggage cars all over Europe and been happily received. In this country I have hitchhiked and ridden buses with the thing, but for the latter means of transport, a tough skin and the ability to stare with dark Slavic intensity at the driver while paying your fare is a helpful adjunct to success. The fabric-covered folding kayak is generally lighter than its rigid counterpart and, with its slightly flexible frame, is held by some to be better able to endure the shocks of white-water paddling (remember, that lovely white stuff is caused by rocks). For long-distance paddling, the lightness of the folding kayak is offset by the increased wetted surface formed when the water pressure forces the fabric in between the longerons. A kayak moves at low speeds, and skin friction caused by wetted surface comprises about 75% of the total resistance of the boat. Hence the popularity of rigid kayaks, which retain their shape even in long and strenuous traveling.
The best kayak for a beginner is generally called the sport model. Many people prefer sponsons, but others feel safe with air bladders for flotation for that capsize which they hope will never occur. Do not, in any size, get a kayak with much over 30 inches of beam (28 is about standard). Wider, and it will be a beast.
The most pedestrian use of a kayak is as a physical-fitness machine. This may involve humiliating preliminaries. First, look down at your waistline. Then have your wife or girl count the number of push-ups, sit-ups and chin-ups you can do. Contemplate your lost youth for a moment, then run down to the shore and climb (delicately) into your kayak. Set off at a brisk pace directly into the wind, keeping a strong stroke in time to a good chant like, "Strength through joy! Strength through joy! Strength through...aarg...joy!"
When totally exhausted, let the kayak drift downwind back toward your starting point. Lean back. Enjoy the scenery. Rest. A small boy will swim alongside and query, "Hey, Mister. What kindda funny boat is that?" Don't try to beat him to death with the paddle. He will grab it and capsize you. Draw yourself erect and in grave tones tell him, "My son, I am a naturalist, and this is a vessel for naturalistic research. Please leave, as you are disturbing my studies." The word "studies" will send him thrashing off at least for the time being, and you will have discovered one of the reasons a sane man uses a kayak: to enjoy nature.
For the naturalist or just plain nature lover, the kayak is a day boat par excellence. Its ability to go where other boats won't—and to do it quietly and with little disturbance—is a sheer delight. In my youth (last year) I was possessed of a vivid imagination, and it took little effort to transform the narrow creeks along which my kayak and I glided into tropical streams, the bordering cornfields into lush vegetation. In the shade of a willow a lazy bass and my paddle did frantic battle. Turtles stared balefully at me from nearby logs, and frogs goggled from their mudbanks. In virtually inaccessible places, I have stealthily stalked a mallard and her oblivious brood and sometimes played voyeur during the mating of herons.
This ability to approach inaccessible places finds obvious welcome in those who would catch, trap, shoot, snare and generally capture rather than observe wildlife. Hunters appreciate the ability to slide spryly over lily pads, weeds, reeds and rushes rather than to stagger, stomp, stumble, push, pull and bash through them.
In another realm, nearer to yachting, the kayak serves as an inexpensive cruiser. Occasionally in America and frequently in Europe, kayaks are used along streams and rivers and the edges of the sea as beach cruisers. Their owners go ashore each night to set up camp.