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History of Kayaking

History of Kayaking

Kayak history is extensive both in terms of time and of geographic area. Here in this, we are going to take a look at the glorious past of Kayaking and its future prospect.

1. Whitewater kayak history

Early whitewater kayaking was done with folding kayaks – see Sea Kayak History. This led to the development of whitewater as a sport and as a racing discipline. Slalom racing became popular in Europe, as did flatwater racing and eventually became part of the summer Olympic Games.

According to Charlie Walbridge in his book Boatbuilder’s Manual, if you were a whitewater kayaker in the ’60s, you were definitely a kayak maker. Those who wished to participate had to get their hands on an existing design, often imported from Europe in the form of a slalom kayak, and copy it in fiberglass. These kayaks were built tough and many a kayaker spent hours to repaire the cracks and dings.

Plastic whitewater kayaks began to show up in the ’70s. Some early ones were apparently made of olefin plastics, though most later ones (and most modern ones) are made of polyethylene.

Initially long and relatively slender, like the slalom kayaks they derived from, plastic kayaks evolved to meet the demands of specific whitewater disciplines – creeking, playboats and so on. The creek boats became higher in volume and the playboats became shorter and added features such as planing hulls and blunt ends.

2. Sea Kayak History

McGregor and the Rob Roy

Many paddlers date the beginning of recreational sea kayaking to John MacGregor’s famous adventures in the second half of the nineteenth century. MacGregor commissioned a decked canoe or kayak of cedar and oak and used it with a double bladed paddle to travel around Europe and the Middle East. This kayak, which he christened Rob Roy, attracted a lot of attention and his voyages made news all over the world. As a result of these exploits, many others picked up paddles and began the adventure we now call sea kayaking. For further details, check the Sea Kayaker article MacGregor: A Victorian-Era Paddler by Brian Kologe in Issue 71, Aug. 1999, page 61. As well there are references in books such as MacGregor’s own A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe (ISBN 1929516061)

Copies of Traditional Kayaks

Throughout the early days of recreational sea kayaking, paddlers would make kayaks based on traditional designs. Eschewing the easily degraded sealskins of the Inuit in favour of coated canvas, paddlers would make kayaks much like the traditional kayak enthusiasts of today. In addition, copies of these kayaks in wood and plywood were made. These were not commercially produced in large numbers, however.

Folding Kayaks

Folding kayaks began to become common in the early 20th century. Many were wooden framed and had rubberized canvas skins. Their utility and portability make them popular with many paddlers. Many of the early folding kayaks were made by companies in Germany and Austria. Klepper, the first maker of folding kayaks, began in 1905, after buying the design from a student. Folbot, the oldest folding kayak maker in continuous production, was established in London, England in 1933.

In the 1930s, folding kayaks were used for every aspect of recreational kayaking, including running whitewater rivers. A Viennese kayaker, Adolf Anderle, was the first person to successfully negotiate the Salzachofen Gorge on the Salzach River. In 1938, Genevieve and Bernard De Colmont and a friend, DeSeyne, traveled in folding kayaks down the Colorado River, negotiating many whitewater runs.

During World War II, folding kayaks were notable for being used in secret missions, getting special forces personell into situations where they could sabotauge enemy ships. “WWIIʼs Operation Earthworm” by R.T. Webb in Sea Kayaker’s Issue 68, Feb. 1999, page 7 describes such a mission. In addition, the famous Cockleshell Heroes used kayaks. Folding kayaks also were used by a few individuals to escape from continental Europe to Britain during that time.

Anas Acuta and the British Sea Kayaks

British kayakers were somewhat influenced by the exploits of the members of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition (BAARE). Working in Greenland, some of their number, notably Henry George (“Gino”) Watkins, learned the ways of the Greenland Inuit and their kayaking techniques. There is much doubt about the degree of influence of Watkins. Other paddlers using skin on frame kayaks modeled on Greenland kayaks, such as Franz Schulhof in 1937, also influenced the early British paddling community.

Regardless of the actual source of influence(s), the Greenland-style kayak became quite popular in Britain. British paddlers appreciated the small, maneuverable kayaks that were well suited to the rough sea conditions found in the waters around the British Isles.

The development of modern composite kayaks in Britain is often traced to the development of the Anas Acuta. Some say it was the first production fiberglass kayak. The name comes from the Latin name for the Pintail duck.

And as a final example of the influence of Greenland on recreational kayaking in England and North America we have the story of the Illorsuit (Igdlorssuit) kayak brought back to the UK by Kenneth Taylor in the early 1960s. I quote from an article by Paul Caffyn The Long Journey Home for a Greenland Kayak originally published in his newsletter The Sea Canoeist and reprinted in the Fall 2000 issue of The Drift, the Journal of the Metropolitan Association of Sea Kayakers

A professor from St. Andrew’s University in Britain, Harald Drever, had a long association with Igdlorssuit and he persuaded a young Scottish university student and paddler, Kenneth Taylor, to undertake a one-man expedition to the village where he would study the kayak and its place in Inuit culture. In 1959 Kenneth arrived in the village with his own rigid kayak, a PBK 15 designed by Percy Blanford, but later had a slimmer beam kayak built for him by 50 year old Emanuel Kornielsen.

At the end of summer, Kenneth returned to Scotland with his Igdlorssuit skin kayak where Duncan Winning took photographs and made a line drawing which led to the development of several canvas covered and plywood replicas. After Kenneth moved to the USA in 1964, Joe Reid and Duncan carefully surveyed the skin kayak and Duncan produced a longitudinal profile and cross sections. Duncan passed the drawings onto Geoff Blackford in the early 1960s who increased the boats length, enlarged the cockpit and raised the foredeck to produce a plywood boat called an Anas Acuta. In 1972 Frank Goodman began commercially producing this boat design in fiberglass.

Colin Mortlock had proposed an expedition along the Arctic fiords of Norway to Nordkapp, the northern-most cape of Europe. Having paddled the Anas Acuta around the Isle of Skye, Mortlock and his companions believed that a different kayak design would be needed, one with more capacity for supplies while retaining maneuverability and seaworthiness. To meet this demand, Goodman, through his company Valley Canoe Products, designed and built the Nordkapp in 1975.

Derek Hutchinson, Nigel Dennis and other designers and builders also contributed to the British sea kayak world. Regardless of the designer, the British kayak scene shows a tremendous adherance to the Greenland-style kayak.

North American Sea Kayaks

Interest in kayaks in North America pretty much followed that of Britain in the early days of recreational kayaking. If you were interested, you either used a folding kayak or built a kayak following traditional archetypes.

In 1972 George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson, paddled on the British Columbia coast in a homemade baidarka. Fabricated from aluminum and nylon, he must have attracted a lot of attention. His contemporaries, Mike Neckar, Brian Henry, and Steve Schleicher, took kayak making one step further and founded three composite kayak companies – Necky, Current Designs and Nimbus, respectively.

If the British sea kayaks follow the model of the Greenland type, it seems like the commercial kayaks of northwest North America follow the model of the northwest and Alaskan kayak traditions. How much of this was Dyson’s doing and how much was just awareness of the type is not known. It’s possible that the resemblance is pure coincidence. 

3. Traditional Kayak History

The history of kayaks is long and very little has been recorded in the past. Archeological evidence is scarce, since much of what was used in kayaking was recycled and that which was abandoned did not survive the elements. A few fragments of ancient kayaks do survive, but many of the oldest artifacts are carvings of kayaks in ivory and other materials (Heath et al). Much of what is known from the past comes from oral histories of the kayaking peoples or from the writings of European and Russian explorers and traders contacting the Inuit, Aleut and other cultures. Some of the earliest writings that mention kayaks are from the Norse that settled in Vinland around 1000 AD. After that, most writings date after 1500AD, when Europeans returned to the American continent (Arima)

The complete history of the various kayaking cultures is too complex to write in these wiki pages. Only a few highlights are mentioned here. The reader is encouraged to consult the references identified at the bottom of this page to learn more.

There are several ways of identifying the different cultural groups, based on language, traditions, etc. The following diagram is loosely arranged by geographic location and different kayak types:


  • Koryak
  • Chukchi
  • Siberian Eskimo


  • Aleut
  • Kodiak (Koniag)
  • Chugach
  • Bering Sea
    • Bristol Bay
    • Nunivak Island (Hooper Bay)
    • Norton Sound
  • Bering Strait
    • King Island
  • North Alaska
    • Kotzebue (Point Barrow)
    • Nunamiut


  • Canadian Arctic
    • Mackenzie
    • Copper
    • Natsilik
    • Caribou
    • Baffin
  • Hudsons Bay
    • Belcher Islands
  • Quebec
  • Labrador


  • East Greenland
  • West Greenland

Kayaks, paddles and other hunting tools vary from region to region. Each form is designed to meet the needs of the people of the region and the game that they hunted, whether sea mammals, caribou or other.

Last modified: November 23, 2019