How It Began
The Inuit and Aleut tribes of Arctic North America were the first people to build and use kayaks. There were two basic types of kayaks at this point: One was built with light driftwood, while the others were made by stretching animal skins over frames made of whalebone. The tribe members used whale fat to waterproof the vessels. To improve buoyancy, they'd fill seal bladders with air and tuck them into the fore and aft sections.
The word kayak actually means "hunter's boat." Kayaks are ideal for hunting because of their stealth nature. Inuits could sneak up on unsuspecting animals on the shoreline or in the water.
Evolution of Kayaking
The kayak found its way to Europe in the early to mid-1800s as a soft-sided frame boat, and German and French men soon began kayaking for sport.
Soon after, kayakers got a little adventurous. In 1931, a man named Adolf Anderle became the first person to kayak down the Salzachofen Gorge. This may have been the birth of modern white-water kayaking.
The International Scale of River Difficulty was established not long after to classify how dangerous a river's rapids were - the same classification system used today.
Grade 1 - Waves small; passages clear; no serious obstacles
Grade 2 - Rapids of moderate difficulty with passages clear. Requires experience plus suitable outfit and boat
Grade 3 - Waves numerous, high, irregular; rocks; eddies; rapids with passages clear though narrow, requiring expertise in maneuvering; scouting usually needed. Requires good operator and boat.
Grade 4 - Long rapids; waves high, irregular; dangerous rocks; boiling eddies; best passages difficult to scout; scouting mandatory first time; powerful and precise maneuvering required. Demands expert boatman and excellent boat and good quality equipment.
Grade 5 - Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent current; very steep gradient; close study essential but often difficult. Requires best person, boat, and outfit suited to the situation. All possible precautions must be taken.
Grade 6 - Unrunnable, extreme luck or skill will allow you through.
In 1936, the Olympics included kayak races in the Berlin games. The United States began to get on board at this point, as did women -- two years after the Olympics, Genevieve De Colmont paddled the white-water of the Green and Colorado rivers. Fiberglass "rigid" kayaks came on the scene in the 1950s and were the standard until polyethylene plastic took over in the 1980s. Kayaking enjoyed modest participation as a fringe sport in the U.S. until the 1970s, when it began to move more to the mainstream. Now the Olympic Games feature more than 10 different white-water kayak events.
Disciplines of Kayaking
Sea kayaking is environmentally friendly and appeals to everyone who enjoys open spaces, salt air and the feeling of being at one with nature. The sea is not, however, a big lake and the ocean has a temperament and character, which need to be understood. Weather, tides and charts should be considered and journeys planned. Not all sea paddling is on calm water and for some the essence of the sport is in meeting challenging conditions, undertaking long open crossings, or playing in overfalls and tide races.
White Water Slalom
The aim is to navigate a decked canoe or kayak through a course of hanging gates on river rapids in the fastest time possible. It is one of the two kayak and canoeing disciplines at the Summer Olympics, and is referred to by the International Olympic Committee as Canoe or Kayak slalom.
Freestyle kayaking is a fun, fast and dynamic discipline of the sport of kayaking. Freestyle paddlers use white water waves and holes to perform surf and gymnastic-style manoeuvres and tricks. The sport uses short kayaks designed to surf and spin across the water surface, and release up into the air. In competitions, freestyle kayakers gain points for every different tricks they perform, with bonus points awarded if they can get their boat out of the water and up into the air
Wild Water Racing
Wildwater is one of the most physically demanding of the ICF’s Canoe Disciplines. In the Classic Wildwater races, athletes race down a course of four to five miles of class three to four whitewater, yet it also requires strategic insight to balance raw power and speed with considered execution and perfect timing. In other words, athletes need to be strong and fast yet calm and calculating. An athlete’s success depends on their ability to pass over waves, holes and rocks of a natural riverbed while remaining “zen-like”.
Surf kayaking is the sport, technique, and equipment, used in surfing ocean waves with kayaks. Surf kayaking has many similarities to surf board surfing, but with boats designed for use in surf zones, and with a paddle. A number of kayak designs are used, but all are aimed at better using the waves to propel the craft.
Surf kayaking is popular in many areas frequented by surf board surfers. The sport has grown in popularity over the last decades, in pace with the rise of sea kayaking, and modern materials and techniques
Sprint kayaking is an Olympic sport held on flat water over either 500 or 1000 metres. At World Championship level there is also a 200m event.
Competitors race in a single, double or four man kayak over the distance from a stationary start. Competitions are held on a course with 9 lanes, heats, semi-finals and finals. First across the finish line wins. Top specification race boats are high tech made from carbon fibre and built for straight line speed. They have a small rudder at the rear to aid turning when necessary and for helping to keep the kayak in a straight line when racing.
Marathon Racing has been happening for over 60 years on the UK's vast network of flat water rivers, canals and lakes. It's a tactical competition discipline, a physical challenge, and a great way of seeing beautiful parts of the country you can't see from dry land. Often it's a combination of the three.
Races are held throughout the year over a wide range of distances and in a wide range of craft from sleek racing kayaks to touring canoes, and there are categories for all ages and abilities, and there is plenty more paddling just for fun at clubs across the country.
Many start marathon racing in preparation for our most famous event, the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, the 125 mile challenge held at Easter each year.
Canoe Polo also known as Kayak Polo is one of the competitive disciplines of canoeing, known simply as “polo” by its aficionados. Polo combines canoeing and ball handling skills with an exciting contact team game, where tactics and positional play are as important as the speed and fitness of the individual athletes.
The game requires excellent teamwork and promotes both general canoeing skills as well as a range of other techniques unique to the sport. Each team has 5 players on the pitch (and up to 3 substitutes), who compete to score in their opponents goal which is suspended 2 metres above the water. The ball can be thrown by hand, or flicked with the paddle to pass between players and shoot at the goal. Pitches can be set up in swimming pools or any stretch of flat water.
The canoes are specifically designed for Polo and are faster and lighter than typical kayaks which give them fantastic manoeuvrability. Paddles are very light weight and designed with both pulling power and ball control in mind. Nose and tail boat bumpers, body protection, helmets and faceguards are all compulsory.
There are no official federations and organizations within extreme kayaking. Many expedition kayakers don’t typically race, but they are very athletic and very skilled, which is why there has been a strong desire amongst extreme kayakers to have a world championship. The adidas Sickline tests the kayakers’ ability to not only get down one of the world’s most challenging rapids in one piece, but to do it fast as well. At the same time the Extreme Kayak World Championship attracts many of the best slalom and freestyle paddlers, because they can combine their fitness with adrenaline.