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History of kayaking

What are Sea Kayaks? How do they differ from a canoe?

To answer this and other fundamental questions, we should refer to the presentation of the book “The Sea Kayak: how to navigate like the Inuit”, by the Italian Sea Kayak Association, published by Planetario, 1994.
The term ‘kayak’ applies to boats constructed with hides, used by the Inuit peoples to hunt and fish in the icy waters of the Arctic.
Centuries of experience of navigation in extreme conditions, at the limits of the possible, have led to the development of a hull which is thoroughly reliable and highly manoeuvrable, fast and steady, and capable of withstanding the worst possible weather conditions.
Kayaks can be distinguished from all other types of canoe by their special tapering shape, with both prow and stern curving upwards slightly, and a small forward deck fitted with a spray skirt. The craft is as broad as the bust of a man and takes double paddles to enable easy navigation through rough waves. This light but tough craft, which fits the kayakist almost like a glove, becoming an extension of his body, is capable of long and adventurous voyages, even when the kayak is loaded with all the provisions necessary for survival.

Wooden kayak
Old fiberglass Kayak
Modern firberglass kayak

On the market, however, a whole range of models is available, from hulls in polyethylene which are both tough and affordable, to models able to take an auxiliary sail; from the classic two-man kayak, ideal for sea camping, to moulded hulls designed for rental at seaside resorts.

The river kayak, which has developed into three distinct types – for river descent, slalom and water polo – can be distinguished from its sea-going ancestor by its shorter hull, the absence of a keel and considerable manoeuvrability, against which must be measured a lesser ability to maintain a regular course on longer voyages.

This type of craft has been enormously successful in Italy, far more so than the sea kayak, which has however become very popular indeed in countries such as the United States, Germany, Britain and France.

Most people in Italy are convinced that the modern kayak is essentially a river craft, with which breathtaking descents down mountain river rapids can be experienced.

Sea Kayak in Amalfi, Italy
Kayaking Amalfi, Italy
Ancient Old kayak
Ancient Old kayaks
First Kayakers

The modern sea kayak, which is a direct descendant of those used by the Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the American Far North, was invented in 1865 by the Englishman John McGregor, who built the famous canoe known as ‘Rob Roy’. Most of the first models were constructed in waxed canvas on a wooden frame, and were only an approximate equivalent, both in shape and performance, of their polar ancestors. With the arrival of glass resin, or fibreglass, in the early 1960s of last century, kayak builders were able to develop hulls with graceful, attractive lines, less odd in appearance, much more practical and closer to traditional Inuit designs. The invention of fibreglass led to the industrial production of sports and recreational hull designs, allowing mass production and in turn resulting in kayaks specially designed for river descents. The rapid technological progress of the last few years has accelerated the development of the sea kayak, with the emergence of many different models built from a variety of materials, as well as designs offering exceptional performance. Some models of kayak have been tested on major expeditions and sea crossings, in the toughest possible conditions, and can therefore guarantee professional standards of reliability and performance.

tandem Polyethylene kayak
River kayaker

Only a tiny minority know that there is also a marine version of this type of craft. Even fewer people are aware that a sea voyage by kayak does not merely involve a little paddling up and down a coastline, but requires a complex, meticulous and highly technical discipline.


The sea kayak is of course a very entertaining boat, capable of performing spectacular stunts among the waves. But it really comes into its own on excursions and sea camping expeditions. While this is a markedly Spartan form of tourism, it also offers enthralling adventure. Obviously, if you are thinking of an excursion in this type of craft, which is relatively slow, with limited instrumentation and not highly visible to other boats, you will need to possess a thorough knowledge of the coastal area which you intend to visit.


So do not leave anything to chance. Read as much as you can on the subject. It is essential to enrol on a good course in the theory and practice of sea-kayaking.


That said, ‘bon voyage’ to everyone!

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