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.
Unlike most small craft, the kayak, with its great maneuverability and virtually watertight spray apron, is, under experienced hands, quite safe in even sizable surf. For this reason kayaks have been used for years in certain parts of the country (notably the Gulf Coast) for sport fishing off exposed beaches. Getting out through the surf entails getting wet, but done correctly, it is an exhilarating adjunct to the day's fishing—and it saves the time and expense of a long boat trip down a coast barren of harbors.
Surf can also be an end in itself. I have spent many afternoons running surf just for the thrills it affords. You paddle out just beyond the surf line and wait for a big one to approach. Some people count every ninth wave, but I always get confused and have to just watch. As it comes, you dig in and start quartering it. Then, as the wave takes hold, you sit back amidst the spray and foam and, frozen with fear, enjoy the rush back to the beach. (A little advice to the beginner: try this first of all in a relatively dispassionate surf. Never, never try it in cold water.) Approaching the beach is where things get a tiny bit hairy. The whole trick of the thing is to get off the crest before it dumps you onto the sand. What you want to do is get the bow of the boat swung back out toward the crest, so that after the wave has hissed by, you are ready to paddle back out to sea to wait for the next one. This maneuver is accomplished by the simple expedient of digging in with the seaward paddle, thus causing the kayak to lose way and pivot rapidly into the face of the wave. In practice it usually involves a blind frenzied thrust with the paddle, followed by a tremendous feeling of having conquered the wild forces of nature, followed by a short frantic swim in water that somehow seems colder than it did 10 minutes ago.
The maneuverability and seaworthiness that make the kayak a decent surf vehicle are the same qualities that suit it for the white-water kayaking. Most parts of the country possess white-water streams, if only in the spring (Kansas, where I am now teaching, seems to be a notable exception); and, even if only to tell your grandchildren that you did it in your fey youth, you must try it. At least once. Here you have all the thrills of surfing combined with the added pleasures of rocks, snags and occasional waterfalls—minor ones if you have planned well.
Kayaks are not primarily designed for sailing (there are some aspects of designing for optimum performance in paddling that are incompatible with good sailing), and trying to beat a kayak into a chop can be a heartbreaking experience. But off the wind they slip smoothly along with little disturbance. This ability can make for a delightful lazy afternoon and can perhaps be best enjoyed on a coastal cruise, when, late in the day, with shoulders beginning to feel the strain of paddling, you decide to see what lies beyond the next headland.
Because the crew comprises such a large percentage of the total displacement of a kayak, a fine shifting of weight keeps it sailing upright even in strong winds. The little boats are surprisingly stable in this respect, too stable for some blood. If you find yourself in this predicament, you can follow the lead of an old friend of mine, Charlie, a philosopher who will remain surnameless to protect his reputation for sanity in the classroom. Finding his sailing rig too tame, Charlie cleared a hole in the skis, books, magazines, papers, Porsche parts and paddles that littered the apartment we shared. He then proceeded to fill this hole with yards and yards of cotton cloth which he industriously cut and pinned during several evenings that should have been spent writing a paper on Kant. A young lady of cunning domestic skill was then bribed with wine and candlelight into taking the mess away to her sewing machine. While she sewed, my philosopher labored on. Kant remained in exile, and I stared fascinated from my perch at the typewriter where I was supposed to be writing the Great American Play which would get me a master's degree in drama. It was like watching someone do a very large jigsaw puzzle. Charlie cut and sanded. He fastened blocks and rove lines. He fashioned a crude sliding seat from plans supplied by an anonymous canoe expert. At last the parts were finished and the cotton rescued from the girl and turned into a sail of sorts.
Put together, the parts formed the greatest, fastest, most marvelous, most overcanvased kayak man had ever built. With it Charlie would (he said) skim over the waters of the park lagoon majestically seated at the end of his sliding seat, disdainfully passing all who might dare to challenge his might. It was grand. Charlie was ready.
I missed the day; my presence was required at a matinee of Romeo and Juliet given for the nuns. I do not know exactly what happened. No eyewitnesses ever came forward to enlighten me. All I know was that Charlie came home late that evening, Ondinelike, with a wisp of lagoon in his hair. He dragged the sodden smashed remnants of the rig into the apartment and fell into a coma on the couch. His eyes remained starkly open, his quivering mouth mumbled words of blinding speed and Olympian exhilaration and something about a miscalculation at a bridge. He never spoke of it after that. It was too painful. The grand kayak was never rebuilt. But the idea lingers on. The idea lingers....