The History of Sea Kayaking – Sea Quest Kayak Tours/San Juan Islands

Sea kayaking is a technology that is at least 4,000 years old. Peoples of the high northern latitudes (Greenland, Alaska, Russia, and Canada) were the first to invent wood- or whale bone-framed boats covered with a watertight skin. Some experts claim the Inuit were the first to invent these ingenious boats while others suggest it was the Ainu or Aleut. The modern name “kayak” is derived from the ancient Aleutian “iqyak“, meaning “man-boat” or “hunters-boat.” The hunter’s family would carry camp and supplies in a larger type of kayak called an “umiak”.

The earliest and most primitive kayaks were built for calm waters such as rivers, estuaries and bays. The first true sea kayaks did not develop until both paddling skills and kayak design theory matured. Sea kayaks evolved into the ideal vessel for aboriginal hunting and fishing cultures due to their inherent stealth.

There seems to be no limit as to the size of prey that could be taken from a sea kayak. Targets hunted from kayaks include seals, walruses, whales and caribou. In the late 1700s, Russian fur traders enslaved native hunters from Alaska and organized vast fleets of kayaks that swept south all the way to San Francisco Bay in pursuit of sea otter pelts.

No one is sure exactly when the first kayak made its way to Europe. However, several trans-Atlantic kayak journeys from Labrador or Greenland to Scotland were endured by adventurous Inuit paddlers in the 1800s. Kayaks soon caught on in Europe, with canvas substituting for traditional skin covers. European craftsmen and naval architects took their turns at attempting to improve the kayak, but the aboriginal designs proved to be quite mature and highly-evolved. In fact, at the hands of Europeans, both kayak designs and paddling skills deteriorated drastically from the highly refined principles of the native kayakers.

Aboriginal Kayaks Leaving on a Hunting TourThe sport of kayaking and long-distance kayak touring was popularized in 1845 when a Scotsman named John MacGregor introduced his “Rob Roy”, a semi-decked canoe loosely based on a native kayak. Kayaking became an official Olympic sport in 1936 with events that included the solo and tandem 1,000m and 10,000m flat-water races, and white-water and slalom courses. Kayaks were adopted by military forces and used during World War II by the British to place limpet mines on German vessels. They used them again during the Falkland Islands War by sneaking into Port Stanley to create diversionary explosions as the main force struck from inland. Military kayaks are ideal for special operations as they can be launched from submarines, deployed from aircraft, and cruise silently below the radar.

Kayak designs began to advance in the 1950s with the advent of modern materials such as fiberglass and rubberized fabric. Ironically, the thrust of these “modern advancements” led to a revival of traditional Inuit kayak designs. Today, the very best modern kayaks still look, feel, and perform very much like kayaks made centuries ago. Whereas the hulls are very traditional in shape, significant to improvements can be seen in hatches, bulkheads, seats, and other features. It turns out that even our best computer software for naval engineering cannot improve on the intuitive genius of the kayak’s original innovators.

History of Sea Kayaking - Boys Playing with Traditional KayakBy joining a Sea Quest kayak tour, you can experience paddling the very best modern-day sea kayaks. All of the kayaks we use at Sea Quest display the original design concepts of native Greenlanders as translated into modern materials. They are fast and highly maneuverable but can handle extremely rough conditions while remaining very stable and comfortable. The sport of “kayak touring” originated in the protected marine waters of the Pacific Northwest and the sheltered San Juan Islands of Washington state are still the best location for beginning kayakers to get in their very first strokes.

Join a Kayak Quest for Whales in the San Juan Islands of Washington

author avatar
Sea Quest