Qajaqs and kenus

On July 23 Christian and I will take off on one of what National Geographic has listed as one of the 100 great American adventures. He’ll be in his canoe and I in my kayak. Many people who hear about this think the idea of 340 miles on one of the great rivers of the world is looney. What they don’t understand is how very reliable small these boats are. Here’s a little interesting (I think) history of these boats.

Kayaks got started in Siberia about four thousand years ago. The original design (the umiak) was about like a kayak except that the top was open. So, a kayak is , in fact, a type of canoe. Closing the top made the umiak useful for voyages out into the frigid arctic seas. Those early skin on frame boats were probably the most advanced hydrodynamic watercraft in the world – and the Wright brothers would have appreciated the technology as they rigged up their aircraft.

Qajaq is the Inuit word for hunter’s boat and they were extraordinarily effective. They could be paddled into arctic oceans and used to silently approach seals, walrus, and other prey. The Eskimos and Greenlanders would take them out for days at a time, even learning to sleep in them by laying our off to the side of the boat – floating the upper body on the water. The most important requirement, though, was stability. Imagine yourself in a small boat, on sub-freezing water, in the open ocean. Anything that isn’t rock solid stable can mean a quick death for the kayaker!

My boat was built by a company in Tacoma, Washington – specifically for use in the Pacific ocean. It’s a 17′ 5″ composite fiberglass boat, weighing 45 pounds, with two watertight bulkheads for floatation. I can flip the the boat, sure. But, by bracing myself with my paddle, I can stay upright even under some pretty rough conditions.

What’s the downside to this design? First off, I can’t really move my legs much. They’re inside the boat and stretched out in front of me. My rear end is about two inches above my heels and I’m sitting upright. I guess I should take yoga more seriously! Also, because I’m sitting at the level of the water, I can’t get as much leverage on the paddle. Kayaks are, however, so much cooler than canoes!

Christian is taking another tactic for the race – the canoe. His boat has an even older pedigree than mine. We, in the U.S. think of canoes as indian boats but the oldest known canoe excavation dates to about 6,000 years B.C. – from Holland! Those earliest canoes were basically dugouts. Heavy and slow, but tough. Variations of them have been used all over the world. The American Indians took them to another level by building them of bark. They were lighter and faster – and could still be built big enough to carry many people and large loads. The other advantage of their construction was that they were easily repaired when punctured.

They’re “open decked” so, not as adapted for rough water. But the Missouri River is fairly smooth – until the wind kicks up or a barge comes by. For those conditions he’s rigging up a skirt. The front and back of his boat will be covered with waterproof fabric that will keep at least most of the water out! When he’s passing a barge he’ll tuck in behind a wing dam and take a break while I’m out playing in the rough water. He’s sitting higher in the boat, so he’ll have better paddle leverage and, best of all, he’ll have the ability to move his legs around.

When most of you think of canoe you most likely think of the aluminum “barges” you plowed around as a kid. Those things weighed up to 80 pounds, were fat, and very stable. If that’s your vision of a canoe you wouldn’t recognize his ride for the MR340. It’s a carbon fiber composite and weighs about 30 pounds. It’s long – about 22 feet – skinny, tough, and fast. That long part makes it difficult to turn, though. And, if the wind or river current does start to turn it, it’s tough to keep straight. To cure that problem, he has a rudder. While I’m paddling on one side to turn or maintain a straight line, he just kicks the rudder and keeps his paddling cadence going – less wasted effort. The skinny part, and the fact that he’s sitting higher, means it’s tippy. But, heck, a bicycle is tippy! He’ll be able to blaze along and take more breaks to stretch his legs. His canoe doesn’t have the watertight compartments of mine so, to keep it afloat should it fill with water, Christian is installing floatation bladders. They won’t keep the water out but, if the water does get in the boat won’t sink completely.

Those are the ships of the White Rock Navy. I mentioned in an earlier post that our goal is to finish the race in under 75 hours. What do you think? Who’ll be in St. Charles first – the qajaq or the kenu?

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2 responses to “Qajaqs and kenus

  1. Should be an exciting race. Might even have enough water in the River with all the rain we have been getting.

  2. This was great! I had no idea canoes originated in Holland. I should do a write up of handcrafted Greenland paddles versus carbon fiber wings. Oh also, I actually sit right at water level too. One more un-canoe like thing my boat has in common with a kayak. If we both just sat in the water without paddling, who would move faster, do you think?

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