Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Folding Kayaks and "Indigeneity"

Soon after posting the previous article about ocean voyages in folding kayaks, I began questioning its relevance to the larger subject of indigenous boats. Allow me to ramble:

While the subhead of this blog is "small craft outside the western tradition," in conversation, I usually expand that to "outside the western tradition of plank-on-frame boatbuilding." By "western," I mean specifically the European plank-on-frame tradition and the American tradition that derived directly from it. This allows this blog to explore the indigenous craft of North America (e.g., birchbark canoes), even though they are of the western hemisphere. It also makes available topics like European dugouts (not plank-on-frame), ancient Greek mortise-and-tenon-planked ships (plank on frame, but of a style outside of existing European construction methods), and dhows of the Indian Ocean (plank on frame, but non-"western" and of a style outside of existing European construction methods). All this supports the original and still current motivation for this blog, which is to write about a wide variety of boats that aren't being extensively covered by numerous other blogs. Others cover the likes of Viking ships, whitehalls, Concordia yawls, Iain Oughtred, et al, quite well and thoroughly, and the world doesn't need yet another blog about these beautiful, traditional and traditionally-inspired boats of the Euro-American sort.

Getting back to folding kayaks and their ir/relevance to this blog: they're obviously not of plank-on-frame construction. But are they "western," and are they, or are they derived from, a culture or tradition that we might call "indigenous"? 

It's often claimed that modern folding kayaks are direct descendants of the original Eskimo kayak. One source among many where I've seen this argument is Complete Folding Kayaker by Ralph Diaz:
"(K)ayaks are truer descendants of the Eskimo kayak than are rigid kayaks. Foldables can make that claim, because they adhere more closely to the design and materials principles of the kayaks developed by Northern peoples some 10,000 years ago."
In my opinion, this is only half-true: the half about the "materials principles." As a skin-on-frame structure, folding kayaks are indeed closer to their original Eskimo forebears than any kayak made of plywood, planks, plastic or composites. But as to "design," I object.

By most accounts, recreational paddling got its start in the 1860s in England, popularized by John MacGregor and his voyages in the double-paddle canoe Rob Roy. Although Rob Roy was decked and propelled like a kayak, it also had a substantial European-style sail rig, and the hull design owed more to the shape of "Canadian" canoes (i.e., open canoes of the birchbark sort). Construction was conventional English lapstrake, except that it was unprecedentedly light in its scantlings.
John MacGregor in the decked canoe  Rob Roy (click any image to enlarge)
Canoes based on this model became the norm for recreation, and they remained popular into the early years of the 20th century. The folding kayak, which was invented in 1905, followed the same model. While I don't know it for a fact, it's reasonable to assume that its inventor, in seeking to create a more portable boat, took inspiration from the Eskimo method of skin-on-frame construction. It's possible, though, that the inspiration came from the skin-on-frame tradition of another culture -- possibly even early European. Although materials and the engineering of the frame have changed over the years, the hull form of most folding kayaks (including the kayaks used by the three German adventurers featured in the previous post) is still quite similar to that of open canoes, and it is much wider than most Eskimo or Aleut kayak designs.

Lines of a decked canoe of the Rob Roy type. The sections and waterlines are clearly modeled on those of bark canoes.
Frame of a Klepper folding kayak. The sections are similar to those of the old Rob-Roy style canoe, which was itself based on the bark canoe, not the Eskimo kayak.

Summary of observations:
  • The modern folding kayak is outside of the plank-on-frame tradition.
  • The hullform of most folding kayaks (including the German boats discussed in the previous blog post) owes little to Eskimo kayak designs, but is based on the design of the bark canoes of more southern indigenous Native Americans.
  • The structure of the modern folding kayak might or might not have been inspired by Eskimo technology, but in all probability it took its inspiration from some indigenous skin-on-frame tradition.
  • Eskimo kayaks provided the model for a decked canoe propelled by a double paddle.

While most modern folding kayaks owe little in terms of hullform or materials to an Eskimo or Aleut forebear, several of their aspects (double-paddle propulsion, decking, skin-on-frame construction, hullform following the bark canoe model) are derived from an indigenous nonwestern tradition, and this justifies their discussion in this blog.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ocean Voyages in Folding Kayaks

Hannes Lindemann's 1956-57 solo transatlantic voyage in a folding kayak is justifiably famous among kayak fans. (In our previous post we wrote about Lindemann's lesser-known adventure, in which he crossed the Atlantic solo in a dugout canoe just one year earlier.) We'll get to it shortly, but what's more surprising than that someone can traverse an ocean in a folding kayak is that it had been done twice previously, also by Germans, in trips equally if not more impressive.

Franz Romer in Deutscher Sport. Source:
(Click any image to enlarge) 
The first such voyage was in 1928, when Franz Romer did it in Deutscher Sport, a 21'6" Klepper outfitted with a squaresail rig. Romer sailed almost 4,000 miles, from Lisbon to Puerto Rico, via the Canary Islands, in 58 days. In San Juan he fitted his kayak with an outboard engine before setting sail again. His next destination: New York. Unfortunately, he sailed into a hurricane and was lost without a trace. It has been speculated that the engine upset his kayak's natural balance and seaworthiness, and that he might have survived the storm without it. (Some sources give St. Thomas as the end of his trip. On this matter, I'm relying on an account of Romer's voyage in Lindemann's book.]

Oskar Speck in his Pionier Faltboot. (Source)
In 1932, Oskar Speck, a failed electrical contractor, launched his Pionier Faltbootwerft-brand folding kayak on the Danube River in Ulm, intending to sail to Cyprus, where he hoped to get work in a copper mine. When he reached Cyprus, however, he decided to go further. A lot further, as in, Australia. He shipped the boat, along with its jib-headed, boomed-lug rig, to the upper reaches of the Euphrates River, sailed downstream to and through the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, and down the western coast of the southeast Asian peninsula. From thence, he passed through Malaysia and Indonesia and along the north coast of New Guinea, finally reaching Australia shortly after it had entered the Second World War. Speck, who proudly displayed a Nazi swastika on his jib but was unaware of the current political situation, was politely but promptly arrested, and he spent the rest of the war in an Australian prison camp.
Oskar Speck's route. Dotted lines indicate motor transport. (Source: Wikipedia)
Pionier replaced Speck's boat four times during the 31,000-mile voyage's seven year duration. Unlike Romer's and (later,) Lindemann's, Speck's voyage was mainly alongshore. He spent most nights on dry land, often had access to fresh food and good hospitality, and was able to take as many "down" days as he wanted. This in no way minimizes the scale of his accomplishment, and he is still, to the best of my knowledge, the only person to kayak the entire length of the Indian Ocean.

Hannes Lindemann's Atlantic crossing in a Klepper was apparently the last transoceanic voyage in a folding kayak, although there have been a number of crossings made in hardshell kayaks since that time. Lindemann was already contemplating a voyage in a folding kayak when he returned to Europe in April, 1956, following his dugout crossing. But where Lindemann's first voyage was meant to test Alain Bombard's theory that man could survive in a shipwreck scenario by drinking seawater, this time the crackpot notion upon which his voyage rested would be his own. He wrote:
"It was not until I learned something of voodoo in Haiti [at the end of his previous voyage] that I began to give really serious consideration to my new plan. Through voodoo I learned that one can, by deep concentration, a kind of self-hypnosis, change one's fundamental attitude toward a problem, that, ultimately through voodoo, one can rid oneself of fears and doubts. 'Impossible is not Haitian,' runs the motto of the newspaper in Jacmel…and this motto I took for my own."
Convinced that morale was a more important problem than physical skill or endurance, and fully expecting to suffer, Lindemann schooled himself in mind-control techniques, and took "never give up," "keep going west," and "don't take any assistance" as his mottos. He also attempted to acclimate himself to sleep deprivation, and relied on prayer during the voyage.

Hannes Lindemann in his Klepper Aerius II, Liberia, flying two squaresails and gaff main. (Source: Time/Life)
As on his third and successful attempt in the dugout canoe, Lindemann's kayak voyage departed from Las Palmas, in the Canaries. He had outfitted his 17-foot, Klepper Aerius II two-seater kayak (named Liberia, like his dugout) as a ketch, with squaresails on both main and mizzen masts (1.5 and .75 square yards respectively), and a larger, high-peaked gaff mainsail as well. The mizzen mast was "a paddle that sat on the aft washboard," and the steering cables could be actuated by either hand or foot. An outrigger consisted of a float made from a section of truck inner tube lashed to another paddle that served as the outrigger's single boom. As with his first dugout attempt, Lindemann set sail without a shakedown voyage. Finding the boat overloaded, he soon tossed a quantity of provisions, so that he ended up carrying 154 lb. of food and drink.

Although the outrigger boom was broken in a collision with a pilot boat as he was leaving Las Palmas, Lindemann soon fixed it and it held up throughout the rest of the voyage. Given the prevailing winds, the outrigger was on the lee side of the vessel for most of the voyage, and Lindemann occasionally wished for a second outrigger to lend greater stability to the boat. Even so, when he capsized twice in a Force 8 storm near the end of his voyage, it was over the outrigger float both times.

Lindemann arrived in St. Martin in January, 1957, having found the 72-day crossing no less an excruciating trial than he expected. Although he attributed his success, in part, to the Voodoo-inspired program of affirmations and mind control, it should be noted that he had succeeded on his previous voyage without those aids.

Of history's three ocean-spanning folding-kayak voyages, Lindemann's is the best known. No doubt this was partly because he wrote a book about his adventure, but also because his movie-star good looks landed him on the cover of Life magazine.

Most of the content concerning Lindemann comes from his book, Alone at Sea
Some information about the other two voyages comes from, which includes a rundown of several impressive kayak voyages. 
Here is a great deal of detail on Oskar Speck's voyage, including his own account (in English translation).