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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Robert,
    Not sure why you need to justify your own blog!
    It's your blog, and we like to read about the boats you like to write about!