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SKINBOATS: How do they Compare to Modern Sea Kayaks?

“What kind of a kayak is that?” is the comment people make when they first see me paddling one of my skinboats. They have never seen a skinboat before and don’t know that it is the ancestor of their plastic or composite kayak. Skinboats were developed thousands of years ago by the Inuits who were the native hunters of the far north. The Inuits used their skinboats for everything. They hunted seals, walrus and even whales, for food, clothing and shelter. Without the kayak the Inuit could have never survived in the frigid north. Larger types of skinboats called Umiaks were also used for transporting families and family goods from place to place. They were up to 40’ long and could carry large amounts of goods and people.

The Inuit hunting skinboats were constructed just like the skinboats of today except we use modern materials not the skins and sinew of seals and sea lions. The Inuit kayaks were fast, seaworthy craft capable of traveling long distances at a high rate of speed while carrying the Inuit hunter and his kill. Many Inuit worked together to hunt and kill large animals such as walrus and whales. Singly they could kill seals, sea otters, birds and many types of fish.

I am often asked why would I want to paddle a kayak that used construction techniques that were developed thousands of years ago when I could paddle a plastic or fiberglass kayak developed by engineers of today. Why go by oxcart when you could travel in a Cadillac?

The answer is really simple the skinboat is the Cadillac. When I paddle I want a very lightweight, seagoing kayak that can withstand being dropped or pounded on rocks and take the beating of landings on a gravel or rocky beaches. I also want a kayak that can move easily through the water at high speed, is comfortable, stable, can turn and track well and still look beautiful on the water. Believe it or not skinboats do all that and more.

How you ask? Well those of us who build skinboats go back to the Intuits for guidance, study their construction techniques and update their designs using modern materials. Fig 1. is a modern Greenland style skinboat. It has all of the lightweight advantages and handling characteristics inherent in the skinboat design, including the translucent look of the skin. Kayaks for all ages,skinboats are perfect for any type of sea kayaking you can imagine.

fig 1. A modern Greenland style skinboat. 17’ long, 23” beam, 25 pounds.

The frame of the kayak is the main support member. It is made of wood and all of the parts are lashed not nailed or screwed together. The lashing of the wood is the key to the strength and flexibility of the frame. Wood is a marvelous material as long as you don’t create stress points in it. It is very flexible, limber and strong. When you look at a skinboat frame you can see where the strength and flexibility come from.

Each member is designed to take the load of the waves or impact and spread it out throughout the entire frame. If the kayak is dropped on a rock or hits something hard the flexible members bend absorbing the shock and then push it away. If you pick up a skinboat and drop it on a rock it just bounces like a rubber ball.

fig 2, A skinboat frame of an 18’ Baidarka before the skin is applied.

The skin is an integral part of the strength and ruggedness of the modern skinboat. The skin works with the wooden lashed frame to provide the strength and flexibility the kayak needs to survive in heavy seas or when landing on rocky shores. If the kayak strikes a rock in a heavy sea the rock first hits the strong abrasion resistant skin. The skin spreads the load of the impact of the rock by flexing and partially wrapping around the rock. The skin then pushes against the stringers and ribs of the frame transferring the impact to them. They in turn bend and flex, absorbing the force of the rock until the energy of the hit is totally absorbed by the entire frame. Then like a spring,it pushes back against the rock and the kayak bounces off the rock and back into the water. The flexibility of the frame does all this without breaking any parts of the frame or putting a hole in the skin.

This skin we just mentioned covers the frame to form the watertight kayak we need. Nowadays a synthetic fabric is used instead of sealskin. Modern fabrics are very strong and they can be coated with a number of products which both seal the fabric (making it watertight) plus providing a protective layer which resists abrasion and scratching from rocks or other nasties.

It seems odd that such an old design can still perform at such a high level. The fact is that if a kayak is well designed it will give satisfactory performance no matter how old. The Aleut Inuit who lived in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska built a kayak very similar to the modern Baidarka pictured in fig 3. The waters they paddled are considered some of the worst in the world. Their designs had to be exemplary or they all would have died at sea. Many experts consider the Baidarka to be the finest kayak design ever invented.

The Baidarka in fig.3 is 18’ long 20” wide and a DTS of 7.5”and it weighs only 29 pounds. Capable of handling any sea conditions you would feel comfortable in it is fast and easy to paddle yet has excellent primary and secondary stability. The unique shape of the hull allows such a narrow beam to have excellent stability. That same hull shape also allows superb tracking and excellent turning at the same time. A difficult combination for most kayaks to achieve.

fig 3. A finished 18’ Baidarka with a coated polyester skin.

A unique design, the skinboat has transitioned thousands of years and remains as versatile, unique, stylish and highly desired. The skinboat offers all the advantages the modern paddler could ever want or need.

-- by Bill Low, Willow Kayaks