On the Seas in a Tippy Needle of a Boat

Finessing inherent instability is one of the joys of controlling many machines. Our man gets wet to prove the point.
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Among water people, there are planers and there are displacers. The planers are the ones whose boats are not of the water but on the water, bouncing along the surface like flung, flat rocks. The most extreme examples-hydroplane race boats, for instance-are mated to the water only by the lower half of the spinning prop’s disc and the occasional touch of a sponson. Very fast. Very raucous. Very horsepower intensive.

I’m a displacer. The hulls I fancy displace their weight in water. They float.

But the hulls I really like are mere splinters, boats of extreme fineness with a very high length-to-beam ratio. A very fine boat–a floating splinter–is the machine a man should power when he’s on the water to go as fast as his muscles will allow. When I was in college, I rode as part of a crew in an eight-oared shell, a spectacularly fine boat. At least I did until I proved too puny even for the lightweight team’s bow position, which was where they put the kid small and strong enough to keep the boat’s average per-oarsman weight down to 150 pounds. (That crew went on to win the world lightweight championship without me, thank you very much.)

So I switched to “singles”–sculls, little water bugs so tiny and narrow that you sat atop them on a sliding seat, feet laced to footrests. The blades of the two oars in the water work like outriggers and are all that keep those boats upright. They are fast, silent, efficient and as tippy as a Suzuki Samurai.

That was then. Now I paddle sea kayaks. For a long time I thought kayaks were the purview of men and women who were probably also bird-watchers or nudists–unsmiling folk who take the outdoors seriously. But the sport has been spreading wildly as people with a sense of humor and adventure discover the pleasures of taking a fine boat up a narrow and otherwise inaccessible inlet.

What splendid little machines these boats are. The modern sea kayak is one of the most efficient human-powered devices ever invented if you include in the measure not only efficiency, simplicity and speed but utility too. Bicycles are much faster than kayaks, of course, but they’re also a lot more complex. There are faster oared boats, including those sculls of my distant youth, but they are flat-water craft of absolutely no utility. Kayaks have crossed oceans and can do 4 mph all day (or night) long, and carry a substantial amount of gear in watertight compartments fore and aft.

You literally plug yourself into a kayak and then lock yourself in with a “spray skirt” that you wear like a too-short suspendered dress fastened tight around your chest; the skirt attaches to the teardrop-shaped cockpit coaming and forms a water-resistant seal. (A kayaker on dry land, skirt dangling long in front and short in the rear, looks as silly as a kilted Scot unaware that his buns are out in the breeze.)

The faster the kayak, the less stable it is; the higher the fineness ratio, the tippier the boat. During a Mountain Travel Sobek group paddle off La Paz in Baja California, Mexico, not long ago–a superb way to get an introduction to the delights of kayaking, incidentally, even if you’ve never paddled a stroke–I found myself in a snarky 19-foot racing single that nobody else wanted, a slippery fiberglass toothpick that spit me out three times before I made partial peace with it. A more skilled kayaker could have done far better by “bracing” with the paddle, slapping the water to stop the roll, but I was about as stable as a first-time unicycle rider.

If you really like to handle a machine rather than issue vague commands through various governors and mediators, you know that stable vehicles are no fun. Fat SUVs are stable. A 747 is as stable as Uranus.
A modern cruise ship is artificially stabilized to help the bluehairs keep fox-trotting. But if you’re a
gunfighter you want an F-16 so fast and nimble it needs the assist of a
computer. You like a car that can be throttle-steered and rotated, not just aimed. Part of the fun of kayaking is balancing the boat. For a while off La Paz, I was like a novice pilot, watching the horizon just to stay level. “Lookatthedolphins!” my floatmates would yell, but I didn’t dare. I had what kayakers call the shakes, my boat wiggling under me as fast as I could make my butt counterbalance.

If a skilled kayaker goes over, he
or she will casually do an Eskimo roll–continuing the capsize through 360 degrees and popping back out of the water. I flipped and then stayed flipped, and was left to scramble my way to the surface after hanging from the inverted hull, tied to the boat by my spray
skirt. You want to go over with a full breath, by the way. The skirt releases easily enough, with the pull of a toggle, but upside-down underwater groping for a toggle is not a nice place to be.

Technology has, of course, revolutionized the sport and upped the prices. Despite the arcane sealskin-and-whalebone traditions, most kayaks are made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, fiberglass or, for all
I know, titanium. A well-dressed paddler can easily be toting a couple thousand dollars’ worth of gear before getting into the boat–paddle, spray skirt, a dry- or wetsuit, state-of-the-art kayaking life vest, emergency strobe, GPS, waterproof PDA (for consulting tide-table programs) and other accessories.

The paddle is literally a kayak’s propeller, and achieving the ideal shape and blade area is a matter of art and craft that can make as much difference as it does in an airplane’s prop. Some of the lightest, most expensive and most delicate–don’t use one to fend off shoreline rocks–are made from carbon fiber or graphite. Ounces matter when you’re swinging a thing down, up and around all day long.

Knife-like and narrow as a sea kayak’s hull is, there’s still ample space for conspicuous consumption. You can equip your boat with a lightweight foot-operated bilge pump, a deck-mounted maritime compass, a retractable skeg or rudder (also worked by your feet–good to have three), a
special cushioned seat with thigh braces and hip padding to lock you firmly into the machine, and a wide variety of other must-haves bungeed to the deck fore and aft.

Thus accoutered, you’re the master of a machine with the beauty, purity, purposefulness and shape of a fine broadsword. You’re tempted to point the thing north to Alaska. Just be sure to sit up straight along the way.