Always on the quest for new and exciting experiences, my wife and I have just got into wearing neoprene and playing with rubber. With designs on seeing familiar things from a unique and dangerous perspective, we’ve taken up kayaking.
I’ve never previously been much involved in watersports – in the kind of aquatic pursuits I enjoy the most, getting wet often means you’ve had a very bad, expensive day out. Playing out on the estuary with the Kayak, though, is something else. With our inflatable plaything, you’re separated from the water by only air and a few millimeters of man-made membrane. Best of all, you’re 100% involved in what your vessel does.
So, just as I found helming a yacht and riding my bike, Kayaking reminded me of the feel and sensation that cars so often deprive us of.
The forthcoming experience relates only to the inflatable type – more Canoe than Kayak, really, but these things were named by somebody more informed than I. We chose an overgrown beach toy for reasons of portability and storage – when flaccid it easily fits a car trunk – and, of course, price. Our Sevylor Madison was £350 or so, substantially less costly than a similarly sized rigid setup. That said, if we did decide to move to a solid plastic variation of the theme, a second-hand example is probably quite affordable.
Even before you launch, unique feelings and sensations come on stream. A small, sandy beach by our local yacht club is our favorite launch place, we inflate the kayak to its maximum 1.5PSI on the small concrete promenade above the beach. Then, with the bow firmly aground but the rest of the hull afloat, Nicola boards the front seat first and I follow from my more generous wading depth.
With my extra weight on board – our combined (of which I take the hippos’s share) mass not coming far short of the boat’s maximum 200kg capacity – the boat bends appreciably from its intended shape. Yet, although it’s deformable, the kayak is still stiff enough to convey the feeling of our bow scraping along the beach prior to the river taking all the strain. If it’s flat calm, as soon as we’re afloat, all sensation ends.
Until, that is, either of us should move or begin to paddle.
The kayak, when evenly ballasted and on a mirror-flat sea, exists in a state of equilibrium – one that’s broken by absolutely any force acted upon it. The design of our Sevylor comprises three air-cells – a labyrinthine floor chamber designed to provide rigidity and a degree of contour below the waterline, and the two sausage-like bladders that provide the hull’s buoyancy. With a far wider footprint than a rigid kayak, the lateral stability of our inflatable is palpable, but its overall lightness makes for an inherent twitchiness that’s rather undermining.
Any sudden movement and the whole plot will lurch several degrees from the horizontal, before complying to the physics dictated by those big buoyancy chambers. This can be explained by the high degree of flexibility in the boat – despite clever design this 16kg inflatable craft was always going to struggle to keep its form against the human ballast onboard versus the water beneath.
This flexing moment never goes away, but is brought into stark focus when the water is placid. When there are ripples to contend with, though, the effect becomes blurred – it’s hard to distinguish between the forces exerted upon the kayak by its crew, and those wielded by mother nature. It’s a combination of both, though, that sums up how the kayak feels on lively water. Its malleable form is compliant with the ever-changing profile of the waves, bucking and writhing underneath you, yet never losing shape entirely.
This is ‘scuttle shake’ in its most organic form. Just as a car’s structure will distort when pummeled by combined engine power and road contour, our kayak is shaped by the waves and influenced by our own movements. It twists and skews in the vertical, horizontal and every other plane possible, and with no rigid members in its construction, its form behaves like a harder, thicker version of the water that supports it.
Is this a desirable sensation? No, but it can be educational. A rigid-hulled Kayak will do far less to keep you stable – if your bodily exertions are sufficient, a clumsy lateral movement could become a capsize. You don’t have the safety net of those big bags of air. Conversely, while the inflatable boat will bend and shimmy on instruction by the water, a rigid craft will simply be jostled around. The flex of our boat acts as a huge shock-absorber. In the same vein, a convertible car that you can actively feel bending beneath you in a sharp corner, will tend to feel far less ‘on-edge’ than one with greater rigidity. That’s because all the forces involved will coagulate into a mass of activity and you can’t tell one from another.
Are you feeling the consequences of what you’re asking the car to do, or what the road is doing to the car?
One of the peculiarities of Kayaking and Canoeing is that your legs are almost entirely redundant. In my case, all they do is get in the way of my stroke and attract sunburn. On the other hand, the fact that it’s your arms and upper torso that do all the work when it comes to propelling and steering the craft, means that you can feel every single nuance of the boat’s behavior. When one crew member is a petite 5’4″ girl, and the other is a grotesque 6’5″ bloke, it’s rather tricky to match paddling pace. This means that progress seldom occurs in a straight line. Over time, though, it becomes natural and you soon learn exactly what is required to go in the right direction at any kind of decent pace.
It’s also painfully apparent when force is working against you. When you have so little thrust at your disposal, riding against the tide – or more often than not, the wind – can cripple any forward momentum. Notably, though, you can feel when your stroke is at its most efficient. When your paddle blade enters the water crisply and comes back out again without a huge splash, you know you exerted good purchase when the boat surges forward. Get a good rally going on the paddle, and the kayak really gets moving, despite your effort seemingly becoming reduced. Unlike in a car, where you have engine noise, the rev counter and speedo to determine whether the engine is operating at peak efficiency, on a kayak you know that you’re effortlessly slicing through the water when your muscle pain fades.
It can be hard to determine how quickly you’re moving, though. You can’t count on the ripples that pass you as being any worthwhile indication – they may be heading towards you anyway. Instead, you fix on a point on either horizon, and watch to see how objects between you and it behave. Seeing buoys, anchored boats and channel markers pass behind you is terrifically rewarding, and though you may not be making more than two or three knots, your proximity to the water and the smooth movement of the kayak kids you into thinking that you’re traveling much faster. So you believe it.
And it’s exhilarating.
There’s no great speed involved in inflatable kayaking, just total involvement. At the end of a trip out on the river – in common with a really satisfying drive – you feel nourished. Like you’ve experienced something great. In a way, what we’re discussing is the difference between driving and motoring. The latter describes what millions do every day, traveling great distances in sealed boxes, with only the sound of a podcast and the view through the windscreen to feed the senses. In the right car, though, in one that puts you in direct contact with the road, the wind and the mechanical forces that motivate it, you need travel hardly any distance to be moved.
[All images Chris Haining, Hoonverse, 2017]