Magazine article Geographical

Just Add Water: Essential Gear Take a Paddle on the Wild Side with Paul Grogan as He Presents a Round-Up of the Past, Present and Future of Expedition Kayaking

Magazine article Geographical

Just Add Water: Essential Gear Take a Paddle on the Wild Side with Paul Grogan as He Presents a Round-Up of the Past, Present and Future of Expedition Kayaking

Article excerpt

When a friend and I first hatched a plan to paddle Siberia's Amur River from source to sea, little did I know that one of the biggest challenges I was going to have to face would be getting in and out of my Kayak every morning Our spray decks--the thick skirts of neoprene worn around the waist and stretched over a kayak's cockpit to keep water out--had arrived the day before we left the UK. Pushed for time we'd only tried one on for size. When finally stretched the second one around my cockpit on the morning of our departure downstream, the dense rubber cord that was meant to hold it in place promptly ripped away from the neoprene, leaving a gaping hole that would--in the event of a capsize--ship water faster than a sinking supertanker.

I managed to repair it, but this did tittle to solve the original problem: namely, that the deck was too small. Rich and I figured out a s, stem of heaving and grunting that got the thing on, but it required so much effort that we were loathe to repeat it. Consequently, I tried to avoid taking it off at all costs. This meant--among other things--that I pretty much stopped drinking so that I wouldn't have to get out of my boat to got to the toilet. By the end of our third day on the river I was so dehydrated that it was all could do to stop myself from being violently sick.

The golden age

If I'd been paddling a 'Rob Roy', of course, I wouldn't have had this problem. Although John 'Rob Roy' MacGregor wasn't the first to fashion a paddle-propelled vessel in the British Isles (that honour goes to the Celts, who'd been using skin-covered coracles for millennia), he is credited with popularising the kayak in Britain. Inspired by a visit to North America in 1865, he built a 15-foot (4.6-metre) boat out of oak and cedar boards and kitted it out with a seven-foot paddle and a loose-fitting splash deck. He christened his creation the Rob Roy, after the Scottish folk hero of his clan and, with an eye to publicity, he documented its maiden voyage in A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe. The book was an overnight success among MacGregor's peers, who pursued their new-found pastime with characteristic vim and vigour.

During the 1930s the enormously heavy wooden kayaks of the 19th century were superseded by lighter contraptions made out of wood and canvas. However, it wasn't until the advent of glass fibre in the 1960s and '70s that kayaking truly came of age. Light, tough and easy to work and shape, glass fibre revolutionised boat design, enabling narrower hulls, flatter decks and razor-sharp noses and gunwales, all of which meant faster, more manoeuvrable Kayaks. The affordability of glass fibre also ushered in the golden age of expedition boating, and it wasn't long before pioneering paddlers such as Mike Jones and Mick Hopkinson began to push back the boundaries.

In 1972, the pair had to contend with crocodile attacks and gun-toting bandits on an expedition along the Blue Nile. In 1976, Hopkinson and five other paddlers descended the Dudh Kosi, dubbed by enthusiastic feature writers as the river of Everest.' Putting in at a record 5,300 metres above sea level, they faced 130 kilometres of grade V and VI rapids in glacier-fed meltwater (on the international grading scale, VI is generally considered to be unrunnable). This expedition, perhaps more than any other, captured the imagination of the British public, and the modern era of recreational kayaking was born.

Perfect balance

Since then, kayaking equipment like that for most outdoor sports--has evolved almost beyond recognition. Blow-moulded plastics allow kayaks to be produced as quickly as the plastic can be poured into the moulds. Gone are the days of wooden paddles, sweaty cagoules and Michelin-man buoyancy aids; as you'll see in the 10 of the best selection at the end of this article, kayaking equipment now uses state-of-the-art materials to achieve the perfect balance between form, function and dare I say it--fashion. …

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