The magic of the right tools

Previous posts mention the problems with epic crossings in sport kayaks, instead of purpose-built craft.  It’s a special case of the general principle of specialized tools:  extreme tool specialization vastly and magically increases productivity and effectiveness.

There is likely room for improvement in kayaks, because current designs have been derived over several decades from thousand-year-old Inuit Greenland-style kayaks, rather than designed from scratch.  Not to say the Inuit craft were bad — on the contrary, they are almost perfect, a central reason for Inuit success.  But they are perfect for completely different conditions:  ice, 30-degree water (yes, seawater can go that low without freezing), and pilots that did not know how to swim (easy exit is not necessary if a capsize results in drowning anyway).

One big improvement of the last 20 years is the fundamental change in whitewater kayak designs.  A generation ago, they used a variant of the basic Inuit layout:  long, narrow, and pointy.  Today’s whitewater boats are short and blunt, better designed for their functional requirements:  quick turns, immunity to snags, etc.

Expedition 360 is interesting not just because it successfully crossed oceans, but because it took a fundamentally different design direction in a kayak-shaped boat:  closed cabin, tandem bicycle drivetrain, solar and wind generators, etc.  (British engineers are wonderful at open-ended mechanical design.  Truly world-beating.  Sometime I’ll post a dozen examples to illustrate.)

Most design simply copies what went before, because it’s efficient to use a tested design as a starting point.  But it’s not optimal.  

There is room for a new reference design for long-distance self-powered personal watercraft.  Properly designed, it should increase the crossing range for a modestly skilled kayaker from 10 miles up to, say, 40 miles.  It would look something like this:

  • Powered with the legs, which are far stronger than the arms.  
  • Fits easily atop a passenger car.  
  • Scalable construction methods, e.g. rotomolding or carbon fiber.
  • Very stable (outriggers?), yet easily righted in a rollover.
  • Very narrow (low resistance).
  • Very long (high hull speed).
  • Easily carry one person and 100kg of supplies.

Such a craft is seemingly feasible, and would permit people of modest athletic ability and judgment to survive solo trips such as the following:

  • Miami to the Bahamas.
  • Los Angeles to any of the Channel Islands.
  • Vancouver to Victoria via intermediate islands.
  • Key West to Havana (ah, someday…).

Time to refit the garage for boat prototyping.

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