Aerospace Kayak Construction

How we Build our Kayaks

1995 - 1997

Ray Jardine

Kayak Design Notes
by Ray Jardine

I have not given the specifics of my kayak design in case some manufacturer will want to license my creation and put it into production.

This kayak is sort of like Friends for rock climbing. It revolutionized my own long-distance kayaking, and perhaps one day it will do the same for other paddlers. It is more efficient, more stable, and more capable of hauling heavy loads without sacrificing much speed. It tracks straight without a rudder, and on command will turn sharply without a rudder. And most importantly the boat will save lives. With a little practice you can flip it and climb back in, no paddle floats, sponsons, or other paraphernalia needed.

In sub-zero seas piled in ten foot heaps crashing everywhere in 50 knots of blown spume, it is very difficult to use a paddle float to re-enter a flipped kayak. I wanted a better chance of handling such conditions, and there was - and is - no commercial kayak out there that could do it. So I designed one.

Let me give a bit of background on my design. Firstly, I am an aerospace engineer. I am accustomed to delving into innumerable technical variables of design, and optimizing them to fill certain requirements. Secondly, I am a computer programmer. And thirdly, I studied naval architecture. My boat design project began in the mid 1990's when I wrote a software package to design custom steel and aluminum sailboats. This package outputs to a NC plasma table which cuts out the parts. The code for this software, written by myself, is about the same size as my book Beyond Backpacking. It is a pretty hefty piece of code. And it can do a few things that hardly any other package out there can. For example, it can eliminate increasing weather helm as the boat heels over. During my round the world sailing voyage I learned the importance of this feature. My boat back then got very heavy on the helm as she heeled over in strong wind. This strained the boat's steering gear, and was not safe due to the danger of a broach. And guess what - most modern sailboats are the same. So they need very nimble and stout self-steering gear. Back in the good old days when designers such as Herreschoff knew how to eliminate increasing weather helm versus angle of heel, boats balanced nicely and rarely required self-steering.

Anyway, one day I found myself needing a custom kayak for a trip along the coast of Arctic Alaska. So I made a few mods to my sailboat software, then began using it to design the kayak. This was to be my first home-built, which during her subsequent 600 mile voyage we named the "Headwind Magnet" on behalf of the terrific headwinds and big seas encountered and paddled nearly every day of the journey. I have not yet written anything about that journey for the public, suffice it to say it was a real mind blower. But while designing the Magnet, I morphed two time-tested designs. One was a Dyson baidarka and the other was a Herreschoff canoe. Then I drew upon my own paddling experience, which included a few thousand miles in the Sea of Cortez, and a 3,300 mile trip along the coasts of British Columbia and southwestern Alaska. Boat design science and technology are one thing, and intuitive reasoning based on tons of experience is another. And when a designer comes along with the capacity for both, we have a recipe for some magic.

Jenny and I built the Headwind Magnet, then took it to Seattle for testing. We went to the biggest kayak sales shop, and asked to rent their fastest double. This boat was sleek like a needle, and outwardly it made our Magnet look like a real dog. We took both to a lake. First we paddled the needle around the lake, at a very measured pace. It took something like 15 minutes. Then we paddled the Magnet around the exact same course. The Magnet was 2 seconds slower. And maybe we were 2 seconds more tired. At any rate it was a pretty close contest. And most importantly, the Magnet was far more stable, it tracked just as well without sacrificing turning ability, and it could handle many times as much cargo. So much for sacrificing stability and capacity for speed.

We took the Magnet to Alaska and paddled 600 miles of coast. And all along the way my mind was cranking out improved design parameters left, right and center. By then I had used my software so much that I hardly needed to sit at the computer. I could do it in my head. So by the time we returned home I had my next set of improvements nicely laid out.

I sat down at the computer and plugged in my improved values. Then I spent the next two weeks - solid - iterating the improved design. And this is when the magic began to flow.

Imagine someone sitting at one of those star-wars video games, and playing it so much, day after day, week after week, that they hardly need to think about it. They become what I call "wired into it." This is when things begin to Flow for them.

This is what happened with me and my kayak design software, as round and round I went, iterating values and arriving, ultimately, at an optimized design. And I must note that I was not starting again from scratch. I was standing on the shoulders of the Magnet, and reaching for the stars.

The result was our second home-built - Siku Kayak.

Siku went 1,200 miles along the Arctic coast, including all the way across the top of Alaska. Aside from an initial capsize in big surf, she handled the trip magnificently. And during that trip once again, my mind was continually working on the next improvement.

We returned home and I went straight to the computer with my next set of improved values. Again another two weeks of iteration, and we built our third kayak - Nunaluk.

Nunaluk went nearly a thousand miles down the Mackenzie, then along 200 miles of Arctic coast, until, like the previous summer we were stopped by polar pack ice. But it was enough to test the boat in a variety of demanding conditions. And guess what? I returned home with no improvements whatsoever. My next kayak will be just like Nunaluk. I am not saying the design is perfect, but I would not change anything about it.

Ray Jardine

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