Bering Sea Kayaks
Prototypes for recreational use
©Skip Snaith 2002
Among Alaskan watercraft, the Bering Sea kayak has a reputation
for safety and utility. Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen brought a
custom-built Nunivak kayak home with him to Denmark from the Fifth
Thule Expedition (1921-24). In Bark Canoes and Skin Boats Howard
Chapelle says: “highly regarded by all who have had contact with it, this
is generally considered one of the safest and most useful of the Alaskan kayaks”
The high recreational potential of the Bering Sea type is still generally
I have seen full-sized traditional qayaqs that would have no trouble
overlooked in the current skin boat revival, which has focused mainly on
the kayaks of Greenland and selected samples from the Aleutian chain.
Part of the problem is that Bering Sea kayaks don’t fit the current fashion
long, low, narrow boats. I suspect that their high volume and greater width
some to assume that they are clumsy boats suited mainly for heavy hauling.
This is simply not the case.
taking you on a weekend excursion to Sucia, or summer-long cruise
to Skagway. I have also seen others that I though were just too big for my intended
purposes, although I liked every other aspect of the kayak very much. Those
I wanted to change. Boat builders have been copying each other and modifying
designs since the first raft log went faster than another. Boats are subject to
same evolutionary pressures that organisms are.
The working Bering Sea kayak achieved a certain standardization
of dimension because of conditions it worked in, the type of work it
did, and the particular tools and equipment that had to be carried in order
to insure success. Although these dimensions were encoded by means
of anthropometric measurement, this does not endow the measurements
themselves with some sort of inviolable sacredness that can never be changed.
Once an archetype is free of its’ original constraints, or given new ones, any
viable type will evolve into new and useful forms.
The Bering Sea archetype is a short, handy craft with a large circular
cockpit that’s easy to use. A humped, reverse sheer, a generous keel to
gunwale depth, and high, peaked decks give the boat carrying capacity
in a manageable size and create a distinctive wind and water-shedding profile.
This “genetic signature” is what keeps a Bering Sea boat from looking like a Baidarka.
Let’s apply the DNA concept just a little further. You have a
“gene pool”, which might be found in the harbor, a museum, or
the pages of a book, and you have certain traits and appearances
that you are trying to transfer into new entities. It’s sort of like plant
breeding. At what point does the original strain disappear into the hybrid?
Testing for appearance is easy: if you built a ten-foot version of a Nunivak
kayak, it’s still recognizable as a Nunivak kayak. Testing for “family
characteristics” may not be so straightforward. What looks like a minature
Nunivak kayak may, in fact, act like a Wee Lassie.
This process of modification and evolution seems to have taken place
“Camping and cruising in a choppy estuary” is very close to the original
with indigenous watercraft too. You can look at what we called the
“Bering Sea archetype” above, and see the same principles carried out
with a slightly different execution in the kayaks further north, particularly
Norton Sound and King Island. There are strong similarities to Bristol Bay
and Kodiak kayaks to the south as well. In each case, it appears that differences
in the working and operating conditions required subtle variation in the size
and shape of these related hulls.
qayaq job description! This is a safe kayak that can keep its’ paddler
sheltered and dry in a wide variety of conditions while carrying anything
that’s asked of it. It’s capable of enough speed to be interesting, but has
none of the nervousness associated with high speed kayaks. The large,
circular opening is easy to use, and makes it simple to stow or retrieve
gear stored under the deck.
The trick is to get the right sized kayak for the job. A traditional qayaq
might need to carry home hundreds of pounds of seal or walrus meat.
Standard gear included several paddles, harpoons, darts, floats, lines
and survival stuff in addition to a sled, icepick, and other specialized tools.
This is a lot of weight and the boat is sized accordingly. The same volume
of boat with no payload will float higher; it could mean trouble in a breeze.
The recreational user may want to follow the same strategy that
users of “up river” qayaqs in the Y-K delta did, and build somewhat
smaller, lighter kayaks.
Weight doesn’t need to be an issue. Many of the frames I examined
up north were not heavy, although they used working boat scantlings.
The drift spruce available to Yup’ik builders is excellent. The wood is
both light and strong. I think it is primarily black spruce.
You can safely reduce the scantlings for recreational versions, making them
more or less consistent with the conventions of current-day baidarka construction.
Weights in the 30-40 lb. range for full sized kayaks should be easy to achieve.
You can reduce weight by reducing size too; the 10 1/2 foot Auklet weighs
The relationship of Size/volume is a complicated matter, so these are
only a few thoughts. The volume of a vessel is related to the sort of
work it needs to do. It reflects both the operating conditions and the
loading. The rational behind making smaller recreational versions is
simple: since you won’t be hauling the sorts of loads that the original boats
did, you won’t need as much volume either.
Volume can be reduced in an infinite number of ways, but a
proportional lessening of length and width is at the heart of it.
Length usually reduces faster than width. Depth of the hull is
an important matter with these kayaks too. It needs to reflect changes
in overall length, but the amount of variation should be kept small.
How small you can make a copy while still preserving
the sense of the original is another question altogether.
Bering Sea kayaks are normally built around 16 feet long, which
makes the smaller versions instructive. At 11 foot LOA, Auklet has
essentially the same functionality and feel as a Rob Roy or decked Wee Lassie
At 13-14 feet LOA they become very solid little kayaks with a distinctly
sporty feel and peaked decks. The keel should be rockered rather than straight.
I used a 27” bicycle rim for the coaming on one of these that worked rather
well, but it didn’t save time as I had originally imagined it would.
A traditional, anthropometrically-sized kayak could go just
about anywhere and do just about anything. Although these are
it still feels as if you are the one in charge.
In the unloaded state, the larger kayaks present very little wetted surface
area to create drag. This makes them much faster and more responsive
than you might otherwise think possible but with plenty of reserve capacity
for camping or expeditions.
Reducing volume will yield a smaller size, lower decks and
a lower profile. Dimensionally this can mean losing a foot or
more of length and 2-3 inches
of deck height. Widths can run from 26 to 30
inches, according to taste and inclination.
Traditional Bering Sea kayaks were deep, on the order of 16 inches
or so from keel to rim top. This reflects both the loading they were
expected to carry, and the fact that the preferred paddling position was
a kneeling one with a single blade. Both conditions favor a deeper boat.
The single blade is a useful and fun but I wouldn’t want to give up the
double paddle for recreational use. And I like the seated position. Lowering
deck height by one to three inches is a good way to adapt to these realities.
In trying this sort of modification, I might loose some gunwale to keel depth
but I would mainly concentrate on reducing the gunwale to deckridge dimension.
If you intend to double paddle, don’t exceed a rim height of 14 to 15 inches above
without testing the set up beforehand.
One advantage to a high rim is the dry security it gives. You won’t
need a skirt unless the going gets pretty rough.
Even without a lowered deck using the double paddle is not really
too difficult, although you may need to alter your stroke so that
you hold the paddle more vertically than usual. For long-term double
paddling some adjustment of the deck geometry may be helpful.
The traditional Bering Sea double blade was quite short- about 7 feet
with very small, narrow blades, about 12-14 inches long. Bear in mind
that the original paddlers using them were not usually very tall men. The double
was used for speed in calm weather and for balance when running with
the waves in bad weather.
What about windage? I’m still gathering impressions, but the designs
seem to work. I can vouch that they come from an extremely windy region,
and I doubt that a poor design in this respect would have survived very long.
Since no kayak can be entirely windage free, I think that the
distribution of wind pressure across a hull’s freeboard is at
least as important as the quantitative amount of pressure that a
hull exhibits. In other words, a balanced effect is beneficial. Because
of the reverse sheer and the more or less central position of the paddler,
it feels as if the windage for these boats is concentrated amidships, with
the effect tapering off evenly at each end. The result appears to be a
predictable and manageable hull.
Interviews with elder yup'ik kayakers leads me to believe that they would load
their kayaks to accomodate conditions whenever possible.
This is one area where recreational modification makes a great deal of sense.
other design articles
Not many of us will carry 300 pounds of cargo down below, or a
five foot long sled on the back deck. Scaling a boat realisitically
makes good sense. When you reduce size and volume, the overall dimensions
of the windage problem decrease too. There's no special magic in all this -
there's simply less boat for the weather to act on.
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