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Is Kayaking an Art or a Science??

Posted by on December 31, 2011

There is a bit of a debate floating around the kayak instructing world as to whether the sport of kayaking is better described as an art or as a science. Recently, Alex challenged me to an instructor duel of sorts in which we will each take a stab at this question from our individual perspectives and then come together to make a conclusion on the topic. This is our first shot at this type of post and we hope to do this again when open-ended kayaking questions like this arise. We’re looking forward to your comments and feedback!

Kayak Dave’s Take

Is kayaking an art or a science? I think that the answer to this question depends on a lot of things but none more than the personality and perspective of the instructor who is answering. I’m a scientist and engineer by training so most people would expect that I would land on the side of science here. However, I have recently become more in-tune with my long-dormant, artistic side. So where do I think kayaking falls?…here’s my take:

It’s true that kayaking can be studied as a science. I often find myself dipping into my bag of mechanical engineering terms to describe various kayak designs to customers at the kayak shop. For instance, the maximum speed of a given kayak is a function of its hull design; namely the ratio of water-line length to wetted surface area. How is that not science? I’ve also been guilty of using physics to help teach paddling skills in my classes. My most infamous analogies include using moment diagrams to describe how an Eskimo roll works and breaking out vector addition to teach course correction for current and wind. Clearly, science is everywhere you look in kayaking but is kayaking a science?

I feel as though I’d be missing something very profound if I failed to acknowledge the art in kayaking. There is something about the smooth and effortless motion of a proper forward paddle stroke. The interaction of the paddle blade with the water is like that of a paint brush on canvas. The grace of a sculling draw or a brace turn is like a dance with a brilliant partner. If this is not enough then consider the feelings associated with the recovery phase of the Eskimo Roll. There you are, poised, breathless in your underwater world. Snap! Your kayak rolls and your body unfolds into the air. The cool water sheds off of your skin and slicks your hair to the side. You have been reborn! The roll is poetic…

In my opinion, kayaking is like a renaissance man; there is just as much art as there is science in it!

-Kayak Dave

Alex’s Take

Many people wouldn’t expect the subject matter of watersports to arise within the fields of either arts or science but surprisingly many hardcore paddling enthusiasts have debated this topic for ages. When it comes down to the physics and calisthenics of paddling one could clearly place that into the scientific school of thought. Yet… as we move into the field of gradual bracing, the finesse of edging, and even the mastering of a clean Eskimo roll, some might begin to view paddling through the lens of an art.

Traditionally, people view science has a physical framework drawn upon objective, and provable and disprovable physical evidence. While art is looked at as a more freely, as a subjective matter which can neither be proven nor disproven based on personal preference or past experience – the more “romantic” of the too. Can many aspects of kayaking be objectively proven or disproven? Absolutely! If one leans a kayak beyond the threshold of its secondary stability it will surely result in a capsize. This is clearly provable time and time again (most of the time accidentally!). Yet the act is deciding whether a screw roll is more effective than a C to C roll is much more subjective, and clearly less distinguishable in terms of provability. For the sake of example, Dave might argue that a C to C is the best, most effective and reliable roll. Yet I might oppositely argue that the screw roll is the most effective roll.

The point of moving from the initial state (capsized, upside-down, underwater) to the goal state (above water in an upright position) is the exact same. But the “method” by which both Dave and I got there is undoubtedly different. It is here where the field of kayaking deviates from science into the spectrum of art. The ability to decide whether a screw roll is more effective than a C to C roll is not as easily provable. The reason why I would classify this as an art is because each method works differently for different paddlers – it is ultimately up to the discretion of the individual.

So… my final answer after an overly lengthy description: kayaking is both a science and an art. Some applications are provable and some do not fall as easily within the area of black or white. Whether one classifies kayaking as a science or an art, one fact is for sure… do not over think it. Just get out there and have a blast! Scrutinizing whether your paddle stroke is at the “right angle” or analyzing whether a skeg is better than a rudder will only take your mind off of what you’re really there for… letting go and having fun!

-Alex

The Conclusion

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