Inuit kayak
Maritime Topics On Stamps:

Kayak and Umiak of the Eskimos!

The Eskimos, who call themselves Inuits, have been living for thousands of years in North America, Greenland and Siberia. They are a mongoloid ethnic group numbering roundabout 135,000 and speak one common language. Over the years the Eskimos have developed two special boat types for hunting and transportation - the kayak and the umiak. Inuit (singular Inuk) translates to 'superior' or simply 'people'. The term Eskimo derived from an Indian language and means 'raw meat eater'.
umiak cover

Inuit kayak An Eskimo kayak is an enclosed one-man boat made of tendon-strapped wood and/or bones covered with seal or walrus skins. Its flexible skeleton is secured by leather straps. The boat has a seat hole and is propelled by using a double paddle. The Eskimo hunter, sitting in the kayak, wore an anorak manufactured of hides and furs. The anorak tightly fit the wrists and face so that no water could penetrate. By closing the boat opening with the anorak the boat was fully enclosed and watertight. Man and boat became one unit.

kayak boat
Over the centuries several different kayak types were developed depending on region and purpose. The shortest and most akward one was called koryak. It had a length of only 10 feet and was used for hunting in Kamchatka. On Greenland the length of a kayaks reached up to 20 feet, the width up to 1.5 feet. In some areas of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska there were also kayaks for two to three persons, which were suitably longer. The tanning of the hides and the sewing of the outer hull were almost exclusively done by the eskimo women. Leathers and seams were greased with seal fat and fish oil. The outer skin had to be renewed at least every two years. If a kayak was used on a daily basis this time span narrowed to a year.

The typical equipment of a kayak consisted of a double paddle, a harpoon, a throwing spear and a swimming skin. The weapons were tied to the boat with leather belts. The swimming skin was fastened behind the back of the hunter (as depicted on the Greenland stamp above). On the stamp to the right you can see a kayak glove with two thumbs. If one thumb became wet from paddling, the glove could be turned around. So the wet thumb could dry and the hunter could use the spare for operating the weapons.

kayak In rough seas an Eskimo hunter was always in danger of capsizing. The Eskimos developed a special manoeuvre called 'the Eskimo roll', which enabled them to raise a capsized boat with a single skillful paddle stroke. They knew approximately 25 different variations of the roll. In some situations an Eskimo intentionally did the roll, e.g. if a dangerously high wave headed for the kayak. If he could capsize in the right moment he was able to intercept the force of the wave with the keel of the kayak.

Inuit kayak
The kayaks were primarily used for seal (sea-dogs and walruses), bird and reindeer hunting (caribous). The hunter used an additional spear, a harpoon, which was tied to a swimming skin. The skin prevented the seal from diving away. It also acted as a marker of the current location of the prey. The hunt for walruses was the most dangerous. These animals can reach a length of up to 15 feet, weighing nearly a ton and sporting two 2 feet long teeth. A hit walruses often tries to attack the boat and is easily capable of destroying them. In Northern Greenland Eskimos used open kayaks so they could leave the boat as fast as possible. Several boats teamed up, when a walrus hunt was due. On the stamp to the left you can see a seal hit by a spear, to the right a caribou hunt.

Inuit with gun
Today the rifle replaced the javelin. During the course of the Danish colonization of Greenland the kayak was also used for postal services e.g. transporting mail to remote locations. Kayaks were always sent in pairs for safety reasons. The letters were stowed away in waterproof bags behind the paddle man, like the swimming skins of the hunters. This is depicted in the first stamp on top of this side.

umiak 2
The umiak is an open boat used for whale-catching and transportation (also called 'women boat' by the Eskimos). It consists of a wooden framework covered with sea-dog skins. Frames and keel are tied with tendons and leather strips. Nails were not used because they can rust and cause the skins to rot. The upper ends of the frames were tied to circulating woods, which also held the thwarts (seats) in place. On the boat bottom timbers were placed crosswise. The average length of an umiak reached 22 to 33 feet, width about 5 feet. Sometimes the umiaks had also a small mast on the bow with a square sail made from reindeer skins (see the stamp above). The umiaks are called women boats, because it was an indignity for a man to touch a paddle in an umiak. The man sits aft and steers, the women are rowing. The boats could carry 10 to 12 persons, while being ashore it could be carried by six persons.

umiak whale
post mark
The umiak was used for transportation, when whole families changed their dwelling place and big loads had to be moved. It served for seal and especially whale hunting. Whale hunting is an ancient tradition. In the legends of the Eskimos exists a friendly community between humans and whales. Since a whale can feed a whole settlement for months, the whale symbolizes the unity of mankind and nature. The spirit of a slain whale returns to the water and is reborn! The whalers carried waterproof so-called 'jumping furs'. They could be inflated and protected the hunter against the cold water for a while. The whaler jumped onto the back of the already harpooned animal and kept stabbing until the whale died. On the Aleutian Island the harpoon tips were poisoned with alconite. It was sufficient to cause a minor wound onto the whale. It died and was driven to the coast by wind and current.

touring kayak
Today there are about 100 different types of kayaks. One can divide these types into touring kayaks, sea kayaks and fast water kayaks. More uncommon are the folding boats and inflatable tube kayaks.

 sport kayak
sport kayak
All of today's kayak types are manufactured as one or two-seaters. Racing sport also has the four seater. The boats are made either of plastics such as glass fibers, carbon, kevlar etc. (plastic boats), or of polyethylene (so-called thermoplastic boats).

© 1998 - 2004 Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved, email to  

  Next Page
  Menu Page
  home, first page