The word "baidarka" is actually a Russian word. It is the diminutive form of "baidar" which means "boat" so "baidarka" means "small boat". In modern use in the United States, it has come to mean a skin on frame kayak of the type made by the Aleut peoples of Alaska. This usage probably stems from George Dyson's excellent book by that name Baidarka. This book is a good reference for anyone wanting to know more about the subject.


Picture of Aleut Baidarka with bifed bow

The Bifurcated Bow

The kayaks made by the Aleuts were unique in form and construction. The most obvious feature is a "bifurcated" bow. The front of the kayak is divided into two parts, one above the other, like the open jaws of a salmon. The lower jaw may be straight, jutting horizontally out in front of the boat, or it may be go out straight initially and then curve upward. The upper jaw more typically sticks straight out front, but sometimes it too will curve upward.

There has been a lot of speculation regarding the function of this bow form. The most obvious is it is a way to give the bow a "hollow" cross-sectional shape. The advantage of this shape is at the waterline the lower jaw can be narrow and sharp, giving a fine entry into to the water for good efficiency, while higher up the upper jaw can be full and wide for high buoyancy to lift the bow over waves. Because the skin wants to stretch straight across from the narrow bottom to the wide top so the entry at the waterline would either be wider than you might want or if you make the entry narrow, there may not be much buoyancy. If you stitch the two sides together part way up, you can get the best of both worlds. But now you may have holes where the stitches are. If you instead cut out between the upper and lower section, you can stitch the two sides together with more waterproof stitches.

The "Bulb" Effect

Modern oil tankers, bulk transports and other large ships often have a "bulb" sticking out front underwater. This bulb improves the efficiency of the boat by reducing the size of the waves it produces as it moves through the water. People have speculated if the lower jaw of the baidarka might serve a similar function to make the kayak more efficient. If it does, it can only do so while the bulb is underwater. Unfortunately, kayaks are typically paddled in large waves. This will lift the bulb out of the water where it can do no good. In fact their might be some loss of efficiency due to the effects of the lower jaw re-entering the water. Since the end of the lower jaw often curves up on traditional baidarkas, they are often not properly shaped to work as a bulb, even if they did stay in the water.

Since we can not go back and interview the original developers of the baidarka, we can only speculate regarding their intentions when the created the bifurcated bow. The best evidence of the performance of some baidarkas is inlog reports from early European explorers. Their reports suggest paddlers capable of maintaining speeds near 10 knots for sustained periods. Careful reading of the reports suggest the paddlers might have been surfing. Reliable reports of these sustained high speeds disappear from the historical record around 1800. There is very little record of the designs of the pre-1800 boats but there is reason to believe the boats differed substantially from those built in the later parts of the 19th century and early 20th century.

Hull Flexibility

Due to the construction technique and materials used, any skin on frame boat is inherently flexible. There is some thought that this hull flexibility offers some efficiency advantages. There is some anecdotal evidence supporting this idea, but the evidence is not clear cut one way or the other.

Designations and Terminology

Unfortunately due to the popularity of Mr. Dyson's book, the term baidarka has become the generally accepted word in the kayaking community for the kayaks made by the native peoples of northern Pacific and Bering Sea. Some people find the term offensive as it was given by Russian colonizers during the conquest and subjugation of these peoples. The word "baidarka" is the diminutive for of "baidar" or boat, so a baidarka is just any small boat. The term serves a useful purpose in that it distinguishes the kayaks made by these peoples from those made by the Inuit peoples of Greenland and northeastern North America. However, there are many, widely different kayaks made by the peoples of north western North America and eastern Siberia which seem to fall under the term "baidarka" in popular thought. As such it is not a useful term for making any meaningful generalizations regarding performance.

The designation "Aleut" has traditionally been used to refer to the native people of the Aleutian Islands as well as the Kodiak Island archipeligo and mainland locations near by. As such it is also a somewhat deceptive designation. In fairly recent times there has been some effort to use more accurate designations.