An "Illorsuit" for Seabird Designs
Thursday, September 3, 2009, 45 comments
My cooperation with Seabird Designs is over - our opinions about quality, customers and service differ too much.
In the summer 1959 a young student, Kenneth Taylor, was sent to Greenland by his professor on a research trip to study kayaks and kayaking culture in the Igdlorsuit area. To Greenland he brought his English plywood kayak - on the journey back he had a real greenland kayak, built for him by Emanuele Korneliussen in Illorsuit. It measured 505x53 cm and had the low deck - 20 cm in front of the cockpit - and low midship sheer, typical for the region. It was built in six days, with timber imported from Denmark.
A drawing of the Illorsuit kayak
The kayak excited the Scottish paddling community on return, and the lines were recorded by Duncan Winning, discussed and copied. Some plywood and fiberglass copies were produced, tried and forgotten. When Geoff Blackford some years later was designing a new sea kayak, he based it quite heavily on Duncan Winnings drawing, but increased the volume and deck height to better suit europeans. The result became the now famous Anas Acuta (the latin name for the Northern Pintail) - still one of the most "greenlandic" of production kayak, and still in demand by discriminating paddlers.
A contemporary Anas Acuta
The Anas Acuta was rejected by alpinist Colin Mortlock looking for an expedition kayak - it did not handle good enough in bad conditions and it was too small for expedition purposes. Frank Goodman worked a little more volume into the hull and christened the result Nordkapp after the expedition goal. These two - Anas Acuta and Nordkapp - became legends and are still in production and still evolving (impressive, but nothing compared to the Swedish VKV Anita, designed in 1930 and still in production!). When Len Ystmark of Seabird Designs asked if I could design something that would appeal to the Anas Acuta afficinados of the world I was excited by the challenge. Having spent some time in an old Acuta some years ago, I had strong feelings about what I liked and disliked about the hull design.
A few things have changed since the sixties. One thing is that more of Korneliussens kayaks have been surveilled (by Harvey Golden, the expert on traditional kayaks), and thus more is known about dimensioneing and more specifically how the Ken Taylor kayak was adapted for Ken Taylor. Another is that the changes from the original lines made by Geoff Blackford by necessity was influenced by the contemporary ideas of greenlandic kayaks: thus the sheer was raised as a unit to create the preferred high fore deck, resulting in very high stems and an accentuated banana shape - for a modern eye a charicature of the lovely sheer of the Illorsuit kayak. Furthermore, to create volume the bottom was flattened to an extent that it is hard to see any resemblence in the stations shape. From approx 20 degree deadrise of the original to approx 8 of Anas Acuta. This is not intended as criticism of either the kayak or Geoff Blackford - the commercial success and long history would make any such remarks reflect more on my prejudices than on the kayaks.
But still, what would a modern interpretation of the Illorsuit kayak be like? Well, some of the changes made by Blackford still make sense and there is no reason not to do the same today. I raised the sheer and deck sligthly to create room for a western seating position - few of us would be comfortable with straight horisontal legs, a deck barely one inch over the knees and a vertical back without support (I would, after five years in my Black Pearl, but this kayak is not for me alone). I kept the stems just slightly higher than the original lines, in an attempt to preserve the understated elegance of the Illorsuit (well, I am obsessed with the beauty of lines: be warned!) - and of course to avoid the windage of high stems. I also flattened the bottom though not as much as in the Anas Acuta. The reason for not sticking to the 20 degree deadrise is that it would have forced the seat up higher, thus decreasing stability and necessitating an even higher deck.
The old Illorsuit has evolved along similiar lines on Greenland as well - towards longer waterlines and a depeer cross section making the kayaks faster, roomier at the expense of a little maneuverability - or in the direction of kayaks with very low freeboard for rolling competitions (which is where my Black Pearl belongs).
So in the end my design is at least a cousin to the Anas Acuta, but with a personal edge: a few inches longer since the low speed was one of my dislikes, lower stems that will make it easier on the paddler in high winds (even if the Acuta is excellent in this) and with a sligthly lower deck (sea kayak decks have lost a couple of millimeters per year the last decades as more paddlers begin to appreciate the comfort and control attainable simply by getting rid of old excesses in superfluous cockpit volume (note that this still is a roomy cockpit - those looking for a really tight greenland cockpit may consider the Black Pearl). I also hope that my take on the Illorsuit will offer easier and more predictable movements in steep choppy seas and that surfing will be at least as good. And not the least - I downplayed the banana. (Love bananas? No problem, there still is the Anas Acuta...)
My take on the Illorsuit kayak
So, is my design an Illorsuit kayak? No, I cannot say that it is. The looks are inspired by the Illorsuit, because I love the beauty and harmony of the lines, but the hull shape and hydrodynamics are modern, efficient and relevant to an altogether different situation than seal hunting in arctic waters 60 years ago.
Wouldn´t it have been interesting to make a true copy of the Illorsuit? Yes definitiely, and it has been done on several occasions as skin-on-frame-replicas for a dedicated builder/paddler. But as a production kayak - no, I believe most buyers would have eyed it over with curiosity and then turned to something more promising...
If you want more background history, read Ken Taylor's blog about his Greenland journey.
Take a look also at Harvey Golden's replica with all the original equipment.