By Tom Watson

(First Published in “Roots” in the July 2021 issue of Kayak Angler magazine)

Gather everyone together who’s ever influenced the technology of the pedal-driven fishing kayak and your guest list would include ancient Egyptians, Chinese, the famed scientist, Archimedes, a robotic tuna at MIT and a guy who basically designed sails for under the boat!

In the evolution of propelled watercraft over several millennia, mankind’s propulsion mechanisms have advanced from outstretched palm to pole to paddle to sail and finally to propellers.  Ancient screw drives and keen observations on how the shape of cloth sails were driven by the wind all influenced innovative ways to make those mechanics work to propel watercraft (and windmills). Taking those observations even further, an alternative to propellers was created based upon watching how penguins swim through the water.

In an incredibly shorter time span of about twenty years, kayaks have added new propulsion systems and pedal-drive mechanisms to their traditional and historic reliance on hand-powered paddles only.  

There are basically two types of pedal-driven kayaks:  A Push-Pedal mechanism requires that pedals are pushed down in an alternating motion to transfer force to a propeller mounted beneath the kayak; A Rotational Pedal mechanism is like a bicycle where the force is applied to pedals in constant rotation to provide power to a propeller below. 

In 1729, the Frenchman Du Quet had proposed that a screw mechanism could propel a ship; nearly seventy years later, Robert Fulton (steam engine fame) experimented with a ship powered by a 4-bladed propeller. Jump ahead two centuries and propulsion mechanisms for kayaks were just getting off the ground.

Working on his Master’s Degree at MIT in 1997, Jim Czarnowski was engaged in research for a fin propulsion system for watercraft – a goal that had also been pursued in Russian, China and others since the 1930s.

“We were working with a robotic tuna; we had cast its structure using the body of a real fish,” explains Czarnowski. The robot swam like an actual tuna while tethered and connected to sensors that could measure thrust. “Those findings showed that a back/forth motion was more powerful than a propeller”, he added. 

His research also suggested that a biological analog was better suited than the tuna design, so Czarnowski’s team looked to the way a penguin moves through the water.  The bird doesn’t move its body, only its flippers, producing speed and power to move through the water. 

At the same time on the west coast, sailing enthusiast Greg Ketterman was exploring the concept putting a sail upside down, under the boat. Ten years later, both he and Czarnowski were on the HOBIE team securing a patent for “…the means of propelling a vessel and more specifically [as] it relates to the design of a thrust producing oscillating fin.” – an Oscillating Foil Propulsion System – and the first step towards HOBIE’s Mirage Drive.

Andy Zimmerman who along with John Sheppard founded Wilderness Systems 1986 remembers, “ I shook my head,” “I didn’t believe it would be successful, I snubbed my nose at it!” Zimmerman recalls that there were many backyard “one-offers” creating “contraptions” using propeller drives but that none were really commercially viable. Most all of these home-built mechanisms used a chain drive to transfer force to the propeller, something Zimmerman wanted to avoid, preferring to focus on an enclosed, chainless drive instead.

by 2006 Zimmerman started Native Watercraft and introduced the prototype for the Propel Drive at the Outdoor Retailer show. It was the second commercially-sold pedal drive on the market, and the first one featuring reverse.

Czarnowski also reflects on the market at that time: “Props were before flipper on kayaks but were never very commercially successful.  The aqua-bike was probably the best selling one.  WaveWalker made the first good prop kayak in my opinion, followed by Native Watercraft.”

The differences were notable, if not all visually apparent. The Mirage Drive was a push-pedal foot mechanism that moved flippers beneath the boat; the Propel System used a bicycling motion to rotate a propeller.  Perhaps a more critical difference, particularly as the crafts became more popular as fishing platforms – the Propel System let the boater move backwards, the early Mirage Drive would not.

Move ahead another dozen years and the two types of pedal drives have pretty much secured their place in the fishing kayak world. 

“Our biggest efforts are on gears and parts,” says Shane Benedict, head of R & D at Native Watercraft, who says the focus is more on refining to where it’s all smoother, more reliable.

Adam Ott of Wilderness Systems, referring to their Helix Pedal Drive agrees,”In the mid-90s there were props at the back of the boat on an attachable transom. That system was adapted to a straight up/down unit that was easy to deploy … and used baffle brushes to reduce air/water disturbances. The next step was to simply make it more efficient, friendly and easy to use.”

Benedict says propellers and pedal drives have stayed pretty much the same noting that the efficiency of pedaling vs. a boat’s hull speed and human power limit a boat’s capabilities regardless whether its thrust is created by even more aggressive propeller blades or fins.

Kayak anglers appreciate speed to get to into position during tourneys, but efficiency, smooth cadence and maneuverability are more important, says Benedict. 

Phillip Dow joined HOBIE in 2005 , “Theres a whole other level of sophistication and manageability” in developing and refining products.  “Our Pro Angler took six years from concept to production,” he says.  The Mirage Drive 360 “ has further advanced the fin mechanism by enabling it to maneuver in all directions now. He likens  the evolution as: Paddle…Mirage…“360”

Historically, the principles of the mechanism used to pedal power fishing kayaks today reach back thousands of years of human history and influenced by millions of evolutionary years biologically to get where it is today. 

The family tree is pretty much evenly branched with well defined twigs. Still one question remains ripe for debated: Which evolved system is best? Benedict uses the Tortoise/Hare analogy:  The propeller is slower but more efficient over the long haul at leisure pace versus the [flapper/fin] with higher initial speed but hard to maintain over the long haul. Seems both have settled into subtle, satisfying differences.

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