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Traditional kayaks encompass three types: Baidarkas, from the Bering sea & Aleutian islands, the oldest design, whose rounded shape and numerous chines give them an almost Blimp-like appearance; West Greenland kayaks, with fewer chines and a more angular shape, with gunwales rising to a point at the bow and stern; and East Greenland kayaks that appear similar to the West Greenland style, but often fit more snugly to the paddler and possess a steeper angle between gunwale and stem, which lends maneuverability.

The word kayak originates from the Greenlandic language, where it is the word qajaq (pronounced ).

The traditional kayak has a covered deck and one or more cockpits, each seating one paddler.

Inuit kayak builders had specific measurements for their boats.

The length was typically three times the span of his outstretched arms.

It is considered a kayak although it was originally paddled with single-bladed paddles, and typically had more than one paddler.

Native builders designed and built their boats based on their own experience and that of the generations before them, passed on through oral tradition.Thus typical dimensions were about 17 feet (5.2 m) long by 20–22 inches (51–56 cm) wide by 7 inches (18 cm) deep.This measurement system confounded early European explorers who tried to duplicate the kayak, because each kayak was a little different.Whitewater kayaks, which generally depend upon river current for their forward motion, are short, to maximize maneuverability.These kayaks rarely exceed 8 feet (2.4 m) in length, and play boats may be only 5–6 feet (1.5–1.8 m) long.The word "kayak" means "man's boat" or "hunter's boat", and native kayaks were a personal craft, each built by the man who used it—with assistance from his wife, who sewed the skins—and closely fitting his size for maximum maneuverability.

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