Petroleum in Real Life: Kayaks

Who says oil and water don’t mix? Kayaks make their case.

Kayaks are a great way to get around. Whether its the serenity of gliding across a mirror-smooth lake, the heart thumping excitement of navigating river rapids, or the oneness with nature of an ocean voyage, self-propelled paddling offers unique views and experiences. And petrochemicals play a starring role.

The first kayaks were invented by the Inuit. Light and maneuverable, these one-to-three person vessels were perfect for hunting, transportation and exploration of the Arctic waters.

Traditional kayaks were constructed from stitched seal or other animal skins stretched over a frame of wood or whalebone. Times have changed, however, and it’s now rare to find a wooden kayak or one covered in any kind of animal skin.

Today, these floating craft are used for a range of personal activities on lakes, rivers and oceans, including recreation, competitive sports and day-to-day transportation. And virtually all modern kayaks are made using either composite fiberglass or plastics like ABS and polyethylene. These materials allow for the production of durable products we can all enjoy.

Let’s talk fibreglass versus polyethylene

For insiders in the kayak community, there’s some debate about whether fibreglass kayaks are better than ‘plastic’ ones made from polyethylene. Fibreglass construction allows manufacturers to create smooth, flowing lines and mirror-like finishes. The result is kayaks that glide easily across water. Fibreglass kayaks are also strong and lightweight. However, they are somewhat brittle and can crack under heavy impact.

Plastic boats, meanwhile, can generally be made more cheaply. Polyethylene is a tough, waxy-textured material that is unaffected by water and many chemicals. It is also highly resistant to impact and abrasion (an important consideration, for example, when dragging a kayak across a gravelly beach).

In both cases, petrochemicals play a starring role. Polyethylene is a common plastic found in a wide range of products. The fiberglass used in kayaks generally consists of a woven mat of thin glass rods encased in a polyester resin. Both polyethylene and polyester are made through the polymerization of petrochemical hydrocarbons produced using oil and natural gas.