Gather everyone together who has influenced pedal-driven fishing kayak technology and the guest list would include ancient Egyptians and Chinese, the famed scientist Archimedes, a robotic tuna at MIT and the guy who designed a sail for under the boat. With such illustrious roots, it turns out pedal drive kayaks aren’t so straightforward after all.

Peeling Back the History Of Pedal Drives

During a millennia of propelled watercraft evolution, mankind’s propulsion mechanisms have advanced from outstretched palm to pole, paddle, sail and finally 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 boats and turn windmills. Taking those observations even further, someone invented an alternative to propellers based on penguin wings.

In the last 20 years, kayak manufacturers added new propulsion systems and pedal-drive mechanisms to their traditional reliance on arm- and torso-powered paddles.

Like Eddie Merckx riding the Tour de France without a helmet. | Photo: Courtesy Hobie
Like Eddie Merckx riding the Tour de France without a helmet. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Hobie

The Two Types of Pedal Propulsion

There are two types of drives: push pedal and rotational pedal. The push pedal mechanism requires that pedals are pushed and pulled in an alternating motion to transfer force to fins mounted beneath the kayak. A rotational pedal is like a bicycle where the force is applied in constant rotation to turn a propeller.

In 1729, the Frenchman Du Quet proposed a screw mechanism to propel a ship; nearly 70 years later, Robert Fulton of steam engine fame experimented with a ship powered by a four-bladed propeller. Jump ahead two centuries and propulsion mechanisms for kayaks were just getting off the ground.

In 1997, Jim Czarnowski was working on his master’s degree at MIT. He was engaged in research for a fin propulsion system for watercraft. He wasn’t the only one. The goal had also been pursued in Russian, China and other countries since the 1930s.

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

His research also suggested another animal 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 to swim, only its flippers. The little wings produce enough speed and power to fly through liquid.

Modern Pedal Drives Make the Scene

Hobie MirageDrive pedal drive for kayaks
Hobie MirageDrive. | Photo: Courtesy of Hobie

At the same time on the West Coast, sailing enthusiast Greg Ketterman was exploring the concept of 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.” It was called an Oscillating Foil Propulsion System and the invention was the first step towards Hobie’s MirageDrive.

Andy Zimmerman and John Sheppard founded Wilderness Systems in 1986. Zimmerman remembers, “I shook my head. I didn’t believe it would be successful. I snubbed my nose at it!”

At the time, paddlesports were taking off and Zimmerman recalls there were many backyard “one-offs” creating “contraptions” using propeller drives. He says none of the inventions were commercially viable. Most of the drives used a chain to transfer energy from the pedals to a propeller. Zimmerman was looking for a closed, chainless system.

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

Native Propel pedal drive for kayaks
Native Propel Drive. | Photo: Courtesy of Native Watercraft

Czarnowski breaks down the market at the beginning. “Kayaks with propellers came before flippers, but they were never very successful. The Aqua-Bike was probably the best selling. WaveWalker made the first prop kayak, followed by Native Watercraft.”

So Easy, It’s Like Riding a Bike

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

“Our biggest efforts are on gears and parts,” says Shane Benedict, head of research and development at Native Watercraft. He says the focus is more on refining the Propel to run smoother and more reliably.

Adam Ott of Wilderness Systems agrees, “In the mid-90s, there were kayaks with propellers on the transoms.” When it came time for Wilderness Systems to add pedals, they went with the Helix PD that pops up to go into zero draft mode. “The next step was to make the pedal drive more efficient, friendly and easy to use,” he says.

Philip Dow joined Hobie in 2005. “There’s a whole other level of sophistication and manageability in developing and refining products,” he says. “The Pro Angler took six years from concept to production,” he adds. The MirageDrive 360 further advanced the fin mechanism by enabling it to maneuver in all directions. He traces the evolution as paddle, propeller, MirageDrive and MirageDrive 360.

Pick the Pedal Drive You Prefer

The pedal kayak family tree is branched with well-defined twigs. Still one question remains: Which system is best? Propellers and fins have different advantages. And, there are ardent fans for each. As pedal technology seems to have settled into subtle, satisfying differences, it really comes down to the system you like best.

This article was first published in Kayak Angler Issue 45. Subscribe to Kayak Angler and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos.


Like Eddie Merckx riding the Tour de France without a helmet. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Hobie



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