In the same year that Gino Watkins died (1932) kayaking in Greenland, the sport of kayaking was well in the throes of its first great transformation, from finely-built wooden craft constructed in the same manner as rowing boats or yachts, to lighter, folding, skin boats. Johann Klepper, a tailor in Rosenheim, Bavaria, invented the Klepperboot in 1907 and, just 15 years on from the death of the original seed, John ‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, the kayak had become truly portable.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
The Klepper, and many other boats from rival manufacturers that followed, is a framework of light wood inserted into an envelope of fabric of some kind to assemble and disassemble the kayak. The klepper used an ash frame and linen skin and in the forested north of the continent became the first sort of craft used for running rapid rivers, as well as the more placid touring practised by MacGregor and his disciples.
The reign of the folding skin boats, now largely forgotten (but still manufactured) was in fact the longest so far in the history of kayak building, even without taking into consideration the very long Inuit tradition. Soon after opening shop, Klepper was producing and selling 90 boats a day, and the era of the folding boat lasted a full half-century until glassfibre began slowly to eclipse it in the early 60s.
It was the folding boat that popularised kayaking in the pre-war years, the folding kayak that saw first descents on a number of alpine rivers (including parts of the fearsome Inn in Switzerland and Austria), and it was during this era of rapid expansion that the BCU (after a number of fits and starts under the auspices of the Camping Club of Great Britain) first emerged as a fully-fledged independent organisation in 1936.
Meanwhile, the northern European nations had stolen a march in the 1920s, practicing river running as an off-season alternative to downhill skiing. Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden founded the Internationalen Representation for Kanusport in 1924, which became the ICF (International Canoe Federation) shortly after the war, by which time many other nations, including Britain and the USA, had joined.
In Berlin in 1936, canoeing and kayaking races were included in the Olympics for the first time, but only flat-water racing, which had the effect of relegating kayaking, on the world stage at least, to the status of rowing’s weaker sibling. Britain did not medal in any category, a sign of how far behind the curve the country was in the sport at that time.
Much of that era remains unrecorded, but it bred at least a few stars such as Carl Luther (German) and Hans W ‘Eddie’ Pawlata and Franz Schulhof, both Austrian. Pawlata former is known among paddlers of a certain age for the invention of an eponymous roll in which the ‘trailing’ hand is placed over the blade for maximum leverage and increased feel, in the sense that you can feel if the working blade is correctly set up on the surface before initiating the sweep.
Franz Schulhof is perhaps less well remembered. He came to London before the war under the auspices of his Austrian employer, already the veteran of seven “first descents of Alpine Rapid Rivers” (John Dudderidge). Like Pawlata, he was an early adopter of the roll and reputedly the first to teach it to Britons at the Royal Canoe Club. Among his other firsts, also according to research by John Dudderidge (we will come across him in his own right later) was organising the first club ‘Alps trip’ (the Durance and Verdon seem to have been ticked off) and the first slalom event on the Welsh Dee, two things that have become a central part of the British whitewater paddler’s culture.
Carl Luther is something of an enigma these days. The German paddler was a prototype whitewater river runner and reportedly his 1921 book Paddling and River Riding was so popular it went through ten print runs. He is also credited with founding the German Canoe Federation in 1926 and was one of the few to take photos of kayakers performing their exploits. The only photo that seems to exist of him depicts him about to paddle off the edge of a 4ft (1.2m) weir, the shape of things to come later – much later. For now, in late-1930s Europe, there was a war to fight. Shortly after that first slalom, Britain declared war on Germany and the skin boat would find a new, covert-operation military function, in the famous tale of Colonel HG ‘Blondie’ Hasler and the ‘Cockleshell heroes’.
In writing this article, I am indebted to the John Dudderidge’s History of Canoeing and Geoffrey Toye’s article Going Like the Kleppers, published in Classic Boat magazine, July 2007 issue. The only information I could find on Carl Luther comes from the International Whitewater Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 2008. I am aware that there is a rich history of the whitewater pioneers of the 1920s and 30s and would be very grateful of further information in this area.