Since my earliest kayaking days I have been fascinated by the historic roots of kayaks and their use by Inuit and Aleut people. I delved into books that explained the construction and use of kayaks as a primary tool to hunt, fish and travel from place to place. Then I built a West Greenland skin-on-frame kayak and learned a great deal about how design affects stability (experience is a splendid teacher). I also dabbled with a Greenland paddle (GP) on several occasions, starting with preconceived misgivings based upon the long, narrow appearance of the blades. Initially the idea of paddling with a 7' long paddle made from a 2 X 4 inch stick did not inspire much confidence. My assumptions seemed to be well-founded when the paddle fluttered wildly and the stroke seemed sadly inadequate to propel the kayak, particularly from a stand-still.
I kept an open mind, however, because my assumption of its inadequacy did not tally with all that I had read and heard from others who had learned to use one efficiently. And I knew rowboat oars are typically very similar to GPs in their dimensions and are also often canted in use.
||The frame of my skin-on-frame and some of the Greenland paddles made.
In addition, I'd noticed how well many kayakers did with Greenland paddles-performing maneuvers and rolls with grace, confidence and precision. On a recent trip to Corpus Christi, I paddled with Ken Johnson, a local kayaker and excellent guide. He proved the utility of a GP by out-paddling all of us in a sustained 25 mph wind. Ken and two of his kayaking friends handled the choppy, windy waters with effortless ease and complete control and confidence in their kayaks using GPs. Although I had misgivings and unsuccessful first experiences, I realized that it should have been no surprise that Greenland paddles are well designed for propelling and maneuvering a kayak. Since I love making things and tinkering with my kayaks I decided to make some Greenland paddles and learn to use them. I began a study of GPs and sorted out their advantages and disadvantages.
Here is what I found:
- On average GPs have 85-95 square inches of blade area which is on par with euro spoon paddles.
- It is easy to orient the GP the correct way (unlike a curved spoon blade), as the GP is completely symmetrical front to back, top to bottom and end to end. With a shouldered GP blade several fingers are normally on the blade itself so that you instinctively know exactly how the blade is oriented.
- The Greenland paddle is designed to "slide" in your hands making a much longer lever. This provides more power for sweep strokes, braces and rolls. The sliding technique also reduces blade area exposed to wind and puts more blade in the water where it's needed to produce power on a windy day.
- Extending the paddle in a sweeping slide stroke also provides a bracing component to add stability thereby allowing for more edging.
- Due to the narrow blade, it's much easier to rotate the blade from a power stroke to a slicing stroke. This makes blending of strokes simpler and more natural.
- Overall the Greenland paddle is quieter which may help in wildlife watching and fishing.
- GPs cause less strain and stress on the human body and are less tiring on long paddles. This point is well illustrated by the fact that Ken, the kayaker and guide mentioned earlier, is still paddling at the age of 80 and .finds the Greenland paddle more to his liking than a euro paddle.
- Wood GPs are usually much more buoyant than euro paddles.
- Being symmetrical and un-feathered, GPs make a better temporary outrigger when laid across the combing for stability.
- For the DIYer, GPs are relatively easy and inexpensive to make, and homemade paddles are completely custom. For the average paddler a 7 foot long Western Red Cedar (WRC) 2"x4" will make a GP.
- GPs are not as suited to whitewater paddling. A 100 square inch area spoon blade on a shorter shaft is much better for turbulent, aerated water in often confined spaces. (Of course there is no one perfect paddle, kayak, PFD, etc. that fits all conditions. The right tool for the job is always best. Even so, I have been known to use a pipe wrench [a tool designed for very specific and limited uses] as a hammer.)
- Greenland paddles are not effective at quick acceleration especially from a stand-still, but they do require less effort to maintain a cruising speed.
- The overall length, blade width and especially the loom length must be correct for the kayak width and the person using the paddle.
- Wooden paddles can break, although this is usually due to improper construction or defects in the wood.
- Truly excellent wood is needed with the proper grain orientation and no run-out, knots, pitch pockets or other structural defects. Laminating smaller lengths of wood can help overcome this problem and typically makes a stronger paddle. Cutting long lengths into narrow strips to be glued together sometimes reveals otherwise hidden defects. Searching lumber yards for the perfect piece of wood is frustrating.
I have recently made and used several GPs, each one a little different. There are numerous pages and videos on the internet that explain how to make and use a GP. The book by Brian Nystrom, Greenland Paddles Step by Step, is the best text I have found on making Greenland paddles. Most books on making skin-on-frame kayaks also have a chapter on making GPs.
Initially the GP felt strange; it fluttered and didn't have the bite my euro paddle had. Paddles and oars flutter when the edges of the blades alternately shed vortices. That annoying flutter is easily reduced by proper technique whether it's a Greenland paddle, a euro blade or an oar; you need to hold each paddle with the correct angle for its particular use. Canting (tilting) the blade forces the vortex to shed off of just one side reducing flutter. Canting the top of the blade toward the direction the paddle is traveling causes the paddle to climb adding a bracing component to the stroke and also reduces flutter.
When held properly with only the forefinger and thumb around the loom (shaft) and the rest of the fingers on the blade, the GP will naturally cant forward (diving blade) which provides the most efficient forward stroke. This diving blade (forward cant) feels strange at first but soon smoothes out and feels natural. It must also be noted that you really cannot muscle a Greenland paddle or it will make swirls and shed most of its energy stirring up the water. This is why it puts less stress and strain on a paddler's body.
An effective stroke with a Greenland paddle also differs from a euro paddle's stroke. With euro blades most of the power comes on quickly and fades as the paddle reaches the hips. The GP does not become effective until after the stroke has begun. The power comes on as the blade is about at the hips and remains until the paddle is lifted out of the water. It is interesting to note that since the blade is forwarded canted it provides forward propulsion even when lifted straight up at the end of the stroke. In short, the GP stroke should begin only when the blade is fully immersed, slowly at first and swept until the blade tip is behind the hips. This is pretty much the exact opposite of the euro paddle forward stroke.
In addition to a design with centuries of development behind it, which can be made inexpensively to individual specifics by DIYers and which has a wide variety of advantages for all paddlers, I've found that a Greenland paddle is much more suited to an effective roll.
I had been floundering about trying to learn to roll with a euro paddle for nearly three years, but rolled the first time I tried with a GP. I believe this is true for several reasons:
Gripping the loom with one hand and the blade with the other naturally orients the blade to skim the surface.
Gripping the GP at the loom and blade end provides a longer lever.
A Greenland paddle is generally more buoyant than euro paddles.
If you are up for a challenge, why not give a Greenland paddle a try and see if you agree that thousands of years of trial and error engineering has produced a truly excellent paddling stick?
Photos by Laura Hunter
[Brian has made half a dozen Greenland paddles. He says he would be happy to share what he has learned about constructing and using them, and would also be interested to compare notes and hear of your experiences with them. Please contact him with questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org] ed.