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Greenland Style Paddling

Posted by Rutabaga Staff on 11/11/2013 to Kayak

Brian Day, our resident Greenland kayak specialist, has written a nice synopsis of the Greenland philosophy, including strokes, equipment, braces, and other interesting Greenland stuff that will delight and entertain you.

All modern sea kayaks originate to a greater or lesser degree from skin and wood boats which have been paddled in the Arctic for thousands of years. Inuit designs from Greenland have had a tremendous impact on modern design, and Inuit paddlers are perhaps the most skilled in the world. The repertoire or strokes and rolls which evolved in this corner of the world is truly advanced. These skills, combined with highly refined equipment, enabled the Inuit kayaker to paddle in the world’s harshest conditions every day.

To be accurate, it must be stated that there is no one true Greenland style in kayaks and paddles. Design was dramatically influenced by regional environments and traditions. As a result, there can be no true singular Greenland form when it comes to paddling technique. Too often we adopt and defend practices with such enthusiasm that other techniques are viewed with disdain. The intent of this article is certainly not to add to any existing disagreements about boat or paddle design, nor to arguments regarding proper paddling technique. Rather, it is my hope that the reader will be inspired to experiment with some of these techniques and will gain a greater appreciation for traditional paddling.

The Paddle

For purposes of this article, we will say that the Greenland or Inuit paddle is long, narrow and unfeathered. It has an elliptical cross section much like an aircraft wing, and a loom (shaft) which is not much wider than the paddler’s waist. Such paddles are sized to the user, and are as long as the paddler’s arm span plus a cubit (the distance from elbow to fingertips). They have blades which can be easily gripped at the tip for extended strokes and rolls. They also look remarkably like two-by-fours. Be prepared for some good-natured ribbing from your paddling friends when you put to sea with a “Greenland stick.” While we do not always have these paddles on the web we usually have a few in the store. Call us Toll Free: 1-800-I-PADDLE for more information on these paddles. We would also be glad to special order one for you from one of our suppliers.

The Kayak

Inuit kayaks are vee-bottomed and tend to flare from a hard chine to the gunwale. The kayaks have traditionally been sized with measurements from the paddler’s body for a custom fit. They are generally quite narrow — the width of the boat being determined as the width of the paddler’s hips plus two fists — and long, perhaps three arm spans so.

Modern renditions of Inuit kayaks are designed to carry cargo for camping. The original designs were used primarily for hunting. A hunter paddling in rough conditions needed a boat which was stable, easy to roll, and caught the minimum of wind. Paddling techniques developed in these kind of boats and they are easiest to duplicate in modern kayaks which are shallow and narrow. Ironically, whitewater kayaks are very helpful in learning Inuit rolls and braces. Although these kayaks tend to be quite wide, their shallow draft favors the strange contortions which often result from a Greenland brace.

The Forward Cruising Stroke

At the heart of all good kayaking technique is a refined forward stroke. Modern paddling theory emphasizes the use of the entire upper body to complete each stroke. The muscles in the arm are small when compared to the musculature of the torso overall. Thus, it is least tiring to paddle while using the muscles of the back, chest and abdomen in addition to those of the arms. “Torso rotation” is the term which is applied to this technique.

Greenland Style Paddling

Torso rotation is also a key component in the Greenland-style forward stroke. The paddle is held low, almost on the sprayskirt, with the arms bent at something close to a right angle. The hands hold the paddle at the root of the blades, with the thumb and forefinger on the loom and the remaining fingers on the blade. You will find that this grip automatically tilts the top edge of the paddle forward at an angle of 30 degrees or so. This is good, because you want to be slicing the paddle into the water at a slight angle as you begin your stroke.

Keep the paddle low. Reach forward slightly at the start of the stroke and slice the paddle into the water. Your arms will move the paddle up and down through the stroke, while your torso provides the power.

The tip of the blade enters the water about even with your knee. Pull the blade out as it reaches your hip. The length that the blade tip moves will be about 18-22 inches. This will probably feel quite short, but you can make it feel more natural by concentrating on keeping your elbows down and close to your body. Remember, don’t take a longer stroke to go faster, take more strokes–increase your cadence.

Make sure to hold the paddle at that 30 degree angle through the whole movement. You will find that the most powerful part of this stroke is from the middle to the end. If you want to improve you efficiency, concentrate on pulling the paddle out of the water smartly. With the blade at an angle, you will get a boost each time you do. To increase your speed, focus on the end of your strokes, and increase your cadence.

The Sliding Stroke

The sliding stroke is quite unusual to those of us who are accustomed to modern paddling instruction. Time and time again I have taught my students not to move their hands on the loom of their paddles, lest they become confused as to the angle of the blades. The beauty of the Inuit paddle is that it is next to impossible to lose your place. Your hands are on the unfeathered blades at all times, so you’d have to take a pretty good knock on the head to lose your bearings. This being the case, you can move your hands as much as you want. Go ahead, slide ‘em around, the Inuit did.

The sliding stroke forms the groundwork for extended paddle rolls, braces, high powered forward strokes, and the use of the special “storm” paddle. The concept is easy to understand, but the execution is sometimes difficult. Let’s say that you are going to do a sliding stroke on the right side of your boat. First, slide your right hand across the loom of the paddle until it strikes your left hand. Next, slide your left hand well out onto the left blade of the paddle. Once you have accomplished all of this, stick the right blade in the water and make the stroke. The tricky part is timing the slide so that your hands are in position at the right time. Have faith, soon it will become second nature to fire a sliding stroke into your cadence for a quick course correction or to prepare for a powerful brace.

The storm paddle is a special paddle for use in high winds. It is shorter than a standard Greenland paddle, having a length of about an arm span for the average paddler. The loom on this paddle is only as wide as one fist, as it need only hold one hand at a time. When used with a sliding stroke, the storm paddle greatly reduces the blade area which is exposed to the wind.

The Power Forward Stroke

Flatwater racers and whitewater kayakers know that the most efficient and powerful stroke is one in which the paddle blade stays close to the side of the boat and moves parallel to the keel line. The Greenland power forward stroke relies on this principle. The hands are held high, at about chest level, and the paddle is held almost vertically. The hands may also be moved farther apart on the paddle.

Torso rotation is still at the core of the power forward stroke, but the arms are used more. Punch out toward the bow of your boat with your pushing hand. Pull your pulling arm forcefully back. Think about your feet. Alternate pressure on your footrest so that you are pushing with your right foot while you pull on your right side. Do the same on the left. This motion helps to drive the boat with more power.

It is alright to stack your hands one over the other in a perfectly vertical stroke as if you were canoeing. However, you will feel more stable if you don’t cross over the center of your boat with your pushing hand. Remember to focus on powering the stroke with your entire torso, and not just your arms.

The advanced power forward stroke incorporates a sliding component. Use a slide to lengthen the paddle as you start each stroke. Maintain your upright posture and vertical paddle position. The stroke will be long in duration but very powerful. It is easy to fall into a rhythm and find yourself rocketing along with this technique.


Perhaps nothing typifies Inuit paddling technique more than sculling braces. In their more advanced expressions, these techniques blur the line between up and down in a sea kayak. Using Greenland braces properly, it is possible to suspend your body in the water for a rest or to set up for an easy roll. Rolling itself becomes easier as you learn these techniques — you will be gaining valuable experience in body position and boat lean which will transfer into all aspects of your paddling.

Sculling Braces

It’s easy to learn to scull with a Greenland paddle. The paddle is very buoyant, and automatically returns to the surface of the water at the beginning of each stroke; allowing the paddler to easily maintain the figure-eight motion which is essential to a good scull.

Sculling basically involves moving the paddle through the water so that the blade is constantly rising toward the surface. With a whitewater-style paddle, it is very important to angle the leading edge of your sculling blade so that it is always rising. A quick experiment with an upright boat will teach you this. There is one angle which will send the blade diving toward the bottom as you move it back and forth. The other angle will cause it to plane toward the surface. Move the paddle back and forth across the surface of the water as if you were using it to spread butter on bread. Light sculling with an upright boat will move the boat in the direction of the paddle. Apply more pressure to the blade and you will see that it is possible to tilt your weight onto the paddle without a capsize. Pay attention to that blade angle!

You will find that your Greenland paddle makes it easy to keep the blade near the surface. Once you have mastered the general feel of sculling, you can experiment with getting your body closer and closer to the water. Use an extended grip on the paddle to increase your leverage.

The object is to lower your upper body into the water so that your PFD supports your weight and sculling effort is reduced. This is known as the side scull. Sound tough? Try this: once you have lowered your body into the water, continue to scull while moving the sculling blade toward the bow of the boat. This will rotate your body so that your shoulders are parallel to the keel line and you are facing the sky. This is the back scull position.

For both of these braces, it is important to apply counter pressure to the boat. What does that mean? Think of trying to keep the boat upright as you put your body in the water. You won’t be able to do it, but try really hard. Lift up and outward with the knee on your sculling side. Arch your back. If you do it right, your boat will remain on its side while you are sculling. If you do it wrong, the boat will flop upside-down, driving your body toward the bottom and spoiling the brace. The best way to practice getting this position correct is with a paddle float on your sculling blade. The extra buoyancy of the float will allow you to cheat on sculling and focus on proper body position and boat lean. It takes quite a bit of flexibility to pull off the back brace. If you are having trouble, you can twist your lower body around in the boat a bit. Just make sure that you don’t fall out.

Balance Brace

Once you have the hang of the boat rotation and back arching that it takes, it is possible to do the back brace without sculling. Done in this way, the brace is referred to as the balance brace. This is a very tricky move to learn, but it can come in handy. Once while paddling an extremely tippy boat in the surf, I had to resort to this brace to catch my breath. Without my Greenland paddle I would have taken a nasty swim in Lake Superior.

You can do the balance brace in a variety of ways. The easiest way is to lock your body and paddle in a rigid outrigger at a right angle to the boat. This way the paddle and your PFD will buoy you as you tilt the boat on its side.

The most important part of this maneuver is boat rotation and back arch. In order for the brace to work, the boat must be kept almost completely upright while you twist your body around. Obviously, this is hard to do, so a technique has been developed to make it easier. The following instructions are for a balance brace on your right side.

Grab the left tip of your paddle as if it were a canoe paddle. Slide your other hand onto the left blade, so that your hands are a comfortable distance apart. Now for the hard part. In one fluid motion do the following maneuvers: swing the paddle to vertical so that your right arm is bent at 90 degrees and your right elbow is behind your head; twist your torso so that you are in the back scull position; slide your left hand past the right gunwale of the boat behind the cockpit; arch your back and flop backward into the water. If you continue to arch your back, you will float motionless with no effort.

To recover from this position, you have to pull your left hand out from under the hull and scull upward. Be sure to start sculling before you move your left hand. This hand helps you to lock the arch into your brace. You will lose considerable flotation when it is moved.

Once you can do a balance brace consistently, try to do it without the upper body portion. I have found that it is possible to do this brace with your right hand in the center of the paddle and your left arm counterbalanced across the other side of the boat. A gentle push on the paddle is all it usually takes to put your body back over the boat so that you can resume paddling. I finally have figured out how to do a balance brace without a paddle. Now I’ll have to try for a handroll into a balance brace….

Brian Day is a BCU Coach 2 and a Fifth Level Cleric/Fighter/Magic User.

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