What's That Stick?

What's that stick? Well, it's a bit more than a stick, but the original Inuit (Greenland and Aleut) paddles would have been made from driftwood, and it is remarkably straightforward to carve your own. But why would you want to?

Modern sea kayaking paddles are made from a variety of exotic materials like carbon fibre, glass, nylon and various resins. They are designed for fast forward performance with a high-angle paddling style. With quite high area blades, a high angle means that they catch the wind easily, so a "Euro" paddle is typically feathered, and sea paddles often have a high feather angle of 80° which makes it easy to paddle into a stiff headwind, but still leaves the paddler open to being upset by a sudden gust from the side. Whitewater paddlers have less concern about wind, and need to switch the active blade from one side to the other very quickly, so typically have less feather - often 45° or even 30°. Paddlers who switch between whitewater and sea paddling often prefer to have the same feather (it makes rolling easier), so you will see sea paddlers using 45° paddles quite often.

The alternative to feathering paddles to combat the wind is to use a low-angle paddling style. There are a variety of euro-paddle variants designed for this (confusingly, mostly made in the USA) and they are typified by longer, thinner blades and often a low feather or no feather.

Paddles in the photo, from bottom to top:
A low-angle style euro-paddle with 45° feather, used on the trip to the Treshnish with a very long first day on the water
An Aleut-style paddle built to Brinck's design - this has never been a success
A commercially made (Feathercraft) Greenland paddle which splits in the centre
A home-carved Greenland paddle made from Western Red Cedar with some African padauk laminate on the loom

The original Inuit paddlers had other concerns besides just performance - they paddled to hunt, not for recreation. The Greenland paddles are narrow and diamond-shaped in cross-section, and one of their properties was the ability to paddle in almost complete silence. With thickish blades made of a light wood, the paddles were buoyant, and their symmetry meant that a paddle could be grabbed and orientated correctly for rolling very quickly. Rolling was a vital survival skill in icy arctic waters, so a large variety of different rolls were practiced, enabling a kayaker to roll up one handed or with the paddle well out of its proper place, even if its owner was injured or tangled with fishing line.

There is a great revival of interest in Greenland paddling technique and the extreme rolling skills which means more and more Greenland style boats and Greenland Paddles are to be seen. But these techniques are not just for rolling games - the Inuit would paddle on long journeys in dangerous waters. The boats are extremely seaworthy and the paddles, whilst needing different technique, can be very effective, especially in bad weather. If you are used to feathered european paddles, however, a GP feels very odd at first and there is a tendency to miss braces, so do practice enough to be confident before taking one out to sea !

Apart from technical reasons for preferring a Greenland Paddle, there are also less obvious reasons, such as paddling with a piece of equipment you have made yourself. Most people can carve their first GP in less than ten hours, and the materials cost is fairly small. Compared with a £300 bought carbon paddle, you can make a lot of GPs to play with and learn a lot in the process !

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