For a while you’ve been looking at the Greenland paddles in rack at the club and watching the happy people sitting in their kayaks waving their wooden sticks, and now you’ve decided to try it out.
The question then is: how do you use a Greenland paddle? How do you hold it, how do you place it in the water, how do you move the kayak forward with it and how do you take it back out of the water?
All good questions and I will try to give some answers here.
Sources, resources and comments
Many have shared knowledge about paddling with a Greenland paddle, and I am not trying to write anything new, but will describe my own experiences and try to make it as understandable as possible.
Maybe you disagree with what I have written here or have something to add. If so, please leave a comment – I may have misunderstood something or not explained it very well. Or there may be something you would like to elaborate on – please do.
I have learned to paddle with a Greenland paddle myself from several sources: I’ve read about it both online and in books, I’ve watched videos, and most of all I’ve tried it and watched others and asked others and been instructed by others.
The best online sources I’ve come across are linked to at the end of the post.
My first paddle stroke
The very first time I got in a kayak and paddled off, it went OK – I thought. I used a Euro blade, a regular paddle, and didn’t use it very well, but I moved forward and could also steer the kayak reasonably well. With a bit of expert instruction, I soon got better.
The first time I tried to paddle with a Greenland paddle it didn’t go that well. Sure, the kayak moved, and I could also keep up with the others in the group, but the paddle fluttered through the water, behaved strangely and it was hard to get the kayak moving fast and the steering strokes to work. I was holding the paddle all wrong, almost vertical during the stroke, dragging it close to the side of the kayak and way too far back.
My interest in the Greenland Paddle
Pretty soon I learned to paddle well with a Euro paddle and was happy to use one, especially after I bought one myself – a good quality one. I wasn’t particularly interested in paddling with a Greenland paddle, but read about it, watched those who used one and now and then tried my hand at it too.
I was, and am, very fascinated by the Greenland kayaks, both the old sealskin-covered ones, the newer skin-on-frame ones and the modern glass/carbon fiber ones. In my early kayaking days, in my mind the Greenland paddle naturally belonged with those kayaks, but it actually goes well with all kinds of sea kayaks.
The Greenland paddles of Copenhagen Kayaking Club and Björn Thomasson
I used one Greenland paddles of the club every now and then. Not much, but as I became more and more interested in all the different Greenland rolls, I naturally became interested in paddling with the Greenland paddle I used for the rolls, especially when I bought my own.
At one point, before I had really started using the wooden stick, we had a visit from Björn Thomasson at the club. He gave a short course on how to how to paddle with a Greenland paddle.
It was a very instructive course, and I got a reasonably good understanding of the paddle. However, it didn’t seem quite right for me. For instance, I got a little twinge in my deltoid muscle every time I increased the cadence, and I couldn’t get the steering strokes quite as sharp as with my Euro paddle either.
What you can get away with
There’s a point here: Immediately most people can splash away with a Euro blade without learning to paddle properly, you can do the steering and support strokes and even roll with one without much more than using your arms. The big blade along with arm and shoulder muscles do all the work.
It actually takes a bit more attention to paddle properly with both a Euro paddle and a Greenland paddle. The Euro paddle is a bit more forgiving – you can get away with never really getting the hang of it, with a Greenland paddle it doesn’t go so well, especially at first until you understand how to use it.
How do you hold a Greenland paddle?
When you hold a Greenland paddle, you do it differently from when you hold a Euro paddle.
A Euro paddle is held with what is called a ‘paddlers box’ where you have your hands so far apart on the shaft that, with the paddle just over the top of your head, your elbows are at a right angle.
A Greenland paddle is held with the hands closer together, just where the paddle blade and shaft meet.
The paddle is gripped so that it rests on the thumbs where the shoulder of the paddle starts, the index finger automatically coming to rest just above and the other fingers slightly up the shoulder of the paddle blade. When you hold it in this way, the paddle comes to rest in your hands so that the upper edge of the blade is angled slightly forward. This is important for how the paddle moves through the water.
The path of the paddle through the water
When the paddle is moved through the water, it doesn’t really matter which paddle it is, you start at the front, close to the kayak and then move it further and further away from the kayak through the paddle stroke – not much, it’s not a sweep – but you follow roughly the v-shape the wave from the bow forms.
With a regular paddle you have to actively do it yourself. The shape of a wing paddle is made so that the paddle moves by itself in the right path through the water. A Greenland paddle is a bit clever. If you hold it as described, with the upper edge angled slightly forward, a canted stroke, it does the same as a wing paddle. Not quite as pronounced, but it helps you move it through the water correctly.
The Greenland paddle and the catch
With the Greenland paddle you have a low paddling stile, and the paddle has a longer blade. This means that it is immersed in the water and taken up differently than with a Euro paddle.
When you catch the water with a Euro paddle, you reach as far forward as you can, and you lift the paddle out of the water at the hip.
The Greenland paddle is also placed in the water far forward, but not quite as far as with the Euro paddle, and it is lifted up a little further back. This comes naturally as a result of the way it is held and the low paddling stile. You don’t move it so far back that you lift water, but to a point where the angle in which you hold the paddle causes the blade to slide naturally out of the water.
Timing a Greenland paddle stroke
When sliding a paddle into the water to move a kayak forward, it is important that the entire blade enters the water fully before applying power to the stroke. Obviously, the Greenland paddle has a much longer blade than a Euro paddle or a wing paddle. The timing is therefore a little different: the long blade needs time to be fully immersed in the water.
The fact that the paddle blade is completely down in the water for the catch to be effective is hopefully obvious, and the same is also true for the steering strokes.
For me, it took a while to get used to it, but as I got more into using the Greenland paddle, I slowly got the hang of it, and now it works fine.
The soft paddle stroke of the Greenland paddle
Once you get an understanding of how the blade is immersed in the water, you will also be able to increase the force slowly as the blade slide into the water, thus getting a soft stroke where the load on the wrists, elbows and shoulders doesn’t come in a jerk, but smoothly. This lessen the strain on the body and is an advantage when you paddle long trips, maybe over many days.
With a Euro blade, the peak of the power phase is right after the catch. With a Greenland paddle, the force of the stroke gradually increases and is more towards the middle of the stroke.
A Greenland Paddle tells if you’re doing it wrong
When you move a Greenland paddle through the water, it gives you feedback on whether you’re using it correctly. If you feel a scratching sensation in the paddle, it can be caused by two things: Either you’re not holding it at the right angle or you’ve applied to much power too early.
The scratching sensation feels like standing on land and dragging the corner of the paddle tip across the ground. If the water is clear, you can see that there simultaneously is a long line of turbulence from the tip of the paddle.
Once you become aware of this, it is easy to adjust the angle and timing and make the paddle work well in the water.
If the paddle blade flutters through the water, in most cases it is the same thing that is the problem, just to a more pronounced degree.
There’s one thing I almost forgot: torso rotation.
It doesn’t matter what kind of paddle you use, for it to really come into its own it has to be the torso rotation that does the work. This is true whether it’s a wing paddle, a Euro paddle or a Greenland paddle, a wooden stick, a board or a log: it’s the big muscles in your back, stomach and legs that propel the kayak forward.
It is important to realise that the paddle is not being torn through the water. It is a feeling that the paddle is holding on to the water and the kayak is being pulled forward. Again, it doesn’t matter what kind of paddle it is.
Torso rotation makes paddling less strenuous; you can paddle longer and have more good kayaking experiences.
Only for sea kayaks?
A guy in the club, he mostly paddles with a Greenland paddle, would like to join the weekly handicap race for racing kayaks (They are assigned different start times based on their past performance, so in principle they reach the finish line at the same time and it makes for an exciting race).
Due to a shoulder injury, he would not use a wing paddle, but his Greenland paddle. This worked out really well once he got the hang of the sprint kayak he had chosen, and he was able to keep up with the others.
This of course caused a bit of a stir from the hardcore sprint kayakers.
The official Greenland paddle rules
Of course, there are no rules that if you are paddling a certain kind of kayak, you can/may only use a certain paddle.
I met someone one day who paddled with a wing paddle in his Rebel Illaga, probably the most Greenlandic kayak of fibreglass you can imagine, and I have a friend who took his IPP4 (BCU4) exam with a Greenland paddle.
I paddle with both a Euro paddle and a Greenland paddle. They strain the body in slightly different ways, and I can be kayaking more – which is only good!
The point is: Forget the rules, but whatever you use to propel your kayak, learn to do it properly. Try different paddles, choose the one you like best, get to know it thoroughly – then try something else…
In the end, it’s all about having a good experience in your kayak.
I myself am mostly inspired by Björn Thomasson in my use of the Greenland paddle. Not only because he was in our club teaching some of us, but even before that, I had read extensively on his website where he writes extensively about the use of paddles in general and specifically about the Greenland Paddle.
In my search for knowledge and inspiration I also came across Lars Gram’s website and what he explains well there.
Tue Olesen’s clear instructions I found only recently and they are certainly worth a look (in Danish).
See also Martin Nissen’s article on the canted paddle grip.
There is a lot of detail in what happens when using a paddle, both in the water and in the body, and not just with a Greenland paddle. People share their experiences both in video and text, and the curious have plenty of opportunity to go down the rabbit hole both online and in books.
The idea of something new
Having said all that, it’s the experience that matters when you grab a paddle whether it’s one or the other – whether it’s your own, or you’re tempted by something new in the rack at the club.
There are many ways to kayak: some do it a lot, others take a leisurely trip when the weather is good, and still others might only get out on the water once in a while.
If you paddle a lot, it’s inspiring to learn new ways of doing it, to try something that wasn’t the first thing you thought of: a different kind of kayak or a different kind of paddle.
The thought goes on to new places, longer trips, more adventures. To the sea unfolding around us.