Q: I would like to get the most out of my forward stroke with a Greenland Paddle, but I have been told different things about how to use the GP. Most emphasize torso rotation. Some say it is better not worry too much about rotation, but instead to reach and lean slightly forward, insert the paddle, then pull and sit-up. Some say to take the paddle out at the waist, as with an Euro-paddle. Some say to pull the paddle all the way through the stroke. Is there a style best suited to the GP and a Greenland style boat that gives the most power for the effort?
– Tom in North Carolina
A: Tom, thanks for the question.
Before going into specific techniques, following are some general points to ponder. There is a lot of condensed information here, you may have to read this more than once.
- Move the boat through the water, not the paddle. This is a huge mental change for most paddlers. Think of your paddle as an anchor that you plant into solid ground and then lever your boat forward using strong legwork and body rotation. When done properly you should be able to feel your paddle “load-up” with tension – it feels somewhat like you are suspended from the paddle, like hanging from a bar.
- Chain reaction — your stroke is only as good as the weakest link. Like a golf swing or a dance step, once you get off track it’s all downhill from there. The catch (inserting the blade in the water) is perhaps the most important phase. If it is poor, so will the remainder of your stroke. You need to bury the paddle blade completely — up to your lower hand with a GP. This must happen quickly and cleanly (no noise, air or splash) BEFORE you begin to unwind your body.
- Don’t dally at the catch. Each paddle stroke is fairly short. If your catch is poor your stroke can be almost over before your paddle blade has even gotten fully wet . This is a common error and results in a loss of power. As a mental aid, imagine that there is a tasty fish at your bow, and “spear the salmon” as your paddle enters the water. In other words thrust the paddle quickly into the water with both hands. This will feel abrupt and choppy at first, but smooths out over time. Keep your wrists relaxed to extend your reach.
- Eliminate the “scratch”. Ventilation happens when you drag air into the water at the catch. With a GP it’s announced by a “scratching” noise, similar to the sound of dragging your fingernails over rough nylon fabric. This prevents a strong connection between the paddle and water. Fix this by “spearing the salmon” and ensuring that the paddle blade is buried before you add power. In some cases ventilation can also be caused by having a fat, blocky paddle tip. If that is the case thin it down so that it is “sharpened” to the same radius as the blade edges. A good catch is silent; a poor catch makes a loud “plop”. Technique can help here too, the canted blade technique with a GP can make a big difference (more on this below).
- Push the kayak forward with your legs. Racers push hard with the heel of their stroke-side foot. The stroke-side leg extends, and the opposite knee rises — a mini bicycling effect. This is what powers your body rotation. When you do this correctly if feels like you are moving the kayak with the power of your legs hips and core, not your arms. Imagine that you are trying to open a heavy, rusty-hinged church door. Plant your feet firmly and rotate your torso. Imagine that your arms are simply ropes (linkages) between your shoulder joint and the door handle.
Note – In an ultra low-volume skin-on-frame (SOF) kayak you may feel the most force on the opposite knee/thigh as it rises against the low masik (curved beam above your thighs), rather than your stroke-side leg. If that’s the case, make this the foundation of your stroke.
- Try the penguin walk. To understand how your hips help to drive your kayak forward, sit on the floor with your feet straight out in front of you and move forward by “walking” your pelvis forward (thrusting one leg forward at a time) akin to the way a penguin walks. This simple drill can greatly increase your understanding of what you’re trying to do with your lower body.
- Full body rotation. Many kayakers only move their shoulders and think they are really rotating. A powerful torso rotation is one that starts all the way down to your butt on the seat. A racing kayak is setup to emphasize torso rotation and leg drive –feet are centered together on a large, comfortably angled footrest and the cockpit is open to allow leg action. Some racing kayaks even have a rotating seat pan (like a turntable) to fully exploit this. Note that this position maximizes rotation but minimizes stability and the ability to brace. Realize that most touring kayaks are maximized for stabilty with your feet and knees splayed out toward the sides. Ideally your kayak will allow for both positions to have the best of both worlds. Understand these different positions and exploit both of them if your kayak allows for it. If I cannot rotate fully, then I will use techniques such as the “crunch technique” to compensate (more on this later).
- Use your big muscle groups. Your leg, back and abdominal muscles are larger and stronger than your arms. While you can’t move them as fast in a very short sprint, they don’t tire as easily.
- Bent arms can be a power leak. For a wing-style stroke your arms shouldn’t bend more than 90 degrees, and most of this bend happens as the blade exits the water. A good image by Imre Kemecsey (Hungarian K1 coach) is to imagine that you have a sheet of saran wrap taped from the paddle shaft to the outside of your arms. Try to paddle without creasing this membrane. You don’t want to be stiff like Frankenstein, but you don’t want bend your arms too much either. If you tend to bend your lower arm as soon as the paddle enters the water, you are “arm paddling”, rather than using your core, legs and body rotation.
- Keep the stroke out in front of you. I see many kayakers using a GP where their paddle is held very close to their chest. While this can be a low-energy way to paddle it results in a weak stroke. Imagine that you have a beach-ball in your lap and shift your entire stroke more forward.
- Exit when your hand reaches your hip. Remove the paddle blade from the water when your lower hand reaches your hip (not the paddle tip). With a GP this means that the blade tip will be well behind you when you exit because the blades are long.
- Paddle attributes. Paddle dimensions must fit you, your kayak, and the conditions you are kayaking in. Too long or too short will require technique or postural compensations. A GP with sharper edges and tip is preferred by many for increased power (but may be more uncomfortable to hold and is more prone to damage).
- Posture Matters. You cannot rotate your torso effectively if you are not sitting tall (a slight forward lean is OK). I see many kayakers using a GP that is too short for them. To compensate they often slump forward in attempt to catch the water, resulting in a weak stroke. Your shoulders also function much better when you use good posture. Try this drill: while sitting up straight, lift your arms over your head as high as they will go. Now try the same while you slump forward. The difference is striking. Some therapists believe that slumping forward might cause shoulder impingement, so it not only looks bad, it costs you power, and possibly shoulder health.
There are many technique variations for using a GP. To over-generalize you can lump them into two main stroke variants – the “crunch stroke” (as popularized by Maligiaq Padilla) and the “wing stroke” (very similar to a typical stroke using a wing paddle).
Note that both of the following techniques are often (but not always) performed using a canted blade with a GP. While this may sound contrived and uncomfortable it is a very natural way to hold the paddle. When you hold a Greenland paddle you don’t place all of your fingers on the paddle shaft. Instead you place only the thumb and forefinger of each hand on the shaft, with your other fingers draped over the roots of the blades. When you hold the paddle this way the blades will naturally tilt forward because the palm of your hand is tilted forward when your wrist is straight and relaxed. For a visual reference, hold your arm out in front of you and open your hand, with your wrist straight. The paddle will have the same angle as your palm.
The crunch stroke is a very popular technique in Greenland. This technique predates Maligiaq, but he has been instrumental in popularizing it outside of Greenland (he learned it from his Grandfather). Visually there is little torso rotation, but torso rotation does play a key role. What dominates is a strong abdominal crunch, and a strong leg work (like the penguin-walk drill discussed above). You drive the kayak forward by this “crunch” (large muscle groups) your legs working against the masik (curved deck beam), while your upper shoulder drives your top hand downward toward the deck. Arms remain bent. The arms often do not cross the center line of the kayak. This is not “arm paddling” — big muscles drive the kayak. Remember doing sit-ups in gym-class while someone held your legs? That’s what it feels like. Don’t allow the kayak to bounce as a result of this motion or it will only slow you down. Note that by pushing the upper hand down, the stroke is shortened and the working paddle blade rises. While this is considered taboo for a “Euro” paddle or wing, it works well with a Greenland paddle because the canted blade generates forward thrust as it is lifted upward.
Often a lot of upper body/shoulder power is used. When training, Maligiaq does upward to 500 pushups a day. I think that part of his success with this technique is due to his impressive strength and ability to maintain a high stroke rate. I often use this stroke for a change of pace but I am faster with “torso rotation” techniques. Your experience may diffier.
For more information view John Heath’s article for Sea Kayaker Magazine, and my article for Anorak magazine (Greenland Paddling from the Source). For more detail, I have an entire chapter devoted to this stroke, ‘Using Greenland Paddles”, in the book Eastern Arctic Kayaks.
Please see the video clips of Maligiaq Padilla’s stroke on the Qajaq USA website. I also explain this stroke in volume 5 of Nigel Foster’s Sea Kayaking Series DVD.
A lateral wing-type stroke (blade sweeping away from the bow, rather than straight back) is not new. A GP is the “original wing paddle”. In some areas of Greenland that I visited children were taught to allow the paddle to flare away from the hull, following the bow waves. This technique (and wing paddles) dominates competitive kayaking. The shape of the stroke is very natural if you plant the blade near the bow and then drive the paddle with body rotation. This will cause the blade to flare away from the hull so that it will be approximately 12-18” away from the hull at the exit. Your upper (“pushing”) hand will cross well over the centerline of the kayak deck on each stroke from torso rotation. An excellent reference is the forward stroke video by Greg Barton and Oscar Chalupsky. Although this video is produced for use with a conventional wing paddle, most of the information applies to using a GP as well, the main difference that your hands are held much closer with a GP and when using a GP your elbows point downwards (you don’t lift your elbows into a high “chicken wing” with a GP).
To understand the difference in how you hold a GP as compared to a wing, and how this affects the stroke, please see my thoughts on “Greenland Paddle / Wing Paddle“.