KayakVagabond

the website of Greg Stamer

Ask Greg

Posted by Greg on January 21, 2012

Welcome to the New Q&A Page!

I’m happy to help answer your questions ranging from Greenland-style technique, making Greenland paddles, wing technique, kayak expeditions and gear, kayak camping, surf kayaking and more. I look forward to your questions!

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Greenland paddle / Wing paddle

Q: You have stated that the Greenland Paddle (GP) can act as a wing when the GP is used in a high wing type stroke. Have you done a test in your fast kayak, GP vs wing to determine advantages of one or the other with respect to efficiency and/or speed in non racing situations, eg., outings from 5 to 15 miles?

I have acquired both a wing (Onno) and a GP (Novorca) in the last year and have been learning both. At 4.2 kts, my traveling speed, the GP feels more efficient, but I can go at least 0.2 kts faster with the wing.  Jerry

A: Jerry,  Although I realize that you said non-racing situations, let me use that as an example, first, as it helps to clarify the issue.

To generalize, a racer is often trying to maximize speed over distance usually with an extremely light, unladen kayak. A sea kayaker is often trying the maximize the number of “miles per Snickers bars”, often with a heavy or gear-laden kayak, day after day. These are related, but are very different things and need to be viewed separately.

In a racing situation — very light kayak, 10 miles or less, using a very high stroke, I’m about 1.5 – 2 minutes per mile faster with my wing than with a GP.  That’s not much for touring but is an eternity for racing. Unfortunately this is not a perfect test since my current “go-fast” kayaks have a fairly high foredeck that makes it difficult to fully bury the blades of my GP at the catch. I have won local races with a GP over wings, but if I want my best time I use a wing.

You don’t get something for nothing. The speed comes with a price.

With a wing (or other “Euro” paddle) you hold the paddle such that if you were to place the center of the shaft on your head, your elbows make a 90 degree, or slightly less, bend. To achieve a vertical stroke you must lift your arms fairly high, and that’s the rub. Even if you have the lightest–most expensive paddle available, mere ounces, you are still lifting many pounds on each stroke — the weight of your arms. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use a light paddle (I buy the lightest I can afford) but you also have to understand the role of your technique in the equation.

With a GP, your hands are much closer together. You do need to ensure that your paddle shaft is long enough to  generate good power (racers in Greenland often use 22″ or slightly longer paddle-shafts for this reason), but the closer hand position allows you to employ a high vertical stroke, without having to lift your arms very high. Unlike the high “chicken wing” paddle lift of the wing, your hands stay much lower, and you lift less arm-weight per stroke. I’m convinced that this is the reason my shoulders feel much better after many miles with a GP, than a wing.

For long-distances, even many surf ski racers lower their arm position, and don’t maintain the very high vertical stroke that is common for shorter courses and K1 sprinters.  Holding the paddle lower offers more stability in chaotic seas and is easier on your shoulders (less arm lift),  but the tradeoff is that you introduce more yaw and lose a touch of speed.  Of course, sometimes stability is more important than raw speed. To paraphrase Oscar Chalupky, no one is very fast when they are upside down.

Wing or GP? For touring it’s really a matter of preference — what stokes your passion, what feels better to you, and what works for you.  In a heavily loaded kayak, and for long distances, I prefer a GP — it’s much easier on my body.  A wide blade is not an advantage when you have a heavy load, are towing someone, and in similar situations. That said, wings are used by some kayakers on long expeditions with laden kayaks, so you will need to experiment to find the best choice for you.  If you do choose a wing for a loaded touring kayak, I recommend that you experiment with a small blade, rather than the midsize or large blades that are popular for racing.

For playing — blending strokes, rolling, linking strokes, I love the feeling and symmetry of a GP — it feels to me like dancing on the water. I don’t get this feeling with a wing.  A wing is more one-dimensional, designed for the forward stroke, and while that is what we do most of the time, it might not always match how you play. A wing is not nearly as versatile as a GP for blending strokes although you can make it work if you are dedicated.  For example, to scull with a wing, I have seen some paddlers turn the blade over, to use the back of the paddle. Awkward, maybe, when compared to a GP, but it works.

I have set speed records around Iceland and Newfoundland using a GP. Around Iceland my expedition partner used a wing. I was faster in some conditions and my partner was faster in others.  The point is that the paddle type was not the critical factor. For some ultra-long-distance events, often the goal is to simply “keep the kayak moving” and success is more a function of mental toughness, gruesomely long hours in the kayak, smart trip planning, an efficient route and ability to paddle in conditions rather than simply an impressive top speed.

To use a GP effectively I strongly recommend that you use the canted blade technique, where you allow the top edge of the blade to tilt forward (matching the angle of your palm when your wrist is held in a neutral position).  The canted blade stroke buries the blade quickly, helps to eliminate flutter and ventilation, and gives a much stronger feeling of power. There’s a common misconception that a GP has a lot of “slippage” or has a much faster cadence than a wing, this incorrect. Try this technique and the blade will feel like it is planted in “mud”, the sensation is very similar to using a wing. Chris Cunningham of Sea Kayaker magazine wrote, “switching from the beginner’s stroke to the [canted] stroke was very much like switching between a standard paddle and a wing paddle. The increase in the pull on the paddle is readily apparent”. Interestingly enough, many practitioners of wing paddles feel right at home with a GP, and many of the same stroke elements work quite well. For more information, please see the Qajaq USA technique page.

In the end, you might view a wing and a GP as complementary, depending on what you want to do, rather than as one type being “better” than the other. Think of a golfer deciding between a driver and a 2-iron, for instance. It’s a matter of the selecting the right tool for the job. For touring, try them both.  If you continue to use both a GP and a wing they will both teach you something and make you a better paddler.




Catch before Unwinding. How?

Q:  What would you suggest to someone who wants to unlearn unwinding before the catch and start to get good muscle memory for catch before unwinding.

Because the kayak is already moving I find myself unwinding – irresistibly! ;-(  before catch. Apart from visualizing spearing a salmon, do you have other advice, tips, tricks, dry/ wet exercises etc to catch before unwinding?

A: When I do video analysis of students a common error is unwinding before the catch, or in other words, starting to apply power before the paddle is completely buried. This is a common power leak.

If you are “pulling” before the paddle is planted, not only is your stroke shortened (giving you less time to generate power), but the catch is often poor too (drawing air into the water — ventilation, and creating turbulence and making noise — “plop!”).

How short is a “model” stroke? For a wing you should be starting your exit when the blade reaches your knees and the blade should exit when your hand reaches your hip.  Since the stroke is so short, you can’t afford to waste any of it. A Greenland paddle also exits when your hand is at your hip, but the blades are long, and will exit behind you.

The long blades of a Greenland paddle mean that your catch needs to be quick and precise, otherwise the stroke will be almost over before you have fully buried the blade, especially if you prefer a vertical stroke for speed.

Trying to “unlearn” existing muscle memory can be frustrating, but it can be done, so be persistent. When learning a new “choreography”, start slowly and deliberately until if feels natural. Being aware of what you are doing is half the battle. When you find yourself falling back into old habits (and you will), just bring your new-found awareness back to your technique, or go back to the drills.

Sequencing Drill — Wind-up and Catch: (kayak moving very slowly or stationary):

  • Fully wind up (spear the salmon position)
  • Quickly bury the paddle blade into the water  ONLY (no other movement)
  • Remove the paddle, fully wind-up and perform on the opposite side.

Wind-up & Pause Drill: (kayak can be moving at speed)

  • Fully wind up (spear the salmon position)
  • PAUSE FOR A FULL SECOND (in the air)
  • Plant the paddle blade completely into the water
  • Feel your stroke-side foot engage the footbrace and apply power.

These drills will help isolate each movement, improve your catch, prevent applying power too soon, and are also good for working on your balance.  Even on a normal stroke when I’m not doing a drill, I pause very briefly after winding up to prepare for a good catch.

A kayak ergometer is a very useful tool for working on these drills. You can perform them either very slowly or at speed, without worry about balancing and capsizing.

When you plant the paddle, do so fully. Wrap a piece of bright tape around the shaft where it meets the blade (Euro or Wing). You should bury the paddle to this tape mark, and no more, no less. Strive to keep the blade at this depth throughout your stroke.  For a Greenland paddle you plant the blade almost up to the pinky finger of your pulling (lower) hand.
You can help keep the paddle at a constant depth by allowing the paddle to flare naturally away from the hull during the stroke, while maintaining good posture. This is only possible if your mechanics are sound and the paddle length is correct. Too long a paddle makes it easier to get the blade in the water for the catch, but the paddle may go too deep at the exit.  A paddle that is too short is just the opposite.

The website below has some good coaching tips, excellent images of the different phases of a stroke, and some additional drills that you might wish to try: http://members.westnet.com.au/dshunter/Good%20Technique.htm




Forward Stroke with Greenland Paddle?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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).
  13. 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.

Technique

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.

Crunch Stroke

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.

Canted Wing-Stroke

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“.