Lapping the couch

No matter how slow you are going, you are still lapping everyone on the couch.

The CouchYou may have encountered the above quote already. Obviously, it’s intended to serve as a spark of consolation when you find yourself trailing at the back of the kayak bunch, or when flubbing rolls, or simply whenever you’ve been comparing your efforts with those of some superhuman who probably only exists in your head. Even although you are a little slow/stiff/out-of-condition, you’re at least not as bad as that pizza-guzzling slob on the couch, also in your head.  But there lies a problem with the quote itself – it is once again doing comparing. This time, it’s you and the aforementioned slob. And that’s when things get tricky.

I’m kind of done with dualistic or competitive thinking such as: me versus (insert name of sporting hero here), me versus my 22 year-old self, me versus the imaginary couch-dweller, me versus you. It deals in delusion and doesn’t achieve much. Often only half the facts are available and many assumptions are made. For example, the person on the couch could be injured, or ill. There are many kayakers who have been in that very position and it has perhaps been the primary reason for them abandoning another activity, such as hillwalking, and taking up paddling instead. Alan is one of them.

Greenland rollingInjuries can teach you a lot (perhaps that’s why many kayakers are so wise). First of all, they force you to slow down and assess. This in turn breeds acceptance. Then you start to learn, not just about your injury, but how to help it heal and how to prevent it recurring. If it’s beyond that, then the human spirit has a way of finding other life-affirming interests. It can be a real voyage of discovery.

Many people have come to Greenland kayaking as a result of bodily incompatibilities with a Euro paddle. All it takes is a wrenched shoulder to prompt an investigation of more traditional methods of rolling and forward progress. The Inuit did know a thing or two, long before the Europeans. And therein lies a world of opportunity, with all sorts of morale-boosting accomplishments waiting to be attained, as well as a strong connection to the very origins of kayaking.

And where there is life, there is always hope – or rather, possibility. After finally overcoming an old hip problem, and many comeback attempts over the best part of a decade, not to mention the anguish associated with an unrelated but sombre diagnosis, I have unexpectedly returned to running. Heel-striking runnerOf course, this is an activity that has a strong association with injury. It didn’t ever occur to me that this shouldn’t necessarily be the case and that – like yoga, swimming or kayaking – there is a technique to be mastered which can prevent injury (and which I’m learning!), that state-of-the-art shoes might be harmful (heel-strikers beware!), that cross-training is vital, as is yoga plus strength and flexibility exercises generally. I’ve also been learning about the incredible benefits of plant-based whole foods for fuelling and rebuilding the body cell by cell (so many ultra-athletes can’t be wrong), as well as therapies such as Trigger Point and Active Release Technique (a foam roller is your friend). And I used to think I knew about running. Everything in life boils down to – and let’s get dualistic for a moment – awareness versus ignorance.

Most of all, I’ve been learning about the mind’s ability to focus on the positive, or the negative, and to therefore contribute towards a corresponding outcome. Years ago, I talked myself out of running and gave up on it featuring in my life again. It’s come as a real surprise to welcome it back, simply because I opened one more little window of possibility. I’m just working on shorter distances at the moment. Maybe one day they’ll amount to something. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’ll just be nice to run along the shore road for a bit. Regardless, it’s a treasure. Kayaking has taught me to leave my Type A-ness at home and just try things out, to enjoy the scenery, to see what the sea and the wind bring. It can be applied throughout life.

Felix BaumgartnerOf course, when I spoke about making comparisons, I didn’t mean to confuse this with gaining inspiration from others. As I watched Felix Baumgartner fall 128,000 feet to Earth, I was dumbfounded by his bravery. If I were silly enough to make comparisons, let’s just say I was several places behind Felix when they were handing out the awesome – but that doesn’t stop me from being inspired by him. Even so, there is more to that particular story. Falling through space might not have fazed Felix, but wearing a spacesuit did, and the claustrophobia he experienced in practice runs nearly became a showstopper.  As I mentioned, sometimes you only know half the story.

For now, I’m thankful to be lapping the couch, whether someone happens to be on it or not. But I’d encourage anyone seated there not to give up, no matter how pointless it all feels. You just never know what windows are going to open and what sea breezes might come rushing in.

Because you are alive, everything is possible.

– Thich Nhat Hahn

Making a Greenland Paddle

Maybe it’s just part of traditional kayaking, but there comes a time when you simply want to try making your own paddle. That time arrived for me not too long  after spending a weekend with Kayak Ways, where I was surrounded by Greenland paddles (GPs) of various shapes and sizes, some of which I liked more than others. It became apparent that Greeenland paddles can be a very personal thing.

One thing for sure was that a large sized paddle blade seemed not so desirable. Indeed, one remark heard when analysing a GP from a UK supplier was, “The best thing about this paddle is that they have left enough wood on it for you to carve off”! I realised  my king-sized GP was too big and I had to get a smaller paddle blade! Preferably one with an oval loom shape. This was my first encounter with an oval loom and I really liked it’s feel compared to the rounded off square looms. Square looms are easy to index (orient)  but can be rather uncomfortable to paddle with for any length of time.

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

I had taken a few rough measurements of a paddle that I had especially liked (one of Turner’s, and with his permission), and my first thoughts were along the lines of getting a paddle-maker to make one, which is exactly what I did. The paddle came back and had just about the correct blade size, but without an oval loom. Indeed the loom was a rounded off square shape, as was normal for the paddle-maker’s own standard paddles, but not the oval shape that I’d desired.

After a bit of head-scratching I decided that the best option was to learn how to do some adjustments myself and perhaps eventually work towards making my own paddle to my own requirements. I fired off a quick question to a friendly paddle maker (Gerhardt at Ravenwoods Paddles) on the wonderful kayaking resource  that is Facebook, before embarking up on a crash course of  YouTube videos and examining some helpful documentation. I started to equip myself with some spokeshaves, draw knives and bench planes (many courtesy of a very active secondhand Ebay market). I hadn’t even heard of some of this equipment before, let alone used it (well OK, I’d heard of a bench plane!)

A bench plane used to plane a Greenland style paddle

A bench plane for planing the faces

Metal bench planes can be found quite easily on Ebay. They are pieces of equipment that you can buy quite cheaply new (perhaps not great quality) or for the same price second hand (better quality). I was able to pick up a few 2nd hand bench planes in very good condition, some even dating from the 1943-47 era! They just needed a tune up, sharpen, hone and were ready to go.

I managed to source some 3m x 100mm x 50mm planks of top grade western red cedar from a local wood merchant who bought them in for me. They worked out to be about £30 (GBP) per plank. One 3m plank is good for  making 1 x paddle and 4 x norsaqs.

It should be noted that, before I started this project, my wood-working skills were fairly rudimentary. The last woodwork training I had had was 30 years ago at school where I had successfully carved a large gouge in my finger (I still have the scar today!). My point is that you can do Greenland paddle-making yourself without a lot of technical expertise.

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

I started off by practising my skills with a spokeshave and a few different bench and block planes. I did this by continually sharpening and adjusting them and soon learned good techniques for shaving and planing the wood surface. It’s good to do this with just a cheap old bit of spare pine before going anywhere near a paddle! As my technique improved I decided to start by making a norsaq (hand held rolling stick) or two. These are small enough to not be too challenging, whilst they allow you to actually make something and improve your skills.

Norsaqs

Norsaqs

Several norsaqs later and it was time to make a paddle!

I determined my ideal paddle length (it’s really only the loom length that changes according to your shoulder separation) at 2.2m. As a rule of thumb you should be able to get your finger tips around the end of a vertical paddle with your arm vertically above your head. I chopped the 3m plank of cedar down to this value, bench planed the rough faces off and was ready to sketch out my paddle carving plans on the wood. Good, accurate sketched plans on the wood are a very important part of making a good paddle.

Sculpting the Greenland style paddle with a low angle spokeshave

Sculpting the paddle tips with a low angle spokeshave

There are a few good resources out there to explain making a Greenland paddle, but a seminal reference has to be Chuck Holst’s guide, available here. Another good guide is Brian Nystrom’s excellent  ‘Making the Greenland Paddle’.

Basically the procedure can be broken down into several stages –

  1. Plane the plank to true the edges and smooth  it for marking
  2. Mark on the loom and slopes
  3. Bulk removal of the slope wood (bench plane #6, #5, #4, or power plane)
  4. Mark outline of paddle (rounded blade faces and loom)
  5. Bulk removal to outline of paddle (draw knife, bench planes #5, #4, spokeshave, or band-saw)
  6. Sketch on centre lines and guides
  7. Sculpt paddle blades and loom shape using spokeshave(s)
  8. Sand paddle (perhaps the most fun part, as your paddle appears from a rough cut/spoke shaved piece of wood)
  9. Oil paddle (tung oil)
  10. Test paddle on water (important!)
  11. Modify paddle if required by going to back to step 7
The finished Greenland paddle

The finished paddle

These steps take much longer when you are working on your first paddle. They will, however, speed up when you understand the basic principles involved. My first paddle took me 3 days to complete.

Wanting to make my own identification mark, I used pyrgograhy (wood burning) to imprint a logo that I had designed. Pyrography is a delicate skill indeed and is a one shot process as you are actually burning the wood with a small hot tip.

I also decided while making my second paddle that I’d introduce gelcoat blade tips to mimic the bone tips used on some of the traditional Greenland paddles. Only time will tell how robust a solution the gelcoat is, but I used 3 coats.

Testing the Greenland paddle

Pam rolling with my Greenland paddle

Of course, the final important stage is to test your paddle out on the water! And perhaps make minor adjustments to it if you are not happy about something.

We’ve used it during a few rolling sessions, and I used it on my weekend trip around Luing and have been very happy with it.

The first paddle I have made is a thin bladed paddle with an oval loom and some flexibility. My second one (with the white tips) also has an oval loom but is a more rigid paddle with much less flex. Whether I like this more rigid paddle is still to be determined, but the beauty of making wooden paddles means that you have the option to make adjustments to them as an when necessary!

I strongly recommend that you consider making your own paddle. It can be a rewarding experience and creates a personal connection between yourself and your equipment.