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.

Luing at a good few licks

Posted by Alan

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

With summer waning (wow, where did it go to? I must have blinked!), it was time to grab a camping trip before we ran out of season. Fortunately a friend had suggested a weekend trip around the Isle of Luing which is a small island located about 16 miles south of the west of Scotland tourist mecca, Oban.

After stopping off to camp on Friday night in the very pleasantly located and well equipped Gallanachmore Farm campground (just a mile or two south of Oban), we set off early on the Saturday to arrive at Ellenabeich on Seil (near Easdale) at about 8 am.

The trip was coincidental with spring tides, and this part of the west of Scotland is renowned for being an epicentre of significant tidal flows which continuously ebb and flow their way around the many islands at rates topping 8 knots in places. As a result, good tidal planning was a necessity unless we wanted to find ourselves visiting somewhere completely different from that intended!

By starting early we planned to catch the tail end of the ebb tide down from Easdale towards Luing, which also involves crossing the highly tidal Cuan Sound, the west of which is an area known for significant turbulence under certain wind and tide conditions.

Heading towards Cuan Sound

Heading towards Cuan Sound

When we looked on Friday, the forecast had been for F2 winds from the south for most of the weekend but, as we unpacked our cars and readied our kayaks and camping gear, glances to the south revealed quite a few white caps between us and Cuan Sound. An anemometer reading showed 13 mph winds (gusting to 20 mph) from SW.

We eased out of Easdale Sound and headed south, quickly encountering the south-westerly wind on the last of the ebb tide which kicked up some nice chop for us to plough into as we approached Cuan Sound.

Cuan Sound is a narrow gap (200m) between the south end of Seil and the north end of Luing, and the Sound is rarely not in motion. Indeed, it is inactive for only one hour in every 6 or so and even then it shows evidence of moving water. At peak flow, it hits 7 knots in either direction. A ferry crosses the Sound to service the local communities on Luing.

Entering Cuan Sound

As we rounded the corner in an active sea into the Sound, the north end of Luing provided shelter from the prevailing southwesterly winds and the sea state lessened. The flow was due to reduce too, but was still running east when we arrived. We targeted a bay on the northern coast of the island and ferry glided over the Sound towards it.

I then did a quick weather check by phoning  home to “Weather Station Pam” whilst trying to avoid being sucked back into the flow out of the bay. During this act of juggling the phone, phone bag and paddle, I nearly dropped the phone but somehow didn’t. The outer waterproof phone bag took a swim, however, and was soaking for the rest of the trip. Just as well I double bag the mobile!

Weather Station Pam revealed that 13 mph gusting to 25 mph southerlies were now appearing in the forecast and that they would eventually die out as the day progressed. This was a change from the previous forecast we had of F3-F4 SW later in the day. It looked like it had blown up a bit earlier than expected.

Cuan Sound

It was interesting to note the extreme lack of mobile reception in this part of the world. I frequently experienced signal dropout, and the maximum signal I had all weekend was a single ‘notch’,  obtained while standing on a hillside! The learning to take from this is that, if you are kayaking in this area, it may not be a good idea to rely on just your mobile phone for emergencies. A VHF radio (which I also carry) is useful, but it is only a line-of-site device and can potentially be limited with all the hills around. There also wasn’t a whole lot of shipping in the vicinity to radio to if required. So it did raise the valid question of what else should I be carrying for emergency communication around here? A PLB? An EPIRB?

We had intended heading down the west of Luing first then coming up the eastern side to complete the circumnavigation, but the conditions between Easdale and the Cuan Sound coupled with the wind forecast for the earlier afternoon made the option to head down the eastern side first seem more appealing.

Narrows at island of Torsa

We proceeded eastwards and the conditions calmed as we turned to explore the narrows between the islands of Torsa and Luing, which are, indeed, quite narrow – 15 feet in places and shallow,  and hence are not navigable in much other than a kayak. After heading through, the views opened out to the eastern side of  Luing as well as to the mainland, and south to the island of Shuna.

An hour or so later, we arrived at the small and rather picturesque hamlet of Toberonochy. As you arrive in Toberonochy you are immediately reminded of the heritage of the islands in this area as you are surrounded by slate.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

 

A lot of the islands in this locale are referred to as the ‘Slate Islands’ , which relates to their previous historical importance within the slate industry. This includes Easdale, Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua. Slate, as you are probably aware, is used for roofing on buildings, and Easdale was the main hub for the industry for the best part of 3 centuries. In its heyday, slate from this part of the world roofed buildings such as Glasgow University, Glasgow Cathedral, Iona Abbey and was even exported as far away as Canada before business came to a halt in the 1950s as different and cheaper roofing methods became the norm.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy harbour had a pier made of slate, and a surrounding beach of crushed slate, as could be found on other parts of the island. There was an old fishing vessel ‘Crystal Waters’, lying in ruin at the harbour which, even although not relating to slate, added to the historical character of the place.

After having a very relaxed lunch break and enjoying some sun rays and ever increasing blue skies, we reluctantly departed and headed further south.

The coastline at the bottom of Luing is rather unremarkable, mainly grassy hills with the odd small pocket of trees breaking the horizon. The breeze we were paddling into was the only sign of what lay round the end of the island.

Rounding the south end of Luing

Rounding the south end of Luing

We gradually approached the south of the island and, as we rounded it, the views over to north Jura and Scarba opened out. We could see  the tide race off the south end of Luing in action, and passed though the tip of it.  For the next few kilometres, we had a south-westerly F3/4 wind giving us some beam waves and the sea was once again quite lively. The sun was out, the views were stunning and we all had smiles on our faces as we headed north. During a very brief break at a small inlet, the winds suddenly dropped by a couple of levels and the seas calmed down. I was amazed at how quickly weather can change!

Cullipool, Luing

Cullipool, Luing

We headed north up Luing at a good few licks, greatly assisted by the flood tide (sometimes whizzing along at 4-5 knots), and soon arrived in Luing’s main village, Cullipool, which as chance would have it is also home to the island’s only shop. With the sun now blazing down on us, we used the opportunity to buy a few chilled drinks and ices and enjoy the sights.

Leaving Cullipool, we resumed a northerly passage and, as it was getting late, we resolved to find somewhere to set up our camp.

Dave spotted a likely campsite on the north end of the island just a couple of kilometres from Cuan Sound, but with some breaking surf onto yet another slate beach. He selflessly went in and scoped it out before signalling to us all to go in. The surf wasn’t big, but it was there and the beach was very steep with slate so it made for a nervy landing.

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

After we were all off the water, kayaks unpacked, tents pitched and bellies filled, we were treated to a lovely sunset stretching out to the west over the Garvellachs and the Isle of Mull.  We watched the sun roll down until it dropped over the horizon and gradually turned the sky an array of pastel hues. All this whilst listening to the gentle crash of waves over the beach – what a pleasant  end to a fantastic day!

We left our camp at about 11 am the following morning with a slightly awkward surf launch (teamwork was required!) and headed back north, once again keeping a careful eye on the tidal timing to take in Cuan Sound in order to complete the  circumnavigation. We then made our way north along Seil’s coastline which had some nice gentle, breaking swell to play in for a while.

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Strangely, for a few minutes the Coastguard helicopter appeared and flew over us before setting off elsewhere. Maybe they were looking for someone? Or maybe they were just admiring the wonderful kayaking scene below them.

One other highlight for me was that I used a new Greenland paddle for the entire trip – one that I had made myself. More on that later, but I was very pleased that I had done this and was happy with the performance of the stick. There is something very satisfying about using something you have made yourself for propulsion!

Using my self made Greenland stick

Using my self made Greenland stick

Arriving back in Easdale Sound  I decided to do a couple of rolls, not for any applause, but mainly because I’d never rolled a fully laden sea kayak before. I especially wanted to try those well rehearsed Greenland rolls we have been working on for so long! I firstly used a side scull recovery, then did a full reverse sweep. Both rolls worked well, but the main difference with the laden kayak was the greater inertia of the kayak as it rotated in the water. Indeed I had to do a little extra pry just to get the kayak to fully turn round before doing the actual recovery sweep and  pry. I’m just glad that it worked with a full load, and this just adds to the importance of practising rolls in real life scenarios. I maybe need to try rolling it loaded in some chop next!

Sunset from north Luing looking west

Sunset from north Luing looking west

We all arrived back on shore at Ellenabeich with enough time to spare for a late lunch , which concluded an extremely pleasant weekend trip in superlative scenery and excellent company.

Greenland comes to Scotland

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways

Before I started paddling, my only association with Greenland was flying over that country and marvelling at its Arctic beauty from high above. I’ve still never been there, however, slowly but surely, we are pulling more and more bits of Greenland over to Scotland. Not the actual icy bits, but some of the traditions, craft and skills of the Inuit people. We have kayaks and paddles, and now we are going to be learning skills from 2 of the best-known traditional paddlers in the world, Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways. They aren’t actually from Greenland (at least not in this life), but their status as traditional skills experts is recognised both in that country and throughout the world. You can imagine my excitement to be booked on to a weekend course with them when they come to Scotland in late May. What a privilege! (You can pre-order their “This is the Roll” DVD here, by the way).

Greenland paddlingNow that Spring is springing, my thoughts are turning to rolling in the sea again and I’m looking forward to sharpening up existing skills so as to not look like a numpty have a good foundation to work on when Cheri and Turner arrive. We have had the good fortune of attending pool sessions lately and I’m having fun playing with my Greenland stick there. Gone are the days of spending the entire evening stressing over that one perfect Euro roll.

My only concern is from witnessing where this Greenland path leads, as demonstrated by Mackayak in Orkney. She started out in a colourful drysuit and an Isel (which sounds awfully familiar), but can now be found in a tuilik and a shiny, black beauty of a kayak. I am feeling a bit gaudy …

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks book at the ready

As Alan and I go out to practice our Greenland rolling, a scenario unfolds that might resonate with other paddlers of the skinny stick variety. Picture the scene: you have arrived at your favourite rolling spot, you go through the repertoire of rolls that you’ve mastered then you proceed to the ones that you are working on. One of two things happens then – you can’t quite get it right and can’t remember all the tips you tried to memorise from the DVDs and videos you’ve watched previously. Or, you nail it and are ready to try out a new roll, but can’t think which one or where to begin.

Sadly, out on the water, it’s not possible to take along a laptop, or even to readily fire up a mobile device, so it can leave one at a loss as to how to proceed. At worst, one could inadvertently start using bad technique which could lead to injury.

Rolling With Sticks

So that's how it's meant to be done!

Some of you might already be familiar with the Qajaq Rolls Website, which has been carefully put together by rolling aficionado Christopher Crowhurst in the US. It is a terrific free resource, documenting all the Greenland rolls (and others) in video and text, as well as employing useful stick figure diagrams. Branching out from this, Christopher has now created a book containing a first volume of rolls illustrated by said stick figures and accompanied by descriptive text. The book is called “Rolling With Sticks” (what else!) and is published on “Xerox premium NeverTear water resistant polyester paper.” In other words, it’s bombproof (just like your roll will be).

Alan and I received our copy last week and took it out to test in saltwater. Firstly, I can confirm, it really is waterproof. It’s difficult to imagine anything “paper” that wouldn’t become a soggy, mushy mess in saltwater, but it truly doesn’t. It’s hard to tell it’s even wet! And so, we were happily flipping through the contents and rolling with the book under our decklines. I was working on my hand roll and Alan on his storm roll and it was extremely useful (and somehow comforting) to have a handy reference right in front of us. It also acts as inspiration to get started on a new roll that we might not even have considered before. The stick figures work well as a quick visual reference (and I appreciated that they are smiling, reminding us to have fun!).

Rollign With Sticks

Alan looks up something new to try ...

This is quite a pioneering  book, being that the very nature of Greenland rolling is such that the skills have been passed down via elders and mentors, and have not been committed to paper to any large extent. Even although the activity is growing in popularity, it has still been quite niche. Skills sharing in this digital age has occurred via Internet sites and videos (as well as elders and mentors, of course), but I have not come across a lot in the way of guidebooks, and certainly not waterproof ones – a definite first!

I do have a tiny criticism. In the instructions for at least one roll (hand roll, forward to aft), we are guided to look up at the “sunlight”. This did throw me, being that the West of Scotland hasn’t seen sunlight for most of the “summer”. Perhaps “sky” would be a better word for us sun-deprived folks. But now I’m just being bitter picky.

To get your copy of Volume 1, go to the Rolling With Sticks Website. You won’t be disappointed!