Greenland-style paddling instructor James Manke is the founder of the website All Things Qajaq. He teaches at sea kayaking symposiums and events throughout the world, and along with paddler James Roberts, represented Canada to compete in the 2014 National Greenland Kayaking Championships. James Manke won gold in the Greenland rolling competition and 5 silver medals in other traditional kayaking disciplines. He is an active member of West Coast Canadian ocean kayaking group, The Hurricane Riders. We interviewed James at the 2015 Pacific Paddling Symposium.
Andrew: What was going on today at PPS?
James: Today was Coaches Day. It was all about getting out there, sharing with and inspiring fellow instructors, which I found very rewarding. One of the things I found very interesting was all the different games that some of these coaches are utilizing and playing. They’re quite clever, actually. Some of the other things that I picked up, and one of the things I do often in rolling, is that I talk a lot about a “load-drive concept”. When we implemented that into strokes and all the different techniques that are out there, it was amazing to find out that the load-drive concept is actually used though all the skill sets in kayaking, along with other sports. It’s very valuable to have a Coaches Day like this at the beginning of a symposium, simply because you can bounce ideas off other instructors. It’s just really rewarding as an instructor to have that as an experience.
Andrew: What will you be teaching this weekend?
James: I’ll be focusing on teaching Greenland rolling, primarily in the pool, and a lot of beginner rolling, some intermediate, and a little bit of advanced. Then on Sunday I’ll be teaching out in the actual currents, out in Race Rocks. We’re going to be doing a Greenland rolling clinic out in the currents, which is the next step after learning your roll. It’s kind of exciting because it’s the first time that’s happened here at PPS, so I’m pretty excited about that on Sunday.
Andrew: So how did you first get into Greenland rolling?
James: Interestingly enough, I got into Greenland rolling from a fear of the water. I was afraid of the water, and it all started when I was a young child. I actually got attacked by a loon when I was 11 years old. I was in a belly boat, and I was kicking backwards, coming around this pier and fly fishing. I kicked into a loon’s nest, and that was a big mistake. It was either the mother or the father, and it swarmed me, and came at me, then it decided to go under the water and it attacked me that way. It became quite an experience! I got out of the water, and never went in to the water until my late 20s, and when I did it was pools primarily. I wouldn’t step foot in a lake, because there are loons in a lake. And the ocean? Heck, no! I mean, if there are loons in a lake, what’s in the ocean, right? There was no chance of me even going in the ocean. I was quite terrified of the water.
When I picked up kayaking and discovered rolling I thought, Hey, this could be a great way for me to overcome that fear of the water. So I picked up on that, and it did help. It started to help me overcome that fear. I discovered that the more that I understood it and that the more rolls I learned, the more confident I became. I went from being completely afraid of the water to, all of a sudden, now I’m playing in the biggest water — paddling Skookumchuck rapids, and that sort of thing. I’ve been down the Grand Canyon. It just sort of all exploded from, started from, a fear of the water. Learning to roll really added a whole lot of confidence to my paddling. So that’s basically my story and how I started — a little bizarre, but that’s where I was.
Andrew: Can you comment about the difference between standard kayak paddles and Greenland paddles?
James: I personally use both paddles. I like “Euroblades” as much as I do like Greenland blades, and I’ll try to be as diverse as I can with both paddles. In the future I’d like to grab a wing paddle and start to blend that into the mix. I’m not so much a purist when it comes to Greenland paddling. I’m more about the blending of the skills. I think that there’s a lot of value from traditional kayaking that modern day kayakers can pick up, so that’s more what I promote rather than being the purist of Greenland, or being one-sided about a Greenland paddle. I think there’s value in all blades, all kayaks. The more kayaks and the more paddles you know how to use, the better paddler you are. That’s the bottom line.
Andrew: About your trip to Greenland with James Roberts to compete in the National Kayaking Championships and to film the movie Greenland Bound — A Paddler’s Pilgrimage: how much do you think that experience changed you?
James: It definitely changed me. It changed me in a big way. Going into a competition, you really expect a competitive sort of feel. And when we got there it became very obvious that this was more of a celebration. It was more about a culture, and about inspiring young kids so that that cycle continues. It was really an inspirational event. It’s not so much about winning so much as it is about being there, and inspiring, and being a part of it. I think more of an American attitude toward something like that is that we are quite competitive. We do a lot of sports and we are competitive by nature. So going to an event like that, I walked in feeling that way, but had to give my head a shake, like, “Oh man, I’m here for the wrong reasons!” I really learned that the reason for being there was about kids, and about inspiring the next generation of paddlers. So there was a big message to learn when I was there.
There were some language barriers, for sure. In Greenland they speak Greenlandic. Their second language is Danish. There are a number of people who are Danish who live there, so you can use a Danish person as sort of a translator. But still, it’s pretty broken language. Someone from Denmark doesn’t really understand Greenlandic that well, but can kind of pick apart what it is.
James Roberts and I went to the judge’s booth, and we had a Danish guy with us to translate. We said, “When is our long distance race?” And from the translation that we got, he said, “Oh, you’ve got lots of time. You can go out for lunch.” So we thought, “Oh great! Thats awesome!” We take off our drysuits and put on all our camera gear, and start hiking up this mountain to go to have lunch. Well, we make it up to the top of the mountain, and it’s a good 15-20 minute haul to get to the top, and there’s nobody there! And we’re like, “No, you gotta be kidding! There’s nobody here!” So we sit around and wait. Nobody shows up for lunch. Ok, this is a little bit odd. So we walk all the way back down to the bottom of the mountain. And we’re like, “Yeah we went all the way up there for lunch but there’s nobody there.” And they’re like, “Oh, you missed your race!” So we ended up missing a race because of the translation that got lost!
It was a little frustrating, but we learned that you can’t really rely on the translations. If you want to be a part of this, you just have to stay in that area and just listen for your name. Because I know when they say, “JAMES MANKE, CANADA!”, I know that’s me. But all the other language is very hard to understand.
The interesting thing about culture and about different languages is that even if you don’t understand what they are saying, you can feel the energy. It’s very powerful. We felt that “welcomeness”. We could tell we were very accepted and welcome. And it took a couple days to warm into that.
Katya: What’s in your super-duper coach kit, as far as gear? Do you have some secret stuff in your PFD, something that you always bring?
James: I do like to hold on to a memento when I go paddling. For a long time it’s been a necklace of some sort. At one point I had a ring from my grandmother that I used to wear, but recently the memento that I’ve been wearing comes from a young guy that I mentored who lives on Salt Spring Island, and he made me a necklace. That’s now what I wear when I travel and teach. I make sure that I always have this necklace on me. He hand made that for me, so it’s just something that’s very special to me. So yeah, I do carry around a little something. I don’t have like a toolbox full of things that I might take out, because I am quite a minimalist when I go out paddling. But I do like to have something that I can sort of hang on to.
Andrew: How did you end up becoming a member of the Hurricane Riders?
James: Basically, how I became a Hurricane Rider is that a number of the Hurricane Riders are local to Victoria or Vancouver Island, and they became my peer paddlers. Since I started paddling I’ve always looked up to the best paddlers out there. I tried to tag along with them so I can learn from the best. I believe that if you want to become really good at something, you’ve got to surround yourself with people that are better than you, so that’s what I did. I hung around those guys, and eventually I just got brought on as a member. I think part of that was they saw some value in me for the skills and abilities that I have in rolling. And in reverse, they have skills and abilities in rough water that are absolutely incredible that that I can gain from. It was just a good partnership to join the team. I’m very happy to be a member and they are absolutely a blast to paddle with. A lot of times when I get out into some of those rougher conditions with other paddlers, they’re very timid and very afraid of the conditions. But when I’m out with those guys, it’s just nothing but fun — pure enjoyment and fun. And inspirational. I mean, we don’t just go out there and surf. It’s all about, OK, today we are going to do THIS! It’s always the next challenge, the next challenge. So that’s what I enjoy about the Hurricane Riders in particular. It’s a great group of paddlers to paddle with.
Andrew: What are your choice of kayaks?
James: I gotta be really careful what I say here because I’m a sponsored paddler, but I like a number of different kayaks. I am sponsored by Tahe Outdoors. One of the kayaks that they made in the past was the Tahe Greenland, and that is probably by far my favorite kayak that’s out there now. It is now made by a different manufacturer, but Zegul still has some Greenlands.
Some of the other kayaks that I really like — and if I was going to say some of the better kayaks that are on the market — are the Sterling Kayaks. Absolutely hands down. The Sterling Reflection is an excellent kayak. It’s very good in rough water, and actually rolls really well too. You can get in it a half-inch cut, and a one-inch cut. And they recently came out with the Progression which is meant for smaller paddlers. It’s cutting edge. It’s very cutting edge. The designer of the kayaks [Sterling Donalson] listens to paddlers, and that’s how the kayaks are made. So he takes all the input that he can from the paddlers and puts that into the build, and as a result makes the best products out there. So thats a little plug for Sterling!
Andrew: How is the Progression for rolling?
James: Actually, the Progression is awesome of rolling. It’s really, really good — surprisingly good! When I rolled the Reflection, I was impressed with how it’s secondary kinda pops and finishes. With the Progression, when you do forward-finish rolls, all you gotta do is get your head up to the surface and the kayak just lifts. It’s amazing! It’s almost as if it does the roll for you. It’s a very odd feeling, actually, where it just has this incredible secondary stability and it pops. I think that has a lot to do with the rocker profile and its volume. As soon as you turn it over it just wants to lift right back up. Yeah, it rolls excellent. It’s a really good rolling kayak.
Andrew: I was wondering about that, because the conventional wisdom is that you need a really low volume kayak to do those Greenland rolls.
James: Well, you need a really low volume kayak to do some of the harder layback rolls, for example. Because you are looking to get back onto that back deck. Like a straight jacket roll, for example — good luck doing that in a touring kayak! That is something you gotta do in a very, very low volume kayak. So it really depends on the rolls and what your goals are. When we’re doing a lot of sea kayaking, the focus really isn’t on straight jacket rolls. I don’t think anyone is going to go out into the rough, get knocked over and think, “Oh, I don’t need a paddle”, and roll a kayak. We don’t really rely on the back deck that much when it comes to that.
I try to teach more forward finish rolling when it comes to the larger volume kayaks because with some tour kayaks you just can’t lie on the back deck all the way. And they become very difficult to do layback rolls in, so I find that, when that’s the case, I’ll teach the storm roll or some variation of a forward finish roll.
Andrew: Is teaching sea kayaking a full time job for you?
James: Yeah, I’m a professional kayaker. I do travel around the world, and I teach, and it's what I do full time. In the winter I supplement myself a little bit with some programming work, being an ex-programmer, just to bring in a little bit of extra income. But other than that, for about 10 months out of the year I’m a full-on sea kayak instructor. It’s my profession. This will be my third year as a professional instructor. It’s extremely rewarding. It definitely doesn’t feel like a job. And I would say probably, if it was a job, it would be the best job in the world! Hands down!
I’ve been blessed to be able to travel to lots of different spots. Japan I think was probably one of the greatest places I’ve been. Just the way they treat you there — like royalty! It’s so great! They are so kind and so accepting, and they learn incredibly well, even though there was a language barrier there, and I couldn’t speak to a lot of them. It was just a matter of getting in there, and twisting the shoulders, and doing this, and I’m almost like twisting Gumby, and they’re rolling! It was like, “Wow! These guys are really good!” Like they just picked it up really, really quick!
I think one of the reasons I am good as an instructor is because a lot of the rolls that I learned were all self-taught. I learned how to do it wrong just as well as I learned how to do it right. So if I watch someone do it wrong, I know exactly what’s going wrong. And I know exactly how you can fix that problem. It’s just a matter of being visual. I can see how someone is rolling and be able to detect incorrect things. I think a lot of that comes from being self-taught. If you are taught how to do it one way, then how do you know how to do it wrong? You don’t.
Andrew: At some point you must have gotten instruction from other coaches, the gurus of Greenland kayaking?
James: I did. Actually, at one point I hired Cheri [Perry] and Turner [Wilson] when I was learning to do forward finish hand rolls, because I was struggling with that a little bit. I didn’t really get very far with the session, but there were little nuggets of information in there that stuck with me.
Still, a lot of what I teach now with the hardest rolls, I’ve never even seen online. I’ve never been taught it, but when you watch some of the Inuit paddlers do the hardest rolls, it’s pretty obvious — some of the disconnection between the energy in the legs and the upper body, and the load-drive concept. A lot to people are just doing a “hip snap” to roll a kayak, or they are talking about lifting their leg. But they’re not really talking about what is happening to the other leg.
Andrew: What exactly is the load-drive concept?
James: So the load-drive concept is relevant to a lot of sports. It’s relevant to baseball. It’s relevant to golf — a lot of sports. Kayaking is another one. We use our legs often, and the load-drive concept is about the legs. If you are “loading” a kayak, you’re going to lift one leg and drop one leg down, and you’re putting pressure upward and downward on the kayak. So if this is the load position, than this would be the drive position — it would be the opposite.... When I roll the kayak, I’m loading the kayak up. Some of the benefits to loading the kayak is that I can get more power when I drive the kayak.
One way that I like to explain that to students is that it’s like throwing a baseball. If I threw a baseball from my shoulder and I throw it forward, I might get about 10 feet. But if I take that baseball to my shoulder and I load it up, and then I throw it, I’ll probably get about 50 feet. So I gain a tremendous amount of power by adding the load-drive concept to it.
But it can work against you, just like throwing a baseball. When you first learn to throw a baseball and your dad said, “Get it back there and throw it.” And you did this, and it just kind of fell to the ground, or went to the left or the right. It’s very much the same. The timing and the technique has still gotta be there in order to get that accurate throw. So it’s very much the same as in a kayak.
Some of the benefits again to loading the kayak up: when you are loading the kayak you can get your face closer to the surface, therefore you can reach further for leverage. It makes it easier to roll the kayak.
The load-drive concept is something that I never really learned from anybody else. I was always told about a “hip snap", or “lift the leg”, but nobody ever talked about that other leg. What is that other leg doing?
When it comes to the some of the hardest rolls, forward finish brick rolls, for example, you gotta load and drive the kayak. If you don’t, it’s gonna be almost impossible to do that roll. The load drive concept is the trick to the hardest rolls.
So I like to teach that to beginners. If you can teach a beginner the hardest technique, or the theory behind the hardest technique, and they can learn that from the beginning, then their success rate is huge. They’ll continue to roll. It’s not just take a rolling session and never roll a kayak again. They actually continue to roll because they’ve got so much power in their legs once they sort that out. So that’s the load-drive concept.
Katya: What is kayaking for you? Two sentences.
James: Kayaking for me is therapy. That’s one sentence. But it’s powerful!