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The History of the Greenland Style Sea Kayaking Movement


In 2008, filmmakers Tom Sharp and Dubside released a documentary about the origins of the Greenland style sea kayaking movement in the United States. The film was titled Modern Greenland Kayaking and was only available on DVDs purchased through their website, Dubside cut a short version which screened at a few sea kayaking events and paddling symposia. At the time, the fringe Greenland style sea kayaking movement benefited from having an ally in the editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine, Chris Cunningham, a builder of wooden boats and Greenland style enthusiast who had written a book on how to build skin-on-frame kayaks, titled, “Building the Greenland Kayak”. Tom and Dubside were hoping to get some publicity for the film in Sea Kayaker but unfortunately, the film was released just before the magazine's demise and it never had wide distribution.

In addition to Chris Cunningham, the film features George Gronseth of Kayak Academy, former Qajaq USA president Greg Stamer, Greenland kayaking historian John Heath, Greenland National Kayaking Champion Maligiaq Padilla, kayaking championship head judge Kamp Absalonsen, and founder of the Delmarva Paddler’s Retreat, Cindy Cole. Sea kayaking legend Freya Hoffmeister even makes an appearance!

The origin of the Greenland style kayaking movement in the United States can be traced to a gathering of about 30 sea kayakers at Camp Arrowhead on Rehoboth Bay, Delaware during the late 1980s, an event which would later become known as the Delmarva Paddler’s Retreat, now the premier Greenland kayaking event in the country. Interestingly, “Delmarva” was not originally an all-Greenland style event, and during the first gathering only a couple people even knew how to roll. When kayak historian John Heath first attended, he showed people how the Greenlanders taught kayak rolling. Eventually he brought 16 year-old Greenland National Kayaking Champion Maligiaq Padilla to Delmarva, and a strengthening connection between this group of paddlers and the Greenlanders resulted in the formation of Qajaq USA, the American chapter of the Greenland Kayaking Association, Qaannat Kattuffiat. Qajaq USA went on to host a number of annual events which brought Greenland style experts, kayak builders, and sea kayakers together for rolling instruction, paddle carving, and kayak building workshops all across the country.

Rolling compRopes

During the second half of his film, Dubside gives us a look inside the 2006 Greenland National Kayaking Championships in Sisimuit, including footage of the rolling competition where Greenlanders compete in sleek, low volume skin-on-frame qajaqs and wear traditional sealskin paddling jackets called tuiliks. Unfortunately Maligiaq Padilla was unable to compete, since he had been badly injured in a boating accident the day before.

The film spends a lot of time covering the Greenlandic ropes gymnastics competition, an event which Dubside says actually requires a lot more strength and skill and involves a great deal more maneuvers than the kayak rolling competition. This emphasis on ropes gymnastics is not surprising given Tom and Dubside’s earlier effort to popularize ropes gymnastics in their first film, Qajaasaarneq, an instructional film of "1000-year-old exercises for strength, flexibilty, balance, and coordination". Although seemingly unrelated to the modern sport of sea kayaking, ropes gymnastics is an important part of the Greenlandic kayaking tradition, and a competitor's performance in this sport makes up a large part of their overall score in the National Championships.

Modern Greenland Kayaking is an important document on how traditional Greenlandic kayaking techniques were enthusiastically adopted by paddling communities in the United States and spread all over the world. Over the years since I began sea kayaking, I have noticed how the general skill level in kayak rolling has increased, and I attribute that to the popularity of Greenland style, the availability of instructors who could teach these techniques, and of course to the availability of a great deal of information on the internet. The sport of sea kayaking owes a lot to the enthusiastic pioneers who forged a relationship with the Greenlanders at Qaannat Kattuffiat in order to spread this knowledge. Without the contributions of the Greenland style movement, sea kayaking would be a far less interesting sport indeed!

I am happy to be able to share the entire film here with the permission of Dubside.

Modern Greenland Kayaking, a film by Dubside (2008) from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Paddling from Cypress Head to Eagle Cliff, San Juan Islands

Lummi at sunset

I'm excited to share this montage I put together with the help of Katya Palladina of her first time touring in her beautiful new Pygmy Kayaks Pinguino Pro 150 out to Cypress Head and Eagle Cliff, San Juan Islands. It's an amazing kayak and a real pleasure to paddle!

Music: "Secret" by Kenneth Ward Lovell Jr., licensed through Audiosocket.

Cypress Head to Eagle Cliff, San Juan Islands from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Maiden Voyage

Katya in kayak 600

I love the look of Pygmy's wooden "stitch-and-glue" kayaks and always thought they looked like furniture. My first kayak was a Pygmy Osprey Standard (15.8 ft long, 24 inches wide) that I bought at the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium that was held every year at Port Townsend, the regional mecca for wooden boatbuilding. I used to dry if off lovingly with a clean soft cloth after every trip. When I mentioned to Katya that I thought her new Pygmy Kayaks Pinguino Pro 150 looked like a cabinet, she commented that it did actually remind her of the plywood furniture they had in school in the Soviet Union. So now she can't help thinking of her kayak as a cabinet or wardrobe. A lot of builders report thinking exactly the opposite: after working on a wooden kayak for so long, preoccupied with bringing out the beauty of the wood finish, when they finally put it in the water they suddenly realize it really IS so much more than a piece of furniture!


Maiden Voyage from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.