Ginni Callahan: An Introduction to Kayak Sailing

Ginni Callahan: An Introduction to Kayak Sailing from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Kayak coach, entrepreneur, and writer Ginni Callahan founded and co-owns Columbia River Kayaking, and Sea Kayak Baja Mexico. With Mark Whitaker, she imports Flat Earth Kayak Sails and Sea Kayaking UK (Nigel Dennis Kayaks). With Anna Mallin, she publishes paddling guides to the Loreto National Marine Park.

Filmed at the 2015 Pacific Paddling Symposium

James Manke: This one weird trick will improve your Greenland rolls!

James Manke: This one weird trick will improve your Greenland rolls! from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

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.

Paddling out of Pedder Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Paddling out of Pedder Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

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.

Traditional paddles, modern gear. Photo © Katya Palladina
Traditional wooden paddles, modern gear. Photo © Katya Palladina

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.


Greenland Bound - A Paddler's Pilgrimage from Ontario Sea Kayak Centre on Vimeo.


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!

A white Sterling Kayaks "Grand Illusion" at PPS. Photo © Katya Palladina
A white Sterling Kayaks "Grand Illusion" at PPS. Photo © Katya Palladina

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!

JAIME SHARP: Encounters with Polar Bears and the Svalbard Expedition

Jaime Sharp: Encounters with Polar Bears from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Explorer/adventure photographer Jaime Sharp is in arctic Norway right now, attempting the first successful circumnavigation of the Svalbard archipelago by sea kayak with a team of two other kayakers, Tara Mulvany and Per Gustav Porsanger. Three previous attempts have been made, all ending in failure. Among the biggest hazards: polar bears. There are over 3000 polar bears living on the island, which makes it one of the areas with the highest concentration of polar bears in the world. “Polar bears are one of the few animals that are purely predatory,” Jaime said, speaking to the crowd gathered at the Pacific Paddling Symposium on Vancouver Island this past May. “And they are one of the only animals that will actually hunt humans intentionally, not because they are curious but because it’s like, you are moving, so you are food. Polar bears will also hunt the seals that have burrows under the snow. They walk around listening for them and smelling them out. Then they smash through the snow and pull the seal out.”

Jaime says that polar bear attacks were the reason for the failure of two previous attempts at the Svalbard circumnavigation. During the first expedition, a polar bear smashed one of the kayaks, so the team had to back out. In the last expedition, “a polar bear actually attacked them in their sleep in the tent. Dragged them out of the tent, one of the guys by his head. They had to shoot the bear.” As the bear came through the tent it stood on one of their rifles and snapped it in half. Luckily they had two, so they were able to get the other rifle and kill the bear.

To deal with polar bears, Jaime's team plans to have an active watch: “In the high concentration bear areas, one of us will be staying awake at any point. So we will do three-and-a-half hour shifts, staying awake as well as having a perimeter fence. On top of guns, we will also be carrying daggers and flares and stuff like that, doing everything we can before have to shoot a bear.”

Boys Hunting Book 1890

Another hazard is ice. The second expedition was cancelled because pack ice came in and the team had to start dragging their kayaks across the ice. The ice "started drifting away, taking them away from the island. And eventually they fell through the ice so many times they got injured, and they had to abort. So the ice and the polar bears are probably the biggest risk. Then on top of that you have the walrus. They can be territorial on the water and are known to come up to Zodiacs and puncture the Zodiacs with their tusks. Imagine them coming up to a kayak — they’ll rip the the back half of your boat off! The ice is also an issue not just because it might drift and block us off, but it may not actually recede. It may not actually melt completely and we can’t actually get around a quarter of the island route. So those are kind of our biggest challenges that we’re facing.“

You can follow Jaime’s expedition at his website, svalbard.worldwide

Attaque de morses, 1870 

Below is the complete transcript of our interview.

Andrew: Have you personally had encounters with polar bears?

Jaime: Back when I was like 25 I guess, or 26 —not too long ago, I’m only 34 — I worked up in Churchill, Manitoba and I was a dogsled guide up there. We’d actually run clients out on the tundra. Anyone who knows of Churchill, Manitoba, knows it’s the polar bear capital of Canada. So we’d see polar bears pretty much every day. Numbers of them. We’d encounter them on the dog sleds. Our dogs would want to chase them. The bears are scared of dogs, especially when you’ve got 8 of them trying to chase them. So my biggest issue was trying to stop the sled and keep them in position while I got the shotgun off my back and fired off a blank above them just to make sure the polar bear is running.

Then we would have them coming at night. We had a little cabin we lived in. We had 46 dogs that lived around the cabin and an electric fence. And we had all the frozen chicken meal and stuff that we’d use to feed the dogs under the house, but the polar bears could smell it. So they would be coming in at night time to look for this food. They’d hit the electric fence. that would keep them back, but then the dogs would of course be barking. So we’d wake up. Here’s this huge polar bear on the other side of the fence. We’d have to put a spot light on it to see it. It’s not been deterred by all these dogs, so then we’d have to shoot blanks. And that wouldn’t necessarily work. So then we would have an M80 shell that you could shoot. We would shoot a little wad of explosive out, and it would go BOOM. And then sometimes that wouldn’t work. We had to bounce one off of one one time, a big male who was probably 13 ft tall, if he stood on his back legs. That was kind of a regular occurrence on most nights.

And then we had another instance where we were right next to the arctic research center and that was where we’d go have meals. And they had a storage room with the freezers in the back. So they pulled out all the meats and stuff to thaw one night for all the staff, and they had a bunch of tofu sausages and bacon and sausages and stuff out there. And these two young polar bears came in and they broke open the wall. And they took and ate all the food, and they left the tofu sausages!

But then the next day, they had to get out the traps. They had these big trap door barrels, these huge barrels that they could go inside, and then it shuts. They had to trap them, but only one was able to be trapped. That was a very interesting to sit and watch them actually go in and see the trap go down. This trailer that it was on, I think it took like six men to manhandle off the back the back of the truck to get it into position. It was just really solidly built. Suddenly the trap doors comes down. This young polar bear is in there, and this whole thing is lifting up and down on it’s wheels as it’s trying to bash its way out. So you can just see the power of the bear. And that was really interesting because at that point I was able to go up to the grille and be like THIS CLOSE to the polar bear. And he’s in there and he’s just putting his claws down the grille, and he’s taking the paint flecks off the steel grille. You can just see how much power was in those claws, and you just knew that if it was raking human flesh, there would just be no chance. That was really my closest encounter with them.

But then I’ve also had closer, more insecure moments with them, where they’ve been maybe 200-300 meters from me, and all that’s between me and them was the shotgun I had in my hand. So that’s always been a little bit more intimidating. Just walking between our house and where we eat, and there’s a polar bear sitting on the tundra. Just keeping an eye on them, just making sure that they’re there.

But this trip is going to be a totally different barrel of polar bears really, because the ones in Churchill are used to having people around.They are used to being hunted by man. They are used to dogs hunting them with man. So they’ve got more of an intimidation factor against them from man and dogs. So it was easy to use that aspect to sort of stay safe. But where we’re going in Svalbard they have not been historically hunted by man, so man is definitely something that’s on the food chain for them. They are a lot more curious. They are lot more willing to encounter man. But that being said, there’s 3000+ polar bears on the island, but in the last 10 years there have been maybe three polar bear attacks. So the odds are pretty low still. There’s probably still more chance of being run over by a car than anything.

Katya: So the reason you’re going is because you just love polar bears? Honestly. I mean, what are the reasons?

Jaime: Well, I love kayaking. I love the challenge of kayaking. For me it’s an epic opportunity to actually do a kayaking trip that’s a world first. It’s also a trip that pushes everything I’ve known about kayaking and what I’ve been able to do. I started kayaking when I was 12 years old and I’ve just pushed it, and I’ve been an outdoor educator and guide and instructor. This for me is a chance to see what I’m made of, and also to be able see polar bears. You don’t want to see them too close. It’s always amazing to be out there. You see walrus and polar bear and bowhead whales and stuff like that. That’s always pretty magic. To go to a place that no other person has very rarely ever been, especially by kayak, is a very unique kind of experience. That’s something that I’ve always longed to experience.


HIGHLIGHT REEL: Pacific Paddling Symposium

HIGHLIGHT REEL: Pacific Paddling Symposium 2015 from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Katya and I were invited to be the official videographers for this year's Pacific Paddling Symposium, which was held at Pearson College on Vancouver Island right outside Victoria on May 29-31. We brought a ton of camera gear and shot all weekend long, backing up our cards, reviewing footage and charging batteries every night. I really enjoyed having essentially unrestricted access to all the classes, coaches and events. Sometimes with a camera I feel like I am intruding in events like this. They even let us on the support boat, which is how we got a lot of on-the-water footage. 


Shooting on the water is incredibly challenging. Capturing a stable image with a moving camera on land is hard enough, but on the water in a kayak or boat it is nearly impossible. Our solution and the only thing I think that works effectively is to use an electronic gimbal, so we used a DSLR on the new DJI Ronin M. The Ronin M is half the weight of the original Ronin and was designed for lighter cameras. I was using it basically "bare bones", without any additional gear like an electronic viewfinder. It still gets heavy after holding it for longer than a minute though, so after a whole day of carrying it around, my arms were sore and my back was totally bent out of shape. It's quite a workout!

Unlike the Steadicam devices, the Ronin just takes a few minutes to set up and is a no-brainer to use. You basically slide the camera in and secure it using a tool-less system and get it roughly balanced, turn the switch on and you're good to go. It still takes some practice to get really stable moving footage -- learning to walk "heal-to-toe" and that sort of thing -- but I was able to get great results just holding it steady on a moving boat. 

We recorded some interesting interviews with a number of coaches and attendees and ended up getting a lot of footage, so it will take a while to cut it all. I expect to release the full "feature" in the beginning of September. Since so many people at the Symposium were interested in seeing the video I wanted to release this "highlight reel" of some of our best shots right away. Enjoy!