Sunday, August 19, 2007

Greenland Comprehensive

I'm a pretty much self-taught stick paddler. I've gotten pointers along the way from a variety of other stick paddlers, but never taken any formal instruction. Generally, I'm better at learning by doing, so formal instruction does not really suit me. Still, I've always wanted to get some refined instruction from the "pros".
A few weeks back, BH e-mailed me to tell me the Carl and Sam Ladd where hosting a Greenland course by Cheri Perry & Turner Wilson (kayakways LLC). Without a second thought, I jumped at the chance to register. I had been seriously thinking about attending the RI Rough Water Symposium over Labor Day weekend just for the chance to get some instruction from these two renowned Greenland-style paddlers. A one day course gave me the opportunity to check them out before dropping $500 and three days on the symposium. It also meant that if I ultimately decided against going to the symposium, I could still get some instruction.
For the 2nd time in two days, I drove down to Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures for training. I arrived to find BH and GF milling around as Carl waited to find out where the course was going to be located. Apparently, the original location, Sakonnet Pt., was besieged by tournament fishers. While waiting we moved the Q-Boat from the Osprey trailer to the roof H's car. (Mine was being packed up for our ME adventure.)
After driving to Fogland, we met the rest of the class. Cheri & Turner's classes are limited to eight people which means that everybody gets plenty of individual attention. In addition to BH, GF, one of Carl's assistants, and myself, there were three other paddlers from CT taking the course. With the exception of GF and Carl's assistant, we all had experience with using a stick so the class was pretty well matched in terms of experience. We all had similar goals for the course too: fine tuning our skills and hopefully learning some new tricks. I had hopes of learning a forward finishing roll and cementing my balance brace.
Before we got on the water, Cheri & Turner answered some general questions about traditional paddling. They talked about using traditional paddles for more then simply rolling. One interesting point that Turner made: while many paddlers find their way to stick paddling late in their careers as a remedy for aching joints, stick paddling requires a certain amount flexibility and athleticism to master. Some of the rolls and a good balance brace require a very loose back. It does mean you need to be a superstar to use a stick, it just means that like all things in life, one must be realistic about expectations. (I'm never going to be a master stick ninja, but I'll get by just fine.)
Unlike "normal" kayaking courses which start with learning wet exits, this course started off with a rolling demonstration. (Greenland paddlers didn't wet exit. They rolled or died.) For anyone who has not seen a Greenland-style rolling demonstration, I'll simply say "go see one!". They are impressive displays of grace and melding of paddler with kayak.
Since this was part of a course, Cheri moved through the demo slowly while Turner discussed how she moved the kayak. the movement comes from a combination of driving the water-side leg into the kayak's deck and balancing the body's buoyancy in relation to the kayak's buoyancy. Getting your shoulders as close to flat in the water with the torso perpendicular to the deck positions the body for maximum support from buoyancy. It also forces your leg into the proper position to provide left to the kayak.
For our rolling instruction, we were fitted into micro-kayaks. I'm not sure I could have wet exited from the one I was put into even if I tried. I felt like the jelly in my lunch - squeezed into a tiny space awaiting my inescapable doom. We were also fitted out for tuiliqs. A tuiliq is basically a neoprene sack that closes tightly around your face and seals around the cockpit rim. You don't where a PFD.
Once fully encased in our neoprene sacks and squeezed into the miniature kayaks, we hit the water. On the water, the purpose of the miniature kayaks became apparent - because of their tighter fit and lower volume they were easier to work. It was like learning to roll in a white water kayak (except these were much longer). The tuiliq also facilitated learning. It provides a ton of buoyancy and made moving around in the kayak much easier. I never realized how much a spray skirt, with its form fitting deck, restricts movement.
They started us off using float bags to practice getting into and out of the sculling/balance brace position. We laid onto the back deck and slid off into the water holding the bag. To get into the proper position I had to concentrate on lifting my forward shoulder. Lifting the one shoulder brought the back shoulder down forcing my shoulders roughly parallel to the water. To right the kayak was a simple of mater of using the stomach muscles to pull your torso onto the back deck while keeping the waterside knee engaged. Getting into and out of position required a sturdy lower back.
After working with the float, on both sides of the kayak, we moved to using paddles for sculling. The position is the same, but adding the paddle complicates things. In addition to remembering how to position the body, you have to remember how to hold and move the paddle. The trick I used to position myself with the float worked against me with the paddle. While it worked to keep my shoulders correctly placed, concentrating on lifting my forward shoulder caused me to lift the paddle into a useless angle.... I had to change from lifting the forward shoulder to pinning the paddle to my back shoulder. Once I got that straightened out, I was good to go.
After working the sculling, on both sides of the kayak, we moved onto rolling. The basic Greenland roll is an extended paddle sweep roll. When teaching the roll, Cheri and Turner purposely never talked about "hip snap". From what I gathered, if you do the Greenland roll properly, the kayak should be righted before you'd do a hip snap. The combination of leg pressure and your body's position relative to the kayak should cause the kayak to roll back underneath your body. With the micro 'yaks it certainly seemed pretty effortless. Carl's assistant was even doing hand rolls before lunch.
After I got the basic roll, on both sides of the kayak, Cheri showed me some exercises for working on a forward finishing storm roll. One involved the float bag: Lie face down in the water parallel to the kayak and sweep towards the bow while trying to drive your knee into your nose. (Sounds like fun huh?) After doing that a bunch of times, on both sides of the kayak, she gave me back the paddle and had me work on the actual roll. You hold the paddle out to the side of the kayak with one hand, roll away from the paddle while still holding onto the paddle, and after capsizing grab the paddle, palm down, with your free hand. Once you've got one hand in place, grab the paddle with the other hand and pull up on the paddle while trying to push your knee into your face. Amazingly, it worked most of the time. I had difficulty finding the paddle at times until Turner told me that I'd need to work on how I positioned the paddle based on the kayak I was using at the time. Because different kayaks have different hulls and paddlers have different arm lengths, what works for one paddler in one kayak is not always the best way to do things.
I was very impressed with the patience, skill, and humor Cheri & Turner used in their instruction. All of the participants were able to achieve a level of success and gained new skills/confidence.
During lunch Turner talked about paddles and the basic forward stroke. Traditional paddles, unlike the common Euro paddle, are meant to be fitted to the person using them. You can buy commercially made paddles that are very good, but the best ones are made to fit (either by a professional craftsman or by yourself). My new stick, that H bought me as a wedding gift, was made to fit by Wolfgang Brink (Wolfgang Brink Small Boats). Turner makes his own paddles and is experimenting with skinnier blades.
He also discussed the different materials that can be used for a wood paddle. Cedar is good for rolling or for light touring because it is light and buoyant. For rougher conditions, or bigger paddlers, he recommended using a sturdier wood like spruce. The cedar, as my experience with snapping paddles shows, is not sturdy enough for rough playing unless they are made extra chunky.
While discussing the forward stroke, one of the class members asked what the proper angle of entry was for the blade. Turner responded by saying that he found roughly 45 degrees worked for him, but that it will be different for each paddler. He spoke truth to the reality of each paddler, kayak, and paddle being unique. What works for one paddler, in one kayak, with one paddle will be off for the same paddler in a different kayak or with a different paddle. Getting it right takes some experimentation on the part of each paddler. The instructors can only offer a guide to finding the path.
The afternoon was dedicated to stroke practice. I pulled out the Q-Boat to get a feel for the doing the strokes in my own ride. Cheri & Turner had us keep changing paddle to get a feel for the differences. It was particularly rough for me the first time I had to switch. The Greenland sticks are subtly different than my Aleutian stick and they feel alien for the first few strokes. (It is not as odd as switching back to a Euro paddle.) I could feel the differences between the different Greenland paddles. Each had a distinct character that took a moment of adjustment. One would bite the water quicker. One had more buoyancy. One flexed a bit more.
It was great to get pointers on cleaning up my strokes and honing my kayak handling skills. BH found it very frustrating. He was in an unfamiliar kayak (an old school Nordkap) and working to adjust to that as well as different paddles. I heard Turner tell him at one point that he was using the paddle like it was a Euro blade - putting all of the effort into the stroke at the fetch and not the release. A Greenland stroke is all about the release. The blade should slip into the water like a wing and provide all of the power as it exits the water.
The day left me hungry to practice my strokes and work on my storm roll. Fortunately, I was racing home to begin a four day kayaking trip in ME with some of the RIC/KA crew.

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