19 December 2013

Technique: Greenland paddle speed

A debate rivaled only by the skeg-versus-rudder one has been nagging a few proponents from both camps: the diminutive minority of Greenland paddle users and the more popular wing ones.
There have been a few strong opinions over the last couple of months about the power and versatility (or lack of) of Greenland paddles.
Comments from both camps, (actually all three including Euro style) appeared on Forums and a few misconceptions remain.

Khatsalano in Greenland
Photo: Doug Simpson
Greenland paddles are deemed positively inferior by some paddlers when it comes to speed (among other things) with their supporting evidence being the measured speed (fact).
However we often forget that performance can be a subjective thing where one might find a tool better than the other for his/her skill level, strength and style of paddling.
The drive to categorically dismiss a paddle as inferior is often the erroneous desire to emulate the "big" guys and acquire the very same tools that their heroes use.
Often however these specialized tools might not fit the casual approach to paddling that so many kayakers have, leading to disappointing results.
As disappointment seems a hard reality to accept I see too often persistence with a paddle that clearly does not fit the user and his/her style of kayaking.

The perception that a tool alone was going to make a marked difference and make an average paddler a faster/more skilled one is way too common in so many sports.
I have seen it in bicycle riding where wanting to emulate a hero the weekend warrior purchases the incredibly overbuilt downhill mountain bike rig to then only ride mellow fire roads, to skiers on the slope sporting very stiff and long skis designed for high speed close-track conditions being used for Sunday crowded intermediate slopes; there are examples in all sports.
I see the same happening with kayakers where a slow paddler wants to buy a longer kayak thinking that they will then be able to hold pace with a moderate-speed group of paddlers. A shorter kayak in reality serves them better than a long one, for casual paddling.
A limited skilled kayaker buys a playful boat thinking that it will make him an ace in the rough waters;  an arm paddler thinks she will improve her speed by using a wing paddle.
All these wonderful tools mean very little in the hands of paddlers that lack the skills to actually get the benefit from these tools.

Photo: Peter Sandström

Back to the Greenland paddle: why is it such a slow paddle?
It is only slow because it is used by slow paddlers using the wrong technique.

Years ago I gave the wing a go and I totally sucked with it: I spent a whole weekend with it to get an understanding.
I now laugh at myself thinking that I would be able to go much faster with my slow kayak using a wing paddle and understood nothing about its potential and proper use.
I also thought that spending a whole two days was sufficient time to get a feel for it when really it might take me years to actually get any decent results from such a specialized tool.
Like any new kayak that I acquire I understand that it takes time to learn the new balance points and quirky traits, the same applied when trying a Greenland paddle.
And despite a few years of exclusive use of the stick only now I am starting to get some results and I am confident using that paddle in all conditions.

So how could I discard that wing paddle so soon?

Owen showing why wing paddles are better than Greenland paddles
Photo: EKSydney
After some research I realized that wing paddles were designed for sprinting and while some kayakers are using them for general paddling I don’t have the same goals that they have.
I want a tool that is easy to use, reliable in the surf and gentle on the body.
It appears that the wing requires strong body rotation (something that I lack) high angle strokes (something that I don’t favour) and even the best paddlers deem them not that suitable for surf work (an environment that I enjoy).

But am I any slower by using a Greenland paddle? was the question that was bugging me and I had to find out.

Surfing NL GP_1_c

Since I have been using the Greenland paddle my speed has not really increased (maybe it has but I don’t have a way to measure that) however I have not been falling behind when going on outings with my paddling buddies using Euro paddles.
One thing I do notice however is how relaxed my body feels compared to using Euro paddles, while paddling and afterwards; no more wrist and elbow pain.
Greg Stamer, a world class paddlers that uses both wing and Greenland paddles (and a strong advocate for Greenland paddles) says:

For short races, under 10 miles, in flat conditions, with a skilled and fit paddler,  a wing paddle is usually faster.  I paddle with both a GP and a wing. I find that I’m roughly two minutes faster per mile with a wing (unladen kayak, flat conditions). This however, is not a perfect comparison because my fastest kayaks (e.g. Epic 18x) are wide and deep as compared to my normal Greenland kayaks, and would benefit from a longer paddle and longer loom than I have now.

My shoulders can handle a Greenland paddle much longer than a large wing, but that might not be true of everyone. 
In Iceland, Freya was often slightly faster with her large wing in calmer water. When it was rougher, I was slightly faster.  We finished at the same pace and same time. I still feel much safer in rough conditions with a Greenland paddle in my hands. 

Greg Stamer
Photo: Kam

But could I be really fast with a Greenland paddle if I wanted?
Could I hold pace to racers if I had a fast boat and got off the doughnuts and did some training instead of just playing in my kayak?

Start of Year_c

So what is the potential speed that I could achieve from a Greenland paddle?
If I took care of my canted stroke and studied the real masters of Greenland paddling I could real motor on the water. I could go way faster than anybody in the bay, with certainty. But I don’t.
What is holding me back is technique indeed, not my tool.

Maligiaq Padilla, the undisputed Greenland champion, has this to say:

1999 I was training for Sea kayak world championship, I took a class for wing paddles, I had it and use it, but cannot really comfortable with it, I choose to use my Greenland paddle.
For the world class 500m sprint I came #8 for the 32km #12 for 60km #7 I was pretty happy with the result, by the time my max speed was only 8,3 mph, I was the only one who use that stick.

2000 I went to Miami kayak challenge for 5 mile race, using Greenland paddle and Surfski
I came 1st their were several pro paddlers was there.

So I would just say, depends on skill level and experience and Greenland paddle is good for anything.

There I had is spelled out for me: if I want to go fast I have to better my skills, not just get perceived better tools.

Greenland Paddling Success
Photo: Fat Paddler

PS Greg Stamer says:
regarding the record set by Joe O’Blenis, the previous record for Vancouver Island was set by Sean Morely. Sean used a Nordkapp kayak and a wing paddle.  


  1. This should be easily solved by getting the fastest GP paddler who can be found to run a clubs 5km flatwater timetrial course in a popular race boat which can be compared to other results. Not a sea kayak, not any serious results to compare with. A K1 or intermediate> ski.
    Debate will be over one way or the other. :)
    Other GPS traces also valid for comparison. Has to be flat and minimal wind, otherwise too much variables.

    1. I think it would be hard to find to find "the fastest GP Paddler". I know only a handful of GP paddlers and none concentrate on speed as their goal. While I am satisfied with the speed I can achieve with my Greenland paddles I understand that to some numbers really matter, a lot. Somehow Maligiaq results speak for themselves, for me.

  2. Ummm re the Fat Paddler photo although I can absolutely say that both those guys in the photo paddled the Bridge To Beach that year (I was there) no problems with GPs I can say with equal certainty that even I paddled the same course on the same day in a normal sea-kayak (Rockpool GT) but with an Epic small mid-wing and was slightly faster than both guys. I repeat slightly. But that photo does not in any way prove that a GP is fast. What I can say is that none of the three of us were in any way fast on that day. If you want fast you paddle a ski with a wing. Me I paddle anything with anything but always slow. FOB. Rockpool GT/ Epic 18X Sport etc.

    1. >> If you want fast you paddle a ski with a wing.<<
      I maybe understand the ski as vessel, but not sure about the wing.
      I thought Maligiaq's results were kind of obvious proof that the Greenland paddle is only as good as the paddler...

  3. The harder people argument about one type of paddle, the less experience they often have with the other types ! The discussions is often based on "not-so-much-experience" with the opposing paddle(s). But i think thats very normal :-) Right now I am changing back to GP after a few years with Euroblades.
    Its like the ever ongoing discussion about skeg or rudder ( or none ). And I guess verybody knows the question "" How do i polish my kayak to make it go faster ? "" I always answer, "You learn some more paddling technigue ;-)"

  4. Horses for courses: I like to paddle with both a wing and a GP, though in different circumstances. On flat water in my TK1 I use a wing, and love to do so. In a sea kayak (Qanik) my wing feels too restrictive, but a GP is perfect. One thing I have found since making my first GP is that I haven't enjoyed using a Euro blade since. For rolling, surfing and also long distances with a loaded boat I prefer a GP. I have also sold my ruddered sea kayak since getting a skegged boat... Thanks Damiano for a consistently entertaining and interesting blog. David in Brisbane

  5. In a month my average speed over 12 miles has increased consistently by 1mph on greenlands its definitely about time and technique and im now learning to trust them in surf

  6. Very interesting read. I am about to take the plunge in purchasing a GP for various reasons but mainly based on the aspect of it being easier on the body. I enjoy going fast as well so it will be interesting to see the difference in feel and outcomes. Mainly kayak on flat, still water and prefer longer distances. Cheers Rob (Canberra)


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