06 December 2010

GEAR: the humble stick_Aleut and Greenland paddles

heading out (c)

The last couple of years I have been paddling with sticks exclusively. Initially I had reservation about its performance in rough water but soon realized that that they are very capable even in the surf.
Recently a buddy of mine intrigued by my moves wanted to try the stick. Originally from New South Wales, he has been paddling for years in rough water and has undertaken long trips along the East coast of Australia. His surfing ability is remarkable. He saw no point to first pussy-foot around in calm waters; he wanted to see if the stick has credentials in the surf.

Surely it can’t be too good in conditions where power is everything, or is it?

I quickly lost sight of him: he paddled away into the thick of the big surf while I was holding back in the gentler waves (my surfing skills are basic). Then I saw him capsize and I was predicting a swim; after all he has been using the stick for little more than 10 minutes. Not so, he easily rolled up and powered down a face of a wave.
Later he commented that the Greenland paddle seemed to offer him less support in the surf but still performed when he needed it while not hindering any of his surfing. It was interesting to hear that from somebody that knew nothing about Greenland paddles. He had a split Euro style paddle on deck as back-up but never reached for it. He was hooked.
Back in the shelter of the lagoon we tried some traditional rolling and a bit of sculling. It became evident that his rolls were based on muscled efforts, something that I often see with paddlers that rely on the lifting power of a big blade.

photo published with permission by wolftone

I still remember one proficient kayaker that is very good at rolling with his wing blade not being able to roll with the Greenland paddle when trying it for the first time.
My eye is critical enough now to notice the same power technique used by most of the local paddlers when rolling with Euro paddles. All force, little finesse.
So why bother with finesse if a standard C-to-C roll gets you up anyway?
I used to think the same: once you know how to roll, why bother with “fancy” rolling.
Warren Williamson seem to have some interesting thoughts on the ability to roll in many different ways.
Working on Greenland rolls or training rolls, will really help your rolling skills over all. I find it so amazing, I hear kayakers a lot of times say, in regards to Greenland rolls, "why would you ever need to do that roll."
The way I see it, it's not that you would ever need to do that roll but what that roll can teach you.
If all you know how to do is let’s say a few standard rolls with the paddle, you really don't know just where you’re at with your technique.
Rolling with a paddle is just about the same as reaching up and grabbing onto a fixed object. You can literally come flying up out of the water because you have so much leverage with the paddle. You can get away with bad technique time after time and not know it.
Warren puts it into words way better than I could.

Since I have been playing around with traditional paddles my technique has improved. From being able to only do power rolls I am now able to execute a couple of different rolls and I have gained a higher understanding of the handling of the kayak. Slowly I have taken away pressure from my paddle and started to use my body more for turning a kayak back up.
What’s limiting me from learning advanced rolls is being rather inflexible and poorly coordinated. But every occasion I spend time just “playing” I progress my overall skills. I view it as cross training. Rolling helps me with finessing the boat when surfing.
black stcik rolling_2ca
I have several traditional paddles. I use Aleut and Greenland paddles. I find the difference between the two subtle when used as a cruising paddle.
I think that the Aleut is easier to learn to use and appears to grab more water (it is slightly wider than my GPs). I also find that the Aleut does not require canting of the blade. On long paddles (expeditions) I find my Aleut to be easier to use when I am tired. It is however noisier than my Greenland paddles.
Initially I thought that a GP fluttered more in the water. It was Greg Schwarz that enlightened me on the need to subtly angle the blade when entering the water ('cant') to achieve minimal splash and prevent aeration behind the paddle.
Below is a quiver of Aluet and Greenland paddles. Click on image to enlarge.
red # paddles are Greenland style by Greg Schwarz, blue ones are Aleut style by Vanstix
1) Greenland, carbon balsa core
2) Aleut, solid WRC
3) storm size Greenland, carbon balsa core
4) norsak WRC
5) storm size Aleut, solid WRD
6) Aleut, solid WRC (back side showing)
7-8)  Greenland, hollow core laminated WRC
9) Aleut, solid WRC
10) Aleut, bidirectional laminated solid

While the canting technique requires some time getting used to, it is essential for good Greenland paddling.
Where I find the GP excels is with rolling: it’s so incredibly effortless when slicing through the water in a sweep roll. Its shape offer immediate lift when sweeping and there is no need to pay attention to the precise set up usually required with a Euro paddle. The GP seems to orient itself.
As Dubside says all you need to do is: “relax and go wide”
The popularity of the traditional paddle is growing but it probably will never reach huge numbers. Most paddlers are not convinced that a humble wooden stick can really perform. I used to think that too.
And then there is the commercialization and advertising side.
Very little money is spent by the industry to push a product that seems to be so low-tech. Good GPs are crafted, not manufactured.
Crafting a product requires skills and time, something that usually it’s hard to commercialize on a mass scale.


  1. Great Post,Damaino. You echo my thoughts about these humble but magnificent paddles. Also, now I don't feel so bad about my quiver of paddles after seeing yours!

  2. Mike, those paddles aren't all mine. It's just a quick shot of my and my friends' paddles used on a particular outing.
    Most of my buddies now use traditional paddles. We lend them to newcomers too encouraging them to try traditional paddles and often they transition to the stick and abandon the Euro.
    It’s however not for everybody since it takes a bit of dedication learning the new technique.

  3. Mike
    That's a nice looking GP in your profile pic. Is it carbon ?

  4. I am beginning my 'cross training' journey and couldn't agree with you more!

  5. Love those Aleut paddles, would love to give a try someday! :)

  6. Besides the interesting article I want to commendd you on the innovative angles of your latest photographs. You are achieving a different way of 'seeing' seakayaking while the postproduction of the product is on par with just about any competiton.

  7. FP, an Aleut paddle could be the answer for a big guy like you that has a lot of power transmitted to the blade in the water. With its pronounced ridge Aleut paddles tend to be stronger than GPs (all things being equal).

  8. Carrying an injury that has impeded my outdoor pursuits for most of this year has increased my appreciation for traditional paddles. Using GP and Aluet paddles has proven to be less taxing on my body. I believe if I were to ‘do-over’ the past year solely using my euro blade, I would have spent even more time off the water.
    As you mention, the obvious differences between the Aleut and GP are the loom shape and the blade. My Aleut paddle has an egg shaped loom and my GP has a softer, more rounded loom.
    I find the Aleut suits my natural low angle style and transitioning from euro to traditional, the power face on the Aleut gave me confidence in the surf and rough water. The GP feels smooth in the water and I love it for rolling however I’m still learning the intricacies of GP forward stroke. With a limited pool of local paddlers who know how to use a GP, I find it a challenge to learn and rely heavily on books, youtube, dvd’s and sessions with Greg Schwarz.
    I like the feel of the wood and using traditional paddles is increasing my skills repertoire and making me a better all-round sea kayaker.

    1. The power face of the Aleutian is the side of the blade with the small ridge on it,so that so the flat side of the blad points to the bow ?am i right? Second question,(also addressed to Gnarlydog);if you make the roll does it matter if you do that with the 'ridge'side of the Aleutian paddle or the flat side? I think in the normaal paddle position the 'ridge'side will point to seabottom and the flat blade side will point to the surface. With simple words..can you roll with both sides off the blade with the Aleutian paddle..? gr from the Dutch coast.

    2. That is how I use an Aleut paddle: power face is NOT the flat side but the ridged one.
      But honestly, for rolling, I find the Greenland paddle much easier.

  9. I'd love to make and try out an Aleut some day as well. We have a few people in my area using GPs but no talk of anyone ever having an Aleut. I'm guessing I'd get strange looks if I even said the name - Aleut!!

    I'm like Adventuretess - I have "crunchy" shoulders that cringe whenever I even dare to pick up a Euro pladdle now!!! I'm still learning the mysteries of the GP and am afraid that if I tried the Aleut I'd love it and then have to start all over again - not that this would be a horrible thing!!!

    Cheers and great blog entry. I think I'll send it to some fellow paddlers who are contemplating joining the ranks of traditional paddling!


  10. It is the ultimate debate; MAC vs PC, GP’s vs Euro. I use both and see no reason why. I love my Greenland Paddle and I also love my Euro and all for different reasons. My only concern is that the cult around Greenland paddle doesn’t leave any room for anything else. I think that the debate is now more focus on style and trend rather than on the act of paddling. As far as I am concern, it doesn’t matter what you are paddling with, as long as you are paddling. GP, Euro, Aleut, let’s not bring the debate into kayaks shapes and styles; it will become a never ended story. We should focus on paddling, regardless the style, the boat and/or the paddle, for the rest, the natural selection will take over. I do agree that getting better at tricks, just for the heck of it, really helps to improve any techniques and makes you becoming a better paddler.

  11. Mark Richards here at Superior Kayaks offers a composite GB that breaksdown. It was designed by Roy, another nearby paddler. Great post. I enjoyed the images, still and video. Thanks.

  12. I love my Greenland Paddles and I love my Lendal Carbon Crank, it depends on my mood as to which I choose. An Aleut paddle is definitely on my must try list though.

  13. Although I haven’t used it in more than a year, I still have my Werner and have no plans to sell it. I haven’t found Greenland paddling to be a cult but I guess the enthusiasm of devotees might be misinterpreted by some?
    I'm fortunate to spend time on the water with people whose company I enjoy regardless of the choice of 'tool'. Tsunami Ranger Eric Sores recommends we try kayaking with a canoe paddle. I haven’t quite gone there yet…
    Silbs, I checked the 2 piece GP you mentioned, it looks very nice.

  14. There is a bit of evangelism that seems to surround all of the designs of Indigenous paddles. I always laugh at Larry Gray's story of how when he first went to Greenland he was offered all sorts of special payments for his Euro paddle, the Greenlanders could see the advantages in the shape.
    I have paddled a lot with wings, GP's & Euro paddles over the past 2 years. I like to think that I have the basic techniques for all three down to a reasonable level of competence.
    I stand by what my research has told me. If you want to go fast in a straight line, use a wing. If you want to paddle technical water to your utmost, in other words get everything out of the water around you, use a modern slalom style euro blade. If you want to learn the myriad Greenland rolls, or cruise with lovely efficiency, use a GP (can't comment on the Aleut having only ever used one on a short paddle).
    Yes, you can surf with a GP, but there is no way in a blue fit you can get the same performance out of the paddle, the same bite, control & power, as you can using a euro. It's like using a road bike to run a downhill mountain track. You'll get to the bottom, but you won't have the same ride as the guy on the dual suspension downhiller.
    If GP's had anything like the same performance capability, you would see whitewater guys using them. If you went 'as fast' using a GP, you'd be seeing Clint Robinson using one in the Molokai. That doesn't make them inferior, it just emphasises the realities & limitations at the pointy end. I think it's important to get a grip on where these things fit in the scheme of things, rather than seeing them as a 'better than or equal to everything else' solution.
    I love the elegance of my GP, but I know what it does well, & what it doesn't do so well, & I'm happy.
    My 2c worth…

  15. And Tess, using a single blade, or even half you spare every now & then is a great thing. It makes you realise how much more there is to control of your boat, than just the paddle. We have a great drill that involves paddling on one side of the boat only & trying to keep it tracking straight. There are tricks to the drill, & they don't involve the paddle. I think that's the gist of what Eric is saying.

  16. Yes, Mark, What you said. I use a single-bladed, small canoe paddle (on occasion) as a spare, in narrow caves or chutes (so my paddle doesn't bang into the walls, or just for fun to see if I can do it. I've even surfed with them. I doubt if a cult of canoe paddles will ever happen. The point is to try new things and see how it works for you.

  17. Mark, I understand your beef.
    From some instructors' point of view GPs might be viewed as a joke, well until people start to use them and ask you about them.
    I know your style: fast and furious with plenty of powerful high angle blade control.
    Not doubting your theory, not a bit.
    Euro paddles have more “bite” in the surf; they are more decisive for directional control (bow rudder strokes for example) and have more raw power.
    I like your analogy with bicycles.
    May I bring an other one: Euro=V8, GP=4cylinder
    That “Euro” can peel the rubber off the tires. Plenty of grunt and excellent for winning races.
    The humble 4 cylinder however uses so much less fuel. And while it might not impress some people it gets my attention.
    A lighter car that I can easily control is more my style.
    Maybe this analogy ain’t the best but a layman might get my drift.
    One thing: how do you explain the current World Record for long distance paddling held by Joe O’Blenis around Vancouver Island achieved with a Greenland paddle?
    Not that records are something I buy into but that one makes me think…

  18. Yep, fair assessment. I don't freak when someone turns up with a GP for instruction. To me, the basics are all the same, rotation & safe biomechanics rule, regardless of the paddle.
    As for the Vancouver Island record, I don't really think that is a speed record. It's a mental toughness record, who can stay on the water the longest, push the hardest, then get up the next day & do it again. I'm sure Joe wasn't pushing against the terminal hull speed of his boat the whole way around. Maybe for a trip like that where everything else is at breaking point, an easier-on-the-body paddle might make sense. Freya used a small wing on her circumnavigation, for much the same reasons.
    Clearly, Joe O'Blenis is also a damn good paddler, & it's not wise to draw inferences from the odd outstanding individual about the general performance of a paddle.
    Like I said, when I see half the field line up for the Molokai with a GP I'll begin to think that they are the best thing for racing. Until then, I'll thoroughly enjoy what the stick does well, and use paddles more suited to purpose for the other stuff.

  19. Mark, I reread my post and I fail to see where I say Euro is worse than GP.
    I thought the emphasis was on skill development.
    Just like I've mentioned before that I believe a rudderless boat promotes better boat handling but never said it is faster than a ruddered one; when I use a traditional paddle, I believe it can make me a better paddler, not a faster one.
    I will say (although you already know) that racing is not on my horizon. Speed ain’t my game.
    I don’t line up at the boat ramp for a pissing contest like some local paddlers do. Kayaking to me is fun, not a testosterone match.
    Racing has never been my thing: not when skiing, not when mountain biking and even less now sea kayaking.
    Wing paddles rule for fast short cruising, no denial. Strong paddlers interested in winning day races should consider them.
    I assume that a GP can also be a winning tool, in the right hands, if that is important to somebody (*).
    Mark, if you could get your hands on some sexy carbon GP sticks for your biz (and they would be selling well) would we be hearing a different story?

    Fastest Greenland Stick, Warren Williamson gets a hug from Wayne Horodowich who beat Warren with a wing paddle by 14 seconds (!). (more info: http://deceptionpassdash.blogspot.com/)

    Good enough for me :-)

  20. Great post! Thanks so much! You cover all the things I hear people say about GPs and provide clear simple answers, images and video! I'm sharing links to this on my blog. People are interested in GP news and reviews. Looks like you are still on the water while we in the North are starting to wax our skis.

  21. Great post Gnarlydog. Like you and others, I'm a recent convert/fan of GPs, though I'm still likely to pull out my beauitiful Werners if there's a surf launch/landing involved. GPs have such a fascinating subtelty. The more you use them, the more you appreciate and realise how sophisticated and effective a tool they really are.

    1. I know this is old but i am just reading it now for the first time. I have used the gp for a long time and always felt better using the ep for surf landings. I never knew why, i figured I was more comfortable bracing with it. Over time I developed several rolls and found a beauty in greenland rolls in that no matter how i fall in, that is my set up position, and i can get up fast from anywhere. One day I was surfing and using the ep for the landing. I got knocked over and was on the opposite side of the wave. By the time I got to the wave side and set up, i no longer even needed to roll. my back was on the bottom. LOL. Had I had my gp i would have easily and quickly gotten up since where i landed was my setup. I could have easily come around under the kayak (belly down) and finish with the same finish as a reverse forward. One quick easy move. learning and practicing rolls has made my gp bracing very strong and if i blow the brace who cares. I cant seem to do that one with the euro and i only really need about 1 ish foot of water to do it with the gp. i guess my point is that i once had more confidence with the euro until i learned various greenland rolls. then it switched. Curt

  22. What stands out in these discussions is the surprise experienced by kayakers after using a traditional paddle. Most are very capable in using the euro but have found something extra with the Greenland style. My personal choice is the Aleut as an all round paddle and was made over a long trial. This consisted of long distance,speed,surf,rolling and sailing. Contrary to what Mark experienced, my ability increased in the surf as did all other aspects of my kayaking. The romance with tradition is only a small part,it is the all round performance I need on an extended trip when I have only one paddle but many elements of nature to contend with,and this is when the Aleut is right for me. There is no right answer as we are all individuals in a variety of boats on different seas,so my comments are only to share what I have discovered. Vanilla.

  23. Among other things, being able to make your own in about 8 hours was a big factor for me. Rather than spending $500 on a fancy cantilevered Euro blade, I spent time shaping and building my own. Hundreds of km later, I've not touched a big blade since.

  24. Great post and photos Gnarly!

    I am possibly one of the few to return to euro paddles after switching to Greenlands. I spent a good part of the last year with two beautiful Greenlands: a wooden laminate and a very light foam core carbon. Initially I loved their feeling of lightness and the gentle pickup. However, after having paddled about 9000km with euros and never had a twinge, I developed tendinitis in both elbows during about 800km with the Greenlands. It got so bad, one day, I had to borrow a friend's foam core Werner Cyprus cranks. The pain went instantly and I went straight out and bought a set myself. Any time I now try the Greenlands the pain comes back. Greenlands are great paddles but they don't suit everyone and I have no feelings of regret, having had to return to euros (technically USAs). A plus is that my time with Greenlands has allowed me to now get even more out of my euros!


  25. Douglas, you gave the stick fair go to form an opinion, not just a dab and dismissed it.
    Despite popular belief, learning how to use a GP properly does take time.
    Obviously didn't work for you just like an Ikelos straight shaft didn’t work for me.
    Since we are all individuals with different bodies and have different paddling styles not all the equipment will work for everybody.
    I paddled for a few years with a Cyprus bent shaft and while I think it's a great paddle (my favourite Euro/USA style) I have not touched it for a few years now.
    BTW what size were the looms on your GP?
    I have tried to paddle with a GP that had a round small diameter loom (same as a Euro paddle shaft) and found it very tiring since I had to grip the shaft too tightly to cant the blade properly (the loom was also too wide). A GP like that could make my elbows hurt in the long run.

  26. On a recent trip up to the great white north (ie Canada) I had the pleasure of being in the company of some real GP experts, people who had actually spent time in Greenland. I mentioned that I loved my GPs but had no idea how they were supposed to be used, or how the "cant" is supposed to work. The response? Stop thinking about it, Greenlanders don't have a style, they just paddle the way feels right. Sounds great to me! Cheers - FP

  27. Good post on the importance of proper rolling technique. Coming from a canoe polo background (where you need to roll without paddles a lot) thought me to roll on finesse and technique rather than brute force. I always start teaching rolling without a paddle. Once the handroll is mastered the student moves up to use the paddle but only to be able to hold on to the paddle during rolling. The actual roll is still made from the hips/legs.

    Other than that I still love my wing paddle and being a marathon racer I will probably not be paddling a stick ;-)

    Cheers, Michiel

  28. I have just rounded out my quiver this past summer. Wing paddle, Gearlab GP, and Nimbus Squamish. I spent years surfing kayaks and wave-skis and after herniating some disks in my neck (unrelated) I migrated back to sea kayaks.
    I feel that the Wing paddle and GP are similar in a straight line. The feel is the same, it just depends on how much force one puts into the stroke. I absolutely see the appeal of the GP.
    For me, the biggest difference is the silence and directional control. But mainly the silence. I paddle to get away from the crush of civilization. Silence is part of that.


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