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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Greeland Umiaks, Part IV (more uses of the umiak)

This is probably my last post based primarily on content from the very useful Skinboats of Greenland (Ships and Boats of the North) by H.C. Petersen. Along with describing a few more interesting aspects of the umiak's use, it's an excuse to show some more nice images.
Umiaks escorted by kayaks. Wood engraving from a Danish magazine, 2nd half of 19th century. From an original by C. Rasmussen. Click this or any image to enlarge. (All images from Skinboats of Greenland (Ships and Boats of the North))

Umiaks were almost always accompanied by kayaks, as shown in the lovely image above. Petersen states that if the umiak got into trouble, an escorting kayaker could be dispatched to obtain help. It's not clear to me if this escort was provided primarily because the umiak generally carried women and children, who were felt to either deserve or require the assistance of men, or if, perhaps, the umiak was more subject to damage than the kayak and hence more likely to need assistance. (I speculate that the greater number of sewn seams, and the greater expanse of unsupported skin, may have made the umiak more prone to springing a leak. There are, indeed, stories of umiaks that sank due to contact with the sharp edges of new ice and which were assisted by escorting kayakers. Of course, there are also stories of kayakers running into trouble and either being assisted by other kayakers, or sinking.)

The escort also provided an opportunity for the occasional flirtation. Since a hunting kayak is so much faster than an umiak, the escorts could take the time practice throwing their javelins, darts or spears when traveling in convoy. A kayaker who threw his spear into the little whirlpool left by a woman rower's oar was making an explicit overture for her affection. If he hit the oar blade itself, he was considered to be especially serious. (Ain't love grand?)

When rowers became weary or bored, they would sometimes enliven themselves with a "game" consisting of establishing and maintaining an unusual stroke pace: for example, five long strokes followed by two quick, short ones. At least this would focus the oarsmen's attention away from their weariness for a while.

Another relief from rowing was to be had on some journeys, as when traveling to a seasonal camp to hunt seals or caribou. When families relocated on the mainland, it was common to hug the coast, and to allow the dogs to follow along the shore. Dogs learned the locations of seasonal homes and camps, and in many instances they would cut out across the land and arrive before the boats did. But sometimes, along stretches of straight and easy coast, the umiak would be tied to a harness of dogs, and the dogs would haul the boat for miles. Of course, care had to be taken to steer the boat to avoid it being pulled into shore by the dogs, and a sharp lookout kept for rocks near the surface.

A Danish official on a voyage in an umiak owned by a European cleric, 1875. Photo by E. AE Lutzen.
During the colonial period, Danish officials used umiaks with native rowers for voyages of inspection (again, with kayak escorts), and clerics used them to visit remote flocks. Several voyages of coastal exploration by Europeans were also conducted in umiaks, from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Whaling n Greenland, by Hans Egede, 1741. The triangular object at left center is a hunting-camp tent.
And umiaks were used for whaling, both before and during the colonial period. Several kinds of whales were hunted with hand-thrown harpoons. Whalers attached inflated sealskin floats to the ends of their harpoon lines and, after a successful strike, they would follow the floats, striking with additional harpoons as the opportunity arose. The floats prevented the whale from sounding deeply, slowed the whale down as it sought to flee, and enabled the rowers to keep track of the whale's position, allowing them to avoid taking a Nantucket sleighride in their fragile umiak. After the whale died, a man would enter the water to tie its mouth closed and to insert a wooden plug in its blowhole, to keep it from sinking. Several umiaks usually hunted together, because it takes a lot of oars to tow a large whale to shore.

Men generally rowed the umiaks when hunting whales, but women would take an oar if a sufficient number of men could not be found to make up a crew. In the old engraving above, it appears that there could be stern-facing rowers and forward-facing paddlers in the same boat -- presumably the women "manning" the oars, and men handling the paddles. One or two men stood in the bow as harpooners, and the boat was steered by a male helmsman . Note the three umiaks in the background, towing a whale in "line ahead."

In the early 20th century, toward the end of the umiak's period of practical use, men adopted the "female" or European practice of facing aft and rowing with an oar on the gunwale, as shown below.
Aft-facing male oarsmen in Ilulissat harbor, 20th century (?).

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