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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Greenland Umiak, Part III: Propulsion

Greenland umiak under oars, W.A. Graah, 1832 (All images from H.C. Petersen, Skinboats of Greenland. Click any image to enlarge)
Let's begin by quoting H.C. Petersen in Skinboats of Greenland (Ships and Boats of the North):
The coastal stretch from Kap Farvel to Melville Bay on the West Coast [of Greenland] covers about 2000 km, and the umiak has been the connecting link along this coast. During the summer the Greenlanders used to sail in many umiaks together in hunting expeditions of varying length, or to visit friends. There were large summer meetings like those in Taseralik at the mouth of Nassuttooq where umiaks from north and south gathered. Hunters met in the large fiords for reindeer hunts, some sailing up to 1000 km to reach these meeting places. Friends got together, trading was carried out and at the meeting places at the outer coast European whalers could be seen by the mid 17th century. Young people met, marriages were arranged, arguments were settled by singing contests, and there were sports. The umiak brought the Greenlanders together and made group activities possible.
Singing contests to settle arguments! Well, I suppose they had their flaws too, but that sure is a nice thing to emulate. ("Rag doll Oooh, I love you just the way you are." -- Hah! Take that, suckah!)

Getting back on topic: the Greenland umiak was rowed, not paddled. Some sources have said that rowers sat one to a thwart, as shown in the picture at top, but instances of two rowers per thwart are also known. Often, the rowers all sat toward the bow, leaving much of the aft section free for cargo or passengers, while the helmsman (or more often, woman) sat in the sternsheets, steering with a paddle.
Sealskin strip used as a grommet to hold the oar.
Oars were usually held on the gunwale with grommets made of strips of sealskin tied to a thwart or the inner stringer, although sometimes a fixed half-rowlock (thimble?) was used. Oars were two-piece, with blades attached to shafts, not carved from a single piece, and some of them featured a button that helped prevent the shaft from slipping through the grommet if the oar was released.
Two-piece oar with safety button.

There seems to be contradictory information regarding whether men would regularly assist in rowing an umiak, or only do so under unusual circumstances. (The top image shows men and women rowing together; the bottom image women only.) It appears that when a man rowed an umiak by himself, he would do so facing forward, apparently to draw a clear, if symbolic, distinction between himself and the women. (Only Inuit men paddled kayaks, and they did so facing forward.)

Umiaks were also sailed. A short mast was set up right in the bows, passing through a hole in the headboard. Square sails, made of seal or reindeer skin or seal intestine, were lashed to a yard that was raised and lowered with a halyard that passed through a hole in the masthead. There were no stays or shrouds. Sheets led from the clews (lower corners) of the sail directly to the thwarts, where they could be tied off. The squaresail was used only for downwind sailing, and it is possible that the Inuit learned about it from the Vikings. Later contact with Europeans influenced them to adopt the spritsail, of which they used an essentially square, very low-aspect-ratio version.

Greenland umiak under sail, 1767.
An important accessory of the umiak was a pair of short wooden logs, used primarily as rollers to move the boat into and out of the water while preventing abrasion to the skin. When it was necessary to travel in very rough conditions, sometimes these rollers would be lashed athwartships to the gunwales near the stern, each one extending outboard an arm's-length on either side. Then a pair of kayaks, their cockpits sealed with paddling jackets, would be lashed to the underside of these outrigger shafts, temporarily turning the umiak into a more stable trimaran.


  1. Thanks for the full treatment. It is noticeable how often these boats have much higher sides than we would normally build with modern versions, see also the film Nanook of the North. This is a feature of the early Scandinavian petrographs of boats such as the one with two people fishing. Even modern versions such as those following the thinking of Dr Elmers on "ice age" boats which are built on courses at the Bremerhaven Boat Museum have much more conventionally proportioned sides.

    Evidence again of the difficulty of getting into the mindset of ancient and indigenous peoples which is a challenge for me in trying to replicate prehistoric boats.

  2. Thanks Edwin. I expect the depth is a function of their role as cargo carriers. In modern reproductions, which might not carry such loads, the high sides would be a liability. That reminds me of the situation with dories: the traditional banks dory is generally held to make a poor recreational boat because of its burthen; good recreational dories have lower freeboard.
    I'm not familiar with Dr. Elmers' work. Could you please provide a reference or resource? Thanks.