Sunday, March 27, 2011

Variety in Greenland Kayak Types

Kayaks in Greenland varied considerably by region, purpose, and era. The variety is so great, in fact, that referring to "a Greenland type kayak" in the singular, as if it constituted a consistent, known category, would be almost as meaningless as referring to an "American-type rowboat".

Old Greenland kayak, collected by Dutch whalers. Click any image to enlarge.
Dutch whalers were the first Europeans to encounter Greenland kayaks, in the mid-17th century. The kayaks they found there -- and they brought a few back to Holland as evidence -- were extraordinarily narrow and had extraordinarily high length-to-beam ratios. The average length was 565 cm (18'6"), and the average width 40.5 cm (only 16 inches -- yikes!). While such a calculation may not be statistically sound, if one uses the two average figures, the length/beam ratio works out to 13.95 to 1.

Over the years, shorter and broader kayaks came into favor, and by the 20th century, the average figures were 515 cm (16' 10 3/4") long and 50.5 cm (20") wide -- still mighty narrow by the standards of modern recreational kayakers, but no longer a demanding balancing act in calm seas.

One of the most common designs was the "flat" kayak, so-called because of its sheerline, which curved very gently. The ends do not turn up at all from the general line of the sheer. The foredeck has only a very slight curve athwartships, and the after deck is dead flat. This style is very shallow -- there is scarcely enough room for the paddler's legs under the foredeck and, with its small, round cockpit, entering the boat could be difficult. The bottom is also quite flat, both side-to-side and front-to-back.

The deck of the "Dutch" kayak in the top photo is symmetrical fore-and-aft. Compare to the "fish-form" shape of this "flat" kayak of southern Greenland, with its widest beam forward.

The construction drawing above does not refer specifically to the flat kayak in the photo, which was built for a 14 year old boy.
Dramatically different was the avasisaartoq type, with its substantial sheer and rocker and very high ends. Such a design has the advantage of greater maneuverability and potentially greater seaworthiness amidst steep seas in the hands of an expert paddler. But on the other hand, the high ends are a liability in high winds. The style was popular in the 19th century, but it faded out by the 20th, when kayak hunters began using rifles, because the high ends interfered with clear sighting-lines.
An avasisaartorq kayak.
When Eskimos immigrated from Canada to northern Greenland around 1860, they brought with them the Thule type of kayak, with a high bow, low afterdeck with a very slight upturned end, and maximum beam aft of the cockpit.
Thule kayak.
One more interesting type is a cult kayak known as the piaaqqisiaq. Distinguished by sharp upturns at the very ends, it existed for reasons of belief rather than pragmatism. A man whose first son had died in infancy was supposed to build a kayak of this type for his other sons when they grew old enough to have their first kayak. Boys who did not have a dead older brother were given conventional kayaks, and that boys who did grow up with the piaaqqisiaq got a standard kayak when they attained the age of a hunter.

Cult kayak, or piaaqqisiaq, in foreground
 [Content, including art, for this post are mostly from H. C. Peterson Skinboats of Greenland (Ships and Boats of the North)].


  1. Nice survey of the Petersen book. This book, as well as Petersen's Instructions in Kayak Building were my manuals for the first kayak I built roughly 20 years ago. The Petersen book at $80 is still a good value. I paid $70 for it twenty years ago. Besides being a survey of kayaks, Petersen also covers various accessories such as harpoons, throwing boards and paddling jackets.
    Another aspect of Petersen's book that makes it especially valuable is that it comes from within the Greenland culture. Petersen is a Greenlander and his father's generation still hunted seals from kayaks so he brings an insider perspective to the kayak culture he writes about.

  2. Wolfgang -- I expected to hear from you about this post. Thank you. I plan to do at least one more post from the Petersen book -- probably about his coverage of umiaks.
    It is a valuable book -- I wish the translation were somewhat clearer.

  3. It always inspiring to see the watercraft our ancestors trusted their lives to. In a time where there was little to no real rescue if theings went bad they seemed to brave the water with nothing but sticks and animal hide. Nothing like modern day canoes and canoe paddles.

    -Paddle Dan

  4. Great article! I'd love to see Petersen's sections on harpoons too.

  5. I'd have thought the Vikings would be the first Europeans to encounter kayaks as they were the residents when the Thule/Inuit arrived ~1100 AD and established active trading iron for ivory.

  6. Don,
    You're right: the Thule culture did contact that of the Vikings on the west coast of Greenland, long before the Dutch. Thank you for the correction.