Using your Greenland Kayak

this is not a sea kayaking instructional text, it is only an explanation of some of the issues specific to paddling a Greenland kayak.  Your safety is your own responsibility, get educated, get instruction, and practice!

Modern kayaks are designed for the maximum comfort and utility in a recreational context, traditional hunting kayaks were not.  If you buy a sea kayak off the shelf it shouldn't take long to feel comfortable with the fit and handling. They are essentially get in and go.  Traditional kayaks, on the other hand, may take some getting used to.   Due to the unfamilliar fit, many people will try a traditional kayak briefly and then abandon the idea of using it as common part of the fleet.  Whereas a traditional boat may not be the right kayak for every occasion, I think too many of these kayaks sit idle when a bit of training and advice might have helped the user to enjoy them.  To improve the paddling experience of those considering a traditional kayak as well as those who already own one, I've created this page to address some of the most common comfort, safety, and technique concerns of paddling a Greenland kayak replica.


"If you're not comfortable you're not going to be powerful or fast."  I think Greg Barton said that.  For me it's "If you're not comfortable you're not going to have fun."  The Greenland kayak presents special challenges to the modern paddler.  The modern kayak has a big opening, you get in and plunk your butt in the seat, postion your foot pegs and spread your legs to put your knees in the knee braces.  This is a comfortable postion because the knees are raised and the legs are spread allowing the pelvis to rotate forward, taking the strain off the lower back.  A Greenland kayak is a much tighter fit.  You sit with your legs straight in front of you and your back upright which can become quickly become uncomfortable.  Trying to spread your legs, pad your back, and plant your feet just makes you feel trapped and frustrated.  You must embrace the idea that this kayak is meant to be paddled with your legs straight out in front of you.    For most Americans, our hamstrings are too tight and our stomach muscles are underdeveloped, so that when we try to sit straight our bodies slowly unfold, and we compensate by slouching farther and farther forward, placing strain on the lower back.  Again, the modern kayak compensates with strong back support and opening the pelvis and raising the knees to improve flexibility in the lower body.  In a Greenland kayak YOU need to change to be comfortable.  

Cockpit outfitting


Lets start with the easy stuff you can do to improve the fit of your boat starting with the seat.  First a bit of paddling is helpful, I like to cut a thin foam pad and slide it under the ribs on either side of the keel, it extends forward about two feet.  This gives a solid foundation that won't crawl out of the boat in an emergency.  On top of that I'll often add another foam pad, it's important to cut a hole in this foam pad between your legs to pump water out of the boat.  I like the foam pad but some people prefer a molded seat because it's less likely to bunch up in a rescue.  Whatever you choose you should concentrate on keeping your butt as low as possible in the boat.

Sacral Support

A feature commonly overlooked in many homemade and commercial kayak seats is sacral support.  When we look at racing kayak seats we see a painful looking tiny dish of fiberglass with a slight ramp at the back of the seat.  These are sometimes the most comfortable kayak seats!  They provide critical support beneath the sacrum, which is the base for the entire lumbar spine.  As soon as the sacrum is allowed to sag, the lumbar spine rounds and the discs are compressed creating discomfort and the potential for a back injury.  Adding a small shallow foam wedge at the back of your seat can make a lot of difference in comfort.

Back support

Back support is a contentious issue in kayaking with the most athletic claiming that it is a crutch for poor posture.  I think this is true, but I also understand what it feels like to be six hours into a 30 mile paddle and have a hard deck beam grinding a bloody hole in my lower back.    Back support is usually an uncomfortable substitute for good seat shaping, proper flexibility and core muscle training.  My opinion is that you should try everything else first and then install either a commercial backband or carved foam seat back for when you have to lean back.  In a Greenland cockpit it is proper to sit well forward of the aft deck beam behind your back, but when your stomach muscles give out it's also nice to have something back there to lean against.   Straining will not improve posture and places your low back at risk, especially if you are sloching and rotating at the same time.  If it hurts to sit up straight without support, stop! stretch out some more or lean back.

Foot Bracing

Another contentious issue, many Greenland kayak afficionados claim foot bracing is not part of the tradition.  This may be true but from personal experience on very long paddles I've found a lack of foot bracing causes me to slowly crawl down into the kayak as I work my hips when I paddle.  Also, I like to drive a boat with my feet, so it's important to me to have something to push on.  I don't add permanent foot bracing in my greenland kayaks because the exact position is impossible to determine and you want a removable solution that you can tune as you get to know your kayak.

Knee Padding

Your main control surface in a Greenland kayak is the Massik, the wood piece that goes across your thighs.  At first it might feel like this is trapping you but after a while you might want an even more secure connection.  It's never a good idea to wedge yourself in with foam but it is perfectly ok to add minicell foam (or wood!) to the bottom of the massik to make the bat even tighter fitting.


Training is absolutely key to whether you like your Greenland kayak or hate it.   If your hamstrings are tight and your core muscles are weak you will HURT when you paddle.  For me this is the biggest hurdle because I don't have the time or the motivation to train.   I know from experience that if training is difficult it won't get done, so I've developed a routine that even the laziest paerson can use to get comfortable in a Greenland kayak.   I do the following exercises every other day and before I paddle.   First, get a book or a magazine because we're going to relax.  Lay on the floor in a doorway and put your leg up the wall with the other leg straight, relax, feel the hamstring stretch, read or talk on the telephone for FIVE WHOLE MINUTES.  Do the same on the other side.  This is a great stretch that is easy and very safe for your spine.  Next we need to tighten up those core muscles with some crunches.  I do five sets of 22, so 110 total.  These aren't the painful grunting Rocky Balboa crunches though, no need to strain or sweat, you're not training for the olympics.  Simply place your hands behind your head, and raise your torso off the ground a few inches and then back down, don't yank on your neck.  To get better strength throughout the torso try twisting as you come up, you can do this by bringing an elbow toward the opposite knee.  To finish, do a set where your back is flat on the ground and you raise your pelvis off the floor to work the upper stomach muscles.   Now when you get into your kayak you'll be less likely to suffer from the painful slump.  Of course there are many more helpful exercises, but these are the ones I actually do.

Before you go paddling

Whether you are piloting a supertanker or a coracle the most important safety consideration begins before you ever get near that water.  Simply put, that consideration is 'should I be going out today?'  Do you know the area, the tides, the winds, the currents?  Could you possibly end up in conditions beyond your skill level?  Knowing how to roll, wearing protective clothing, knowing how to navigate in the fog, and handle your kayak in wind and waves, these are all important skills but none are more important than knowing whether or not it is safe to go out.

Outfitting for a trip, some basic must have items:

immersion protection
float bags
seat pad
radio/cell phone
spare paddle
paddle float
first aid kit

Traditional vs. modern gear

You will see many traditional kayakers wearing a large neoprene jacket that seals at the face and the wrists and the cockpit, this is the descendant of the Inuit sealskin kayaking jacket, the Tuilik.   For those interested in traditional rolling skills the tuilik can be a big help, it's bulkyness allows for a wide freedom of movement and while providing a lot of helpful bouyancy.  It also keeps the head dry which makes it easier to learn especially in cold water.  In very cold places the tuilik is a helpful winter garmet.  Keep in mind though that if there is ANY chance you might come out of your boat in cold water you must wear protective clothing underneath.  That's a lot of clothes and can get quite hot.  I like the fit and feel of modern kayaking gear and I have spray skirts custom made for my cockpits.  A tight spray skirt is inferior especially for advaced rolling but for paddling in rough water it provides a more secure connection to the kayak, IF you have a good lip on the coaming.

Carrying the kayak

One of the neater things about skin on frame kayaks is their light weight, and the easiest way to carry the kayak is on your head in true Greenlandic style.  The kayak faces stern forward and you can walk a surprisingly long distance comfortably.

Getting into the kayak

Let's consider the Greenland cockpit, it's small, and it's supposed to be small; you should have to wiggle a bit to get into it.  To crawl in I lay my paddle across the back deck with a blade extended far out to the side, then with my hands on the boat and the paddle, with my eye on the paddle, I lean to keep the tip of the blade a few inches below the surface,  this is an incredibly stable position!  If you keep your eye on the outrigger blade and keep it slightly submersed you can't tip over.  Now, keeping your eye on that blade, point your toes and wiggle down into the cockpit.   Don't worry if it's a bit tough, as long as you can get in, you should be able to wet exit easily.  Of course make sure to practice this with a spotter to be certain.  It's very important not to wear any type of shoe that could catch on a rib, trapping you in the kayak, this includes most kayakers shoes.  I reccomend surfers booties.

Now that you're in you might be feeeling pretty tippy.  Greenland boats depend on the paddler to be stable and it can be tricky at times to stabilize the kayak enough to put on the spray skirt.  There's a techniques for this and once you learn it you'll be stable enough to eat lunch in rough water without fear of capsize.  To stabilize the kayak move the paddle to the front deck.  Adjust the toggle immediately in front of you so it is halfway between the gunwale and the deck stringer.  Next shove the paddle under the toggle (may be a bit tight on a new kayak) leaving most of it extended out into the water but enough past the toggle and deck (like a foot) so it can't fall out.  The paddle is now reaching down into the water and acting as a stabilizer, unlike when you had it on your back deck though, it will stabilize you in both directions.  Now you can seal your spray skirt, making sure to leave the grab loop out.  

Capsize recovery

Why discuss capsize recovery here instead of paddling?  Two reasons, one, you really don't need someone to teach you how to paddle, I believe that anyone who actually puts in some miles will figure out how to paddle and will probably even develop a good technique.  Paddling Greenland style is a very natural, intuitive motion.  I mention capsize first because that is likely the first thing that will happen to you after getting into a new Greenland kayak because your balance is not yet tuned to the kayak.   In a commercial kayak you're taught to pull your sprayskirt, wet exit, and somehow dump your kayak or pump out the water and then crawl back in.   If you're especially keen you might learn to roll.  In a Greenland kayak it is sometimes possible to empty a swamped kayak and this should be practiced, but due to the low volume you should consider the roll as your first and last line of defense.  Owning a Greenland kayak is a commitment to learning to roll reliably.   This shouldn't be intimidating though because a Greenland kayak rolls very easily.  Skin-on-frame kayaking is becoming very popular and there are many events you can attend to learn the skill and also many fine private instructors.   Traditional paddlers paddled much closer together than modern groups and this is critical for safety.  If you are only a few arm spans away from a buddy when he capsizes, even if he can't roll you can extend him your bow to grab onto; this is called a bow rescue.  It is beyond the scope of this text to provide specific instruction on technique, I would like to mention though that rolling is NOT DIFFICULT and if you are having trouble it's likely you need a better instructor.  If you do suddenly tip over, don't panic, bang on your hull to alert other kayakers, try to get a bow rescue, and if you must wet exit, pull the skirt and take off the boat like a pair of pants, try to keep a hold of the paddle and the kayak.  You should, of course, practice wet rescues as well as rolling, the more tools in your toolbox the safer you'll be.

Learning to roll is not difficult

Sea kayak rescue still applies to Greenland kayaks but it's definately harder and less reliable.

On flat water it's sometimes possible to reenter a Greenland kayak by yourself.

Sometimes the best way to learn is by messing around, this can be a lot of fun.

Finally, I'd like to stress again that this text is not a substitute for kayaking instruction.  It is only meant to inform you of some of the issues specific to Greenland kayaks.  Be it by books and careful trial and error, or by way of mentoring and professional instruction, it is very important that you take the time to practice sea kayaking and learn the hazards involved.  Sea kayaking is often just a paddle on the lake, but when things do go wrong they go wrong fast and badly.  Be careful, and have fun using your traditional sea kayak.

To learn more about Traditional Greenland kayaks,  I recommend Harvey Goldens book, Kayaks of Greenland, available from his website

To get connected to the Greenland kayaking community visit

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