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Aleut Paddles and Paddle-Sailing

October 3rd, 2014 by

“What’s up with the skinny wooden paddles?”

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This question comes up every now and again, so I thought that I would write a little about this style of kayak paddle and why we like to use it for paddle-sailing.

My intent here is not to persuade you to change the paddle you are currently using, as most paddle-sailors have their own likes and dislikes.  I simply wish to introduce you to this unique paddle and do my best to review it’s qualities.

Over the years Patti and I have used a variety of paddles with the Kayaksailor, each having their own advantages and disadvantages, and the one that seems to stand out in terms of performance and “feel” is the traditional, Aleutian Island double blade. You’ve probably noticed these long wooden paddles in our photos and videos.

It’s an old school design, developed by the Aleut, who are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of the North Pacific.91210 The Aleuts are masterful watermen, who with limited resources, created astonishingly sophisticated skin-on-frame sea kayaks called  Baidarkas, and paddled them with refined paddles.  How old is “old school” you ask?  Well… no one knows for sure. Evidence suggests that long before the human migration across North America to Greenland, people paddled the waters of eastern Siberia and the northern Pacific island chain in kayaks.  While some of the earliest archaeological evidence of skin-on-frame boats dates back at least 2000 years, some have found artifacts related to kayaking, such as paddles and deck rigging components, dating back as far as 5000 years. In short, Pacific kayakers have had plenty of time to refine their gear.

Even with today’s advanced computers, in my mind the traditional designs of the Aleuts reached an apex in skin-on-frame kayak sophistication and craftsmanship.  These remarkable people routinely paddled very long distances, often in extreme weather conditions, hunting sea mammals, fish, fowl, and whatever else they could find.  Life must have been tough there, as these islands are some of the most desolate, windswept rocks on the planet.  Not only did they manage to survive, but they were able to craft cool gear that was efficient and stylish as well.

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Back to the paddles.  While it has been well documented by early Russian explorers that a shorter, canoe-like, single blade paddle was frequently utilized and was often seen kept on deck as a spare, Aleuts also developed a fine, long, flexible, double blade for long distance, high speed, cruising.  This is the style of paddle we use.
They work very well.  Since we often find ourselves in strong breezes and choppy seas, covering long distances at relatively high speeds, we too are able reap the benefits of the design.P1040409

Aside from the natural beauty of oiled wood, one of the first things most people notice about the Aleut paddles are their relatively long length and the narrow blades.  Our own paddles are (244cm) long and (8.3cm) wide at the widest point and are quite a bit longeP1040963_2r than most Greenland style paddles. The length and the narrow blade shape is designed for prolonged, shallow (less vertical) strokes.  And this, combined with ample flexibility in the shaft, is gentle on our aging shoulder joints.  These attributes also allow for effective paddling in very shallow water, a real plus for inshore cruising.  Additionally, the low angle arc of the blade in the air is less prone to come in contact with the sail, also a plus for paddle-sailing.

Another advantage of using this paddle with the Kayaksailor, is that the blade closest to the water, with its narrow face, can fit easily in between the boom and the foredeck.  This is especially convenient on beam aP1040992nd closeP1050076

reaches  where the boom is set half way out and the gap between the boom and deck is less than on, say a broad reach or a run.  The image on the left shows a more common mid-sized touring blade, and while there is still distance under the boom, narrow blades definitely have an advantage here.

In general, narrow blade faces are easier to control in strong winds. They are far less likely to get ripped out of our hands in the intense 30-40 knot wind gusts, which are all too common here in the Gorge during the summer months.  Wide style blades, with the majority of their surface area concentrated near the ends of the shaft, can suddenly catch a wind gust and become difficult to control.  Many paddlers using wide blades simply feather the blade angles in an effort to reduce this windage, but we’ve found that at least for kayak-sailing when it’s really windy, the narrower non-feathered blade is just easier to use.

P1040996_2The paddle shafts have a comfortable, ergonomic oval shape to them, which lets us know the blade orientation, making themP1050072 easier to brace with in an emergency, since there’s never a question of whether the blade is flat against the water or not.  Additionally, the small unfeathered blades can be conveniently slid under the cross tube, making them easy to stow.

The long paddle length is good for steering and can be especially useful while sailing.  P1050049When doing a stern rudder stroke, the blade can be P1080656positioned closer to the stern where it can better act as a rudder, and the forward sweeping stroke is able to start closer to the bow, allowing the bow to be pushed sideways more effectively.   A long paddle increases bracing leverage, and offers increased stability during paddle-float, and float-less re-entries.

That said, longer paddles can be a disadvantage in certain situations. Paddling in close quarters, one is more likely to hit rocks or other kayaks with the blades. They also require slightly more attention when in areas of dense sea plants. P1080635In this case, a delayed or exaggerated stroke finish is needed to let the plants clear from the blade face before lifting it from the water. Fortunately, the proximal blade transitions from the shaft smoothly and plants slide off relatively easily.  Also, since the paddles don’t have ferrules in the shaft, storage and transportation can sometimes be an issue.  I’ve seen some cool wood Aleut paddles with ferrules, but I can’t help wondering if the shaft strength would be somewhat compromised. Paddle-float reentries in rough water can be stressful on a paddle.

P1050046 P1050048Unlike the much more popular wooden Greenland paddles, most examples of Aleutian double blades have asymmetrical faces, meaning, one side of the blade is shaped differently than the other. The power face of the blade (normally facing the back of the boat), has a raised longitudinal ridge running down center line, and the backside has a slightly convex, or somewhat domed shape to it. The ridged power face helps prevent the blade from chattering (moving erratically up and down) during the power phase of the stroke, as well as helps direct the water down the face of the blade.  The domed back allows the water to move around it with little, if any, cavitation (the formation of air bubbles from the low pressure).  The result is a blade that is both quiet and powerful, and allows for a smooth comfortable stroke.

P1050039For bracing under sail, the ridge-less, domed back slides over the water’s surface nicely. For this reason, we’ll often subconsciously flip the blade over while sailing.

Lastly, the satiny texture of the oiled cedar just feels really good in our hands.  It’s a natural feeling.  Plus, since wood is a better insulator than carbon, our hands stay warmer on those cold days out on the water.

P1080648Our paddles came to us already pre-shaped by Corey at the Skin Boat School in Anacortes, Washington (Washington State). The paddles are not made in the traditional way, by carving a single piece of wood, but created by laminating several cut pieces together. In this case, red cedar and a spruce core, for a good combination of light weight and strength.

If you are interested in making your own paddle, or learning more about Aleutian island designs, a web search should yield enough information to get you started.  We definitely recommend giving this style of paddle a try.  And, please let us know what you think!

We hope you’ve have enjoyed this post.  Please feel free to leave a comment.  🙂

Fair Winds and Happy Sailing!

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Rebuilding our Skin Boats

December 19th, 2011 by

Hi everyone!

As some of you may know, in addition to sail design Patti and I also like to design and build kayaks. 

While waiting for our aluminum Kayaksailor parts to arrive, we decided to take a trip to beautiful Anacortes, Washington to visit our friend Corey at his traditional skin boat shop, The Skin Boat School.   Patti  wanted to reshape her boat by giving it more rocker, adding sheer and taking out some of the volume and I wanted to make mine a little less beamy and also take out some volume.  We originally built these high volume boats for extended paddle-sailing trips but as it turns out, we use them mostly for day sailing.

Building a skin-on-frame kayak or “qajaq” is the original, and some consider best, method of kayak building.    Many think that this form of boat building has likely been practiced for several thousands of years.  Our boats have urethane coated nylon for skin and waxed polyester twine for lashings.  The Inuit peoples used seal skin and sinew, but aside from these differences, the basic building technique is remarkably similar.

Skin boats are really cool.  The Inuit craftsmen were very skilled and developed these incredibly sophisticated boats with limited resources.   Not only was the qajaq  an essential tool for the Inuit hunter, enabling them to bring food home in the extremely harsh environment of the far north, but the boats had a spiritual element to them as well.  A qajaq is more than a boat.  It can be viewed as an animal of sorts with a back bone, ribs and skin.   When the paddler, or paddle-sailor in our case,  enters their boat, they become the spirit of the animal.   Working together as one.

The advantages of skin-on-frame boats are many, but probably one of the most alluring is the weight.  A sixteen to seventeen foot boat can weigh as little as twenty five pounds!  or about 11.3 Kg.   Patti can pick up her boat with one hand.  Try doing that with most modern plastic boat!  On second thought, don’t try it.

During our stay we lived in the school’s lovely skin-on-frame tree house.  It’s a very peaceful and friendly place.

At night we heard Coyotes jibbering  and a pack of wolves howling on the distance.  Corey says that the wolves belong to a neighbor who breeds them in captivity.  He says they all are confined, but I have to say that the sound of a howling wolf pack is a powerful and a hair raising experience.  I now understand the level of respect first peoples gave them.  We think that we are on top of the food chain, Ha.!

The first order of business was to peel off the skin.  We used a heat gun to release the parts of the skin that were stuck to the frame.

Next we cut the lashings and went to work removing and adjusting the ribs, trimming the gunwales, and repositioning the keelson to adjust the rocker.  We shape our boats the traditional way, “by eye” and “feel”.    I had to cut the deck beams on mine to reduce the boat’s beam. 

The frames are pegged and lashed together. No metal fasteners here, just artificial sinew and knots.   Lots and lots of knots!

At night it dropped below freezing a few times and Patti dressed our older companion Charlee-girl in her fleece shirt to stay warm.  Charlee is looking down the stairs of the tree house trying to figure out a game plan to get down.  She can still negotiate those stairs!

Once we finished reshaping the boats, it was time to put on the skin.  Knowing when to stop tweaking the design of the frame is always a problem for me.  I always want it to be perfect.  It’s so easy to make a little adjustment here or there.  I’ll just keep adjusting until Patti tells me to stop.  We give each other balance.Sewing the skin is simultaneously tedious and therapeutic.  It takes some practice to get a nice smooth, tight stitch. The Inuit would wet their seal skins while sewing but luckily we can work our cloth dry. 

Patti uses a beautiful more traditional Maligiaq stitch, while I use a rolled cross stitch.

We put our heart and souls into all our creations, And with skin boats, a little blood at times. 

These are some of Patti’s cells decorating her bow.  It’s always good to keep track of where the pointy end of the needle is. 🙂

We chose to remove the rudder and change the stern shape of our boats.  Since she purchased her Squamish, Patti has been getting back into rudderless sailing.  I think that I will join her.  It takes a little more skill, but that’s good, it’s all fun!

Here the cockpit is waiting for attention.

The coaming is the last thing to be sewn in place.  The front rests in the curved masik and the rear rests on the flat deck beam.

After work, we explored some of the shoreline of the Island of Fildago on which Anacortes resides.  A glorious full moon illuminated the evening sky.  This is a spectacular part of the world, and so many beautiful boats in the harbor!  Below are some classic pulling boats we came across.  I can’t resist admiring the sweet lines of a well designed hull.

After the sewing was finished, we dyed and urethaned the skin.  Here Patti shows her skills spreading the two part urethane “goop” with a spatula.  It takes multiple thin coats and a steady hand to get that mirror shine.

Most people use tan color dye to give their boat a traditional skin color.  Patti and I like to take the path less traveled.  We chose different colors for our boats. Paddle-sailing traditional skin-on-frames isn’t the norm either, but it sure is fun!  The mix of the modern with the traditional brings something new.  I painted a wavy blue dye design on my boat.  It won’t be easy to see on the water but it has a cool organic feel to it.

Patti chose a beautiful blue green.  Her boat has feminine curves that are pleasant to the eye.  This shot shows the results of Patti’s remarkably smooth urethane finishing job.

I always like the view from inside the cockpit.  The white cord seen running fore and aft goes through a primitive pulley in the bow and is used to pull the forward float bag into position.  The only metal hardware used in the boat are the stainless screws that hold the adjustable foot pegs in position.

While the urethane cured, we went hiking on a beautiful trail about ten minutes from the shop.  The rain forest is a remarkable place to explore.  Lots of rain and lots of life!  Even in winter the amount and variety of vegetation is warming to the soul.

It’s easy to feel connected to the environment here.    The humidity holds the sweet organic aroma in the air.

We need to come back here and sail this coastline.  There are so many cool places to explore.  Deception pass is just around the corner.  Even though the tidal current rips at times, our sails can definitely help fight it in case we miscalculate a tidal change.

The water is very clear and stays at a nearly constant 8.8 to 11.3 degrees Celsius (48-51 Fahrenheit) year round.  It’s cold but definitely doable with proper thermal protection.

A short distance away is Rosario beach.   A pole sculpture depicts the spirit of Ko-Kwal-alwoot, “The Maiden of Deception Pass”.  If you want to learn her story, e-mail me and I will gladly send it to you.

When we arrived back from the hike, the urethane was cured enough for us to strap the boats to our trusty pickup so we could start the five hour drive south to Hood River.  We love how the light shines through the hulls giving them a stained glass appearance.  In this shot you can see the swedeform shape of my hull with the cockpit positioned aft of center.  Also visible is the center foredeck stringer on which the Kayaksailor main body tube will rest.

Thank you so much for taking time to read this post.  If you haven’t already done so, please consider subscribing to this blog in the right hand column.  Also, please feel free to comment!

Cheers!