Early Greenland Kayaks Return To The Water

Dutch whalers, plying the waters adjacent to Greenland in the late 1600s, brought back not only a wealth of whale oil and furs, but many artifacts acquired from the Greenlanders. Along with hunting equipment, skins and ivory, the whalers brought back kayaks. Several of them still exist, souvenirs from a grand period of Dutch seafaring; ethnological treasures that offer a valuable glimpse into 300-year-old kayak forms from Greenland.

Dutch proficiency in whaling led them to dominate the industry by the end of the 1600s. Their whaling grounds were primarily in the vicinity of Spitzbergen Island, east of Greenland. In his book, The Arctic Whalers (Ferguson Brown & Son, 1937), Basil Lubbock writes: “Between 1699 and 1708, the Dutch sent out 1,652 whalers and killed 8,537 whales.…”

Diminishing yields quickly followed the prosperity. Lubbock continues: “By the year 1720, the Greenland whale had been chased away from the coast of Spitzbergen and even from the whaling banks.…” Finn Gad, in The History of Greenland, Vol. 2 (University of Toronto Press, 1973), writes: “The decline may have resulted from over-exploitation or migration of the whales….” He also suggests that lack of shipping activity due to Dutch involvement in wars may have played a part. As a result, the Dutch concentrated their efforts in Davis Strait on the west side of Greenland.

Little is known about the histories of 11 Greenland kayaks thought to have been brought back by Dutch whalers between 1600 and 1800. Whaling histories, while numerous, rarely make mention of souvenirs picked up on a voyage. Gert Nooter explores the origins of 10 of these kayaks in his work, Old Kayaks in the Netherlands (E.J. Brill, 1971), a study that seeks to accurately identify each kayak’s history using historical records and comparisons with ethnological texts. No definite conclusions are drawn as to the kayaks’ respective histories. The only certain answer is that they are all from Greenland—and most likely the Davis Strait side.

The Brielle Kayak
One of the kayaks in Nooter’s study is the Brielle (pronounced “BREE-luh”), named after the city in whose town-hall attic it had been until 1883. It is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkerkunde, in Leiden. Nooter writes, “…it is evident that the kayak had been in the attic in Brielle for many years, but no documents have been found indicating just how long this was.” He notes that Brielle was not a prominent whaling town.

In 1998, I visited the Rijksmuseum to study and survey the Brielle kayak. Its condition was poor. The hull was slightly collapsed, and the keel was no longer straight, appearing as if it had been suspended from the ends while heeled 90 degrees. Despite its state, the kayak’s form restored very well on paper. Areas in good condition were used to fair collapsed areas of the hull, and the yawing curve was eliminated to restore the kayak’s symmetry.

The Brielle kayak is a very narrow kayak with distinctly long, raked ends—particularly the stern. The beam is 15 1/4″ and the length is 17′ 11 1/8″, making it very extreme in terms of length-to-width ratios. The hull shape is very boxy—nearly vertical slab—sides and a flat bottom. Its cross-section shape is often equated with great stability, although just how stable can a 15 1/4″-wide kayak be?

The Hindeloopen Kayak
The same year, I visited the museum de Hidde Nij-land Stichting in the old town hall in Hindeloopen. (The train drops you off in a small gravel parking lot. Look for the steeple in the distance and start walking.) This museum has displays representing local history and artifacts, including a small representation of Hindeloopen’s whaling past-a kayak. In his book, Nooter refers to this as the Hindeloopen kayak.

The Hindeloopen kayak is also in poor condition. It exhibits hull-collapse along much of the keel, and the shrinking sealskin has crushed the ribs significantly. While Nooter’s photographs show it suspended from a ceiling, it was in a glass case when I saw it and was well supported along the keel to prevent further damage. Its dimensions are also quite extreme by modern standards: 18′ 8″ long with a maximum breadth of 15 5/8″ and an overall depth of 8″ (omitting the height of the coaming).

The design of the Hindeloopen is quite different from the Brielle. The former has low ends, a fairly short bow and a gradually inclining stern of low height. The cross sections are also considerably different: The Hindeloopen kayak is structurally hard-chined, but its hull shape is multi-chined because of the gunwale’s lower edge protruding into the skin, and the breadth between its chines is proportionately narrower than the Brielle’s.

Both of these kayaks exhibited evidence of deck lines at the bow, but the deck lines were missing. Ivory pieces may or may not have been present. Unlike the Hindeloopen, the Brielle kayak has another pair of holes through the gunwales and skin-covering toward the stern, evidence of another deck line.

Three of the kayaks in Nooter’s study, the Hindeloopen among them, were painted with a white wave pattern along the waterline and a very dark blue/green elsewhere. The illustration below depicts the paint scheme. Similar paint patterns were applied throughout the Netherlands and were used on Dutch ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam has a pinnace model from around 1650 with the same wavy white waterline painted onto it.

Structural Changes Over Time
The common element these kayaks share is perhaps best expressed in a comparison to more modern West Greenland kayaks. The two older kayaks, like many kayaks from the general period, are more symmetrical fore and aft. They don’t exhibit the pinched bow plan (or “hollow sheer”) that later kayaks generally have, and are instead more cigar-shaped or full-volume in the stern and bow.

Proportionally, the earlier kayaks have a much greater length-to-width ratio, being roughly 1 1/2′ to 2′ longer and 3″ to 4″ narrower. Their cockpits are generally situated farther forward than those of more recent kayaks, which most likely moved aft in an effort to “trim” the kayak’s balance with an augmented hunting kit that included rifles. The greater breadth of more recent Greenlandish kayaks is largely the result of needing more deck space for rifles and more stability for their use. (For a scale drawing of a modern West Greenland kayak, see SK, Fall 1987, pg. 17.)

Another feature that sets these kayaks apart from their modern counterparts is the fairly simple deck-line arrangements—each has four simple straps just ahead of the cockpit, one of which is the harpoon holder to the right of the cockpit coaming (missing on the Brielle kayak). Immediately behind the cockpits of these two kayaks are a pair of deck lines, connected by an ivory piece on the Hindeloopen, but plain on the Brielle.

The Hindeloopen kayak was painted with a white wave pattern along the waterline and a very dark blue/green elsewhere. The design was not an original feature of the kayak, but a popular pattern in the Netherlands applied after the kayak was collected.

Replicating History
With their extreme differences, the Hindeloopen and the Brielle were prime candidates for replication. Through reconstructing and using them in varying sea conditions, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of each. I started with the Hindeloopen and, needless to say, had to lengthen the cockpit opening to ensure a fit. The cockpit of the original is 16 3/4″ long, and my replica’s is 19″ long. (I am 5′ 8 1/2″ tall and weigh 125 pounds.) To maintain a snug fit, I did not adjust the overall depth that was clearly the original’s ideal. The cockpit opening of the Brielle replica had to be similarly adjusted: 14 3/4″ long on the original and 19 1/4″ on the replica. (No other dimensions were adjusted beyond my conjectural reconstruction of the damaged original.)

In my construction of the kayak replicas, I borrowed heavily from H.C. Petersen’s Instruction in Kayak Building (Atuakkiorfik, 2001 reprinted edition) and also relied on the chapter “Old Greenland Kayaks” in Petersen’s Skinboats of Greenland (National Museum of Denmark, 1986) and my own observations of the kayaks. My view was limited to what I could observe through the cockpit opening (a view entirely obscured in the case of the Hindeloopen). Having seen and studied other old kayaks was of considerable help in building the replicas.

Differences in construction between older (roughly 1600-1800) and more modern (1800-2000) Greenland kayaks are few, though significant. Lashings binding the lower edges of the gunwales together appear throughout the kayak’s hull in older examples, anchored to the gunwale’s lower edges. In more recent Greenlandish kayaks, such ties appear only at the ends, if at all. Deck beams and ribs are more closely spaced—about every 8 to 10 inches. Aft deck stringers were either missing or never installed in the older kayaks. Petersen describes their gunwales as going to the very ends of the kayak, instead of being extended via a stem-post (or plank) as in more recent kayaks.

Some material substitutions had to be made in creating the replicas: I used tarred nylon seining twine for the lashings in the Hindeloopen replica, and split black plastic crate-strapping material to simulate the baleen lashings in the Brielle kayak. Both kayak replicas were covered with nylon cloth instead of sealskin. I sealed the fabric with hand-tinted oil-based polyurethane.

Launching the Hindeloopen
The launching of the Hindeloopen replica was a profound experience—I returned a 300-year-old form to the water, and it reciprocated by taking me back 300 years in kayak history. It was like nothing I’d ever paddled before. It was tiny and seemingly very far below me because of the low deck. The fit was snug and comfortable and gave me excellent heeling control. Its expected instability proved to be very manageable and even comfortable in a short time. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the type to anyone, as the patience and perseverance I’d acquired from paddling other tippy kayaks has certainly given me an advantage in learning to paddle these two narrow replicas. The stability curves featured in typical Sea Kayaker kayak reviews would only barely appear in the positive range for this kayak, if at all.

The overall performance was very pleasing. It tracked very well, even in high winds, yet turned easily. These seemingly contradictory qualities may be explained by a combination of having a low freeboard, a moderate rocker, and a fairly distinct keel. It’s a very wet ride, however; it is inevitable that a kayak that makes you feel so much a part of the water would also more or less soak you.

The Hindeloopen kayak had a paddle associated with it, which was reconstructed for use with the kayak replica. The blades are quite parallel and they make a quick transition into the shaft, the bone-edging (hardwood on my replica) acting as a bit of a shoulder. The tips of the original paddle are whale bone, mortised to the wooden blades.

A powerful stroke in a 22″- wide kayak is phenomenally powerful in a 15 5/8″ kayak. The acceleration is astonishing, especially with the replica paddle; the pull of its narrow blades so finely tuned to the kayak’s resistance. Cruising speed is not only easily maintained but is substantial. Greenland kayak champion Maligiaq Padilla paddled this replica in 1999 and remarked very favorably as to how fast it was—the fastest he’d ever been in.

I took this replica to the surf for trials and found it to be very capable getting through breakers. Its low buoyancy made for an especially wet ride, and I found it best to be capsized when meeting the breaking 5′ waves. Its acceleration was very handy, and its maneuverability gave me little to worry about. Surfing back in, I found it very prone to submarining and pitchpoling—I would have preferred broaching. When it did broach and surf sideways, I found the kayak firmly attached to me, whereas in bigger kayaks, I’ve experienced the sensation of being pulled out as the larger hulls are yanked away from me. The Hindeloopen has such a small overall surface area, much of it fairly rounded, that it is quite at home in waves and wind.

Launching the Brielle
Having had such a favorable experience with the Hindeloopen replica, I became very interested in paddling the Brielle replica, which I launched a few months later. The Brielle’s hull shape is quite different from the Hindeloopen’s, although it performed very similarly. Its tracking was equally superb, except it seemed to turn more easily, giving a feeling of being on the water, rather than in it. This sensation is clearly because of its more squared-off cross sections. The Brielle’s box-like cross sections give feelings of initial stability, but it is delicate: This “box” is only 12 3/4″ wide at the bottom and therefore isn’t of significant help. It appears to have more initial stability than the Hindeloopen replica but is about equal with its secondary stability.

The Brielle replica proved to be very capable in wind and waves. It handled them well from all points, despite being a wet ride. It tracks easily in crosswinds and corrects very easily, especially with edged turns. The Hindeloopen replica seemed to track better in wind, most likely because of its lower profile. It doesn’t edge as well but corrects very easily.

Both replicas provided many valuable contrasting and complimentary insights on their designs. The original kayaks’ respective paddlers surely prized the agility and speed of their crafts. These forms combine the beautiful and critical mix of swiftness and grace in calm conditions and the ability to endure under the paddler’s control in rough conditions. They are easily controlled and don’t seem to work against me in rougher conditions. Dainty as these kayaks may seem at 25 pounds each, I am far from finding the limits of their seaworthiness.

Inspiration from the Past
That kayaks like these were used around coastal Greenland for subsistence—likely year-round—speaks convincingly of their high degree of development and capability. It is fortunate that these kayaks have been preserved in museums. Although many questions that remain about these kayaks will remain unanswered-even after study, documentation, replication and extensive sea trials-they can offer many insights about early design, evolution and construction. Whatever the appeal is, be it historical, aesthetic, technical or cultural, there is much to admire and appreciate in these kayaks.


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