The forward crunch stroke
If I had a dollar for every time a traditional paddler has come stick in hand asking for help after being show the “right way” to paddle by a club instructor, I could buy a decent bottle of single malt at least once a season for sure. Now don’t get me wrong, these instructors are doing a grand job. They teach people how to paddle their kayaks efficiently, with their high foredecks, foot pegs, big keyhole cockpits and euro style paddle blades. What gets my goat, is why the instructors would think the same technique applies when you are in a low volume kayak using a skinny stick?
Have you ever watched a video of a really efficient paddler? Check out the video below, watch closely the paddler’s knees, then note their hips. How far to you think their knees rise and fall with each stroke?
This video shows is a beautiful example of how modern kayaks with wing blades can be powered efficiently. I would like to propose though that there are very good reasons why this is not the way to paddle a Greenland kayak efficiently. Did you estimate an answer to my earlier question? I think there is roughly a 6″ or 150mm rise and fall of the paddler’s knees. Imagine now a low volume qajaq, custom made for the paddler with a masik (beam at the front of the cockpit) and ajaaq seeqqortafik (beam just behind the knees) that is as low as possible yet still allows the paddler to enter the qajaq. When I slide into the latest qajaq I built (the Shrike-Skin) there is less than half an inch 15mm between my thighs and the beams. Imagine this stroke without the ability to lift and lower your thighs. The static foot pegs in a modern kayak combined with raising the knee causes the paddler’s pelvis to rotate and this is the initiation of the torso rotation that has become the mantra of many paddling instructors.
Recently I became aware of instructors getting people to paddle sea kayaks with their legs in a straight line (just like in a K1) by removing them from the constrains of any thigh brace in order to get a more efficient rise and fall to exaggerate further the rotation they could achieve. Good luck to them when they find themselves needing to roll from this position, in fact this position almost guarantees a wet exit.
In many (I accept however not all) traditionally built and fitted Greenland qajaq the deck beams are low, this was an effect of form following function. Keeping a low profile when viewed from the front was important to minimize the possibility of detection as the hunter approached the prey. Low deck beams prevent knee lifting, combine this with the absence of foot pegs or bracing in the traditional qajaqs and suddenly the ability to rotate the pelvis basically vanishes.
Traditionally a qajaq is made with a deck beam located where the paddler’s big toe is positioned, this does provide a method of ensuring your position is consistent but it does not provide a brace the way modern foot pegs resting on the ball of the foot do. Also the deck beam is not strengthened so it would probably break if the paddler’s power was transferred to the kayak through it.
Consider what is behind the paddler, in the traditional qajaq there is no back band or seat shaped to fit the paddlers rump, either a board was placed on the ribs or even just an animal pelt for comfort. In the modern kayak a lower back support and a shaped seat allow for the transfer of power both from the feet to the pegs and from the back and hips to the seat. Compare this with the traditional qajaq where the transfer of force comes predominantly through the well-fitting thigh beam.
Given the tremendously different fits of the modern kayak compared to the traditional qajaq it should thus come as no surprise that different method have evolved to propel the vessels. It is worth noting however that despite the methods being different the predominant muscles remain the same. The large muscle groups of the abdominals and trapezoids are put to good use in both scenarios. I will not focus on the wing or euro-blade stroke, there are many excellent examples on line one can read about that approach (the video above is just one such example), I will however focus on the crunch stroke which is still used today by paddlers of Greenland qajaq.
Before I proceed there is one important question to address; how should one use a Greenland paddle in a modern kayak that does not fit the paddler like a Greenland qajaq? There are a couple of things to consider, firstly, the canting of the blade is independent of the qajaq/kayak fit and feel, and can be practiced in any shape kayak when used with a Greenland paddle. Secondly there is nothing in the crunch style stroke that precludes you from using it in a larger fitting kayak, however it may well be easier for people with certain musculature to use a more modern stroke, especially with the ability to use considerable leg strength to assist with the stroke. It is worth noting that modifications to a modern stroke are needed to ensure that sufficient length of the Greenland paddle is immersed rapidly during the catch phase due to the longer length of the paddle that needs to be underwater to obtain a similar surface area to a euro-blade, and canting may be necessary to prevent the characteristic flutter than some people experience using a Greenland paddle especially during rapid acceleration. The modern stroke exits very differently and so the benefit of the powerful upstroke is lost when using this approach.
The crunch stroke
I will try and keep the description as simple as possible and provide a link to a well written detailed description at the end of this post. The power phase of the ab crunch stroke is derived by pushing the paddle down and across the qajaq with your upper hand while following through with that shoulder. The shoulder follow through is critical as it is this shoulder’s motion that engages the abs to crunch diagonally. The upper hand starts at just below shoulder height and ends substantially lower and crosses the center line or close to it. The lowering of the hand and the motion sideways allows the diagonal crunch engagement of the abdominal muscles that powers the stroke using these large muscle groups.
The down and diagonal motion of the hands at the start or catch phase of the stroke ensures a rapid and deep entry of the blade. The Greenland paddle needs to be immersed to a greater depth than a euro-blade due to the long narrow profile.
This video shows an exaggeration of the motion to try and emphasize the crunch action:
The blade exits the water considerably later than with other stroke styles, this is partly because the power phase causes the paddle angle to lower as the upper hand drops diagonally in front of the paddler. With this low angle to the water the blade now exits with a powerful upstroke, and unlike many strokes considerable power and efficiency can be gained during the exit phase. Greg Stamer documents an exercise to demonstrate the effectiveness of the exit phase in the document linked to below.
I mentioned earlier that the thigh beam was vital for the transference of power. Unlike in other strokes it is actually the opposite leg that assists the stroke. If you are taking a stroke on the right side of the qajaq, your left knee lifts hard against the thigh beam, and it is against this beam’s resistance that your abdominal muscles pull and crunch. Newtonian physics requires an equal and opposite action and reaction, the abdominal crunch is performed against the resistance provided by the opposite thigh against the deck beam beam and through this contact the power moves the qajaq forward against the water resistance of the blade. The action of applying the force against the beam with the opposite thigh does allow for an imperceptible amount of pelvis rotation which helps power the stroke.
The only way to learn the stroke and develop it efficiently is to practice it. Video yourself with a bow mounted camera and see what your arms and torso are doing. You will find that you will need to develop your muscles in ways you probably have not previously exercised to become fluid and efficient , so expect to tire quickly at first. Nothing beats ones-on-one guidance so search out a traditional paddling mentor and see if they can offer you ab crunch stroke mentoring, it brings a whole new dimension to paddling when you can power your custom fitting qajaq with an efficient stroke like the Inuit.
I touched on blade angle canting in Episode 2 of Qajaq Q&A, Greg Stamer addresses this in some detail in his document linked below. Please do read it, digest it, and then get afloat and try it. You haven’t truly “qajaq’ed” until you have tried the canted crunch stroke!
It is important to remember that there are many strokes used with every type of paddle and kayak. The Ab Crunch Stroke is a powerful sprinting stroke used with well fitted a Greenland qajaq over short distances to create a lot of power and speed. In future articles I will touch on strokes more relevant for touring, and hunting strokes where stealth is key.