History & Purpose...
In order to understand the reasoning for the design features of narrow blades it is important to realise the differences in requirements between modern recreational sea kayaking ( European River Paddles ) and the Inuit use of kayaks as hunting tools. Inuit paddles are the result of a continuous pressure over more than a millennium to evolve a tool most suited to long duration and bad weather paddling. Sea worthiness and survival were the paramount needs but speed was also important too, in hunting chases. Paddling each day for several days or weeks and for long distances created the need for an energy efficient design and one that would be less tiring on the muscles as well as being predictable in response when used in an emergency. These aims are achieved with a long narrow blade. Only in recent years has the sea worthiness of Greenland designs begun to be appreciated by the wider kayaking public particularly in Canada & the U.S.A.
In contrast modern (European) paddles evolved from English Victorian origins as wide blades at the ends of the loom or shaft used on inland waters and especially rivers. At first the blades were in the same plane, an orientation known as ‘unfeathered’. Later, in the early decades of the twentieth century, they became set at an angle to each other i.e. ‘feathered’, to give an advantage when racing, as the blade in the air is presented edge on to forward progress and any headwind. Short duration racing and recreational touring constituted the modern use of kayaks. Only in racing and competition was there a pressure to evolve more efficient designs of paddle to produce more power efficiency from each stroke and in recent years the wing paddle is one design that has emerged to meet this need (Foster 1996).
There are a significant number of old Inuit paddles in museums around the world that exhibit a variety of blade shapes and lengths and many have been surveyed e.g. Brand 1984 & Ferris 2000. At first it was assumed by Europeans that the Inuit made long, thin–bladed paddles because of the shape of wood available i.e. driftwood logs. It is technically more difficult to make a wide blade from a single piece of wood but the Inuit had that capability and in a few cases made wide-blade paddles e.g. North Alaska Nunamiut kayak & Copper Eskimo kayak, (Zimmerly 1984). The majority of Inuit paddles are also made with both blades in the same plane while modern recreational paddles are ‘feathered’ and have one blade set at between 60° and 90° to the other.
- from: Sea Blades: Fashion or Function? (2001) © Peter Lamont, Isle of Luing, Scotland.