TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic July 06, 2012 - 10:08 am

Taissumani, July 6

Using the Greenland Kayak


Last week I wrote about an early description of a kayak, published in French in 1658 and translated into English eight years later, written, oddly enough, by a missionary in the Caribbean, Charles de Rochefort. He based his information on the account of a whaling voyage to Davis Strait by a Dutch captain, Nicholas Tunes, in 1656.

After describing the physical appearance of a kayak — a very early description of a Greenland kayak — de Rochefort went on to describe the kayak-jacket worn by a Greenland kayaker:

“When they intend to go to sea, they put over their other clothes a certain short coat, which is kept only for that purpose. This sea-coat consists of several skins having the hair taken off, which are well dressed and fit together, that a man would think it to be all of a piece. It reaches from the crown of the head to the navel. It is rubbed over with a blackish gum which is not dissolved in the water, and keeps it from passing through. The Capuchon, or part of it which comes over the head, comes so close under the neck and upon the forehead, that it leaves nothing but the face open. The sleeves are tied at the wrists, and the lower part of the coat is fastened to the ledge, about the hole of the vessel, with so much care and industry, that the body thus covered is always dry in the midst of the waves, which with all their tossing can wet only the face and the hands.”

Then he described how they used the vessel itself:

“Though they have neither sail, not mast, nor rudder, nor compass, nor anchor, nor any thing of all those conveniences which are requisite to make out ships fit for the sea; yet will they undertake long voyages with these small vessels, upon which they seem to be sewn. They have an experienced knowledge of the stars, and need no other guide in the night time.

“The oars they use are broad at both ends like a Chirurgeon’s palet [Chirurgeon is an archaic word for surgeon, palet a word for a flat-bladed instrument], and that they may the more easily make their way through the waves, and last the longer, they tip them with a white bone which covers the edges of the wood; which ornament they fasten with pins of horn, which they use instead of nails. The middle of these oars in beautified with a bone or precious horn, as well as the ends, and by that place they hold them, that they may not flip out of their hands.

“They handle these double oars with such dexterity and nimbleness, that these small vessels will out-run ships that have all the advantages of sails, wind and tide. They are so confident in them, and so versed in the guiding of them, that they shew a thousand tricks in them for the divertissement of the beholders. Nay, sometimes they will raise such waves, that the water will be all foamy, as if there had been a great tempest, and then they seem rather like sea-monsters courting one another than men. And to make it appear they fear not dangers, and that they hold a good correspondence with that element which feeds them, they shew several tricks, diving and rolling themselves in the sea three or four times together, so that they may be taken for perfect Amphibia.

“When they intend to take voyages longer than ordinary, or are afraid to be driven far into the sea by some tempest, they take with them in the hollow place of their vessel a bladder full of fair water to quench their thirst, and fish dried in the sun or frost to eat instead of fresh meat. But they are seldom reduced to the necessity of using such provisions, for they have certain darts like little lances, which are fastened to their boats. These they do dexterously cast at the fish they meet with, that they are very seldom destitute of these refreshments.

“They need no fire to dress their meat, for on the land, as well as at sea, they are wont to eat it raw. They also carry along with them the teeth of certain great fishes” — here de Rochefort follows the whalers’ practice of referring to whales as fish — “or pieces of sharp bones, which serve them for knives to dress and cut the fish they take. Besides, another advantage of these vessels is, that there can happen no mutiny in them, since one and the same person is master, mariner, purser and pilot of it, who may stop it when he pleases, or let go with the wind and water, when he would take the rest necessary to retrieve his spent forces. In this case he fastens his oar to certain straps of hart-skin designed for that purpose, which are fastened to the boat, or else he ties it to a buckle which hangs before on his coat.”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).