BY CONOR MIHELL
James Roberts was a 23-year-old novice sea kayaker and aspiring outdoor leader when he first picked up a Greenland paddle, working for an outfitter on Lake Superior’s north shore in 2006. The dual British-Canadian citizen proved to be a sea kayaking whiz—especially rolling with narrow-bladed Greenland sticks. Fast-forward eight years and Roberts, now a high-ranking Paddle Canada instructor the co-owner of Ontario Sea Kayak Centre on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, is preparing to travel to Greenland with James Manke, a British Columbia-based friend and founder of the website, All Things Qajaq, to challenge his skills and learn more about traditional kayak culture in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships.
Roberts worked with Maine’s Turner Wilson to craft two slender, skin-on-frame “qajaqs” for the Greenland championships, which runs July 10-16 in Qaqortoq. After using them in the competition, Roberts and Manke will donate the qajaqs to the local community. With the boats already on their way north, Roberts and Manke are now fundraising for a key piece of their Greenland sojourn: Filming a documentary of their experiences to share Greenland kayaking culture with enthusiasts around the world.
We caught up with Roberts, 31, and Manke, 37 (pictured below), in Victoria, B.C., where they are instructing at the Pacific Paddling Symposium.
CanoeKayak.com: When did you first get the desire to compete in the Greenland National Kayak Championships?
James Manke: I had the desire to go to Greenland very early after starting to learn a few Greenland rolls. I was first inspired by Greenland-style kayaking when I met Joe O’Blenis on his record-breaking circumnavigation of Vancouver Island using a Greenland paddle. Wanting to go went from a dream for the future to a chance to be a reality on meeting James Roberts at Ontario Greenland Camp. A month later we traveled down to Delmarva in Delaware where we were further inspired to make it a reality by encouragement from people like Dubside and Helen Wilson. We share a passion for these skills and the logical next step in improving is going and learning from the people who do it best.
How do you train for the competition? Is it more difficult for “outsiders” like yourselves?
James Roberts: Earlier in the spring, as soon as the ice came off the river where I practice, I tried to get out and roll in the cold water as much as I could. I know James Manke did the same out in Victoria. The part of this event that really got us interested in going was the rolling but we intend on taking part in all events. Greenland rope gymnastics are a real challenge. There is also harpoon-throwing, team rolling and racing. Both of us have been working on trying to get some of the harder rolls like reverse to forward finishing fist rolls or the sculling rolls. Stretching is something that we have been trying to keep on top of. Staying loose and flexible is really important when rolling in a skin-on-frame.
Manke: There are definite challenges for outsiders. It’s hard to stay conditioned for cold-water immersion. Each roller gets 30 minutes to complete as many rolls as they can. There is little time to warm up in between the rolls. This can be one of the biggest challenges international competitors to face.
Do you think you have a chance to do well?
Roberts: For the Greenlandic people this event is about communities gathering together and passing down traditional skills to the youth. We are both practicing to do our best, but more so this trip is about learning from the Greenlandic people about these skills. We are going with no agenda other than personal development, to experience from this culture first hand and to share what we learn with others.
Tell us about the kayaks you made. Where did you get the designs?
Roberts: There are two different qajaq designs that we ended up making to send to Greenland. One is a replica of a qajaq that came in 1928 from Nanortalik, a town close to this year’s competition in Qaqortaq. I will be using this qajaq because the first time I rolled it, it opened up some rolls that were eluding me! It is also 19.5-feet-long so it will hopefully be fast. James Manke is using a qajaq designed by Turner Wilson of Kayakways, which is based on many years of building rolling qajaqs. Both boats conform to the requirements for use in the competition.
Why do you want to make a film while you’re there?
Manke: The reason we wanted to make a film while we are in Greenland is because we are really inspired by these traditional skills and want to share them with as many people as we can. We believe that when people see how amazing this culture is it will inspire them to want to learn about it.
Roberts: As kayaking instructors we love teaching people to roll and seeing them get totally hooked on wanting to learn more. I find learning these skills can help enhance students’ personal paddling development in strokes and rolling even if they usually use a Euro blade. The rolling list is extremely challenging and working on these skills makes you have to really dial in your body dynamics and blade awareness. It is a good way to extend the sport of sea kayaking and build confidence on the water.
Is this a one-time thing or do you anticipate going back in the future?
Roberts: We view this as a once in a lifetime experience and although we would love to go every year the expense would make that impossible. We really hope to get to be involved with helping and coaching other people who decide to go in the future.
Read Mark Jenkins report from the Greenland National Kayaking Championships and profile of superstar paddler Maligiaq Padilla: The Revivalist.