Kayak Angst



Ken Taylor

cameron@twinoaks.org                                                                                                       November 4, 2017

revised December 22, 2017

“A tupilaq frightening a man to death in his kayak”

(Rasmussen/Worster 1921, opp page 96)

When I was in Greenland in 1959 I met three men who could not kayak. They were young enough, they were strong enough, but they had “kayak angst.” Also known as “kayak dizziness,” “kayak fear,” “kayak phobia,” an attack can be a truly life-threatening experience. The kayaker believes that he is about to capsize, or sink, can become paralyzed with fear and may have one or another of several terrifying hallucinations.

One of these three men lived at Uummannatsiaq, the village Bent Jensen and I visited while I was staying with him at Ikerasak. It was Bent, speaking of this man, who first told me about kayak angst. At Illorsuit, one of the two men there who also had kayak angst offered to sell me his kayak since he had, quite recently, had to stop using it.

My visit to Illorsuit had been arranged by Dr. Harald I. Drever of St. Andrews University. As a geologist, he had himself already been there four times and was a great admirer of the skills of the village kayakers. He sent me there to carry out a general study of the villagers’ seal hunting by kayak.  Unfortunately my stay was for only three months and I didn’t learn anything more about kayak angst. 

In 1970 Dr. Zachary Gussow made the suggestion that, for some kayak hunters, sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst. And this idea, both in a few published works and on the internet, has for many years been the prevailing interpretation. My purpose in this article is to show, using the information given in the 60 cases histories published by Dr. Alfred Bertelsen in 1905, that sensory deprivation cannot have been the cause of the problem. I shall also confirm Bertelsen’s original conclusion that kayak angst was a kind of phobia.

Alfred Bertelsen’s writing on Kayak Angst

In 1963, when I was an anthropology student in Wisconsin, it turned out that my academic adviser Dr. William S. Laughlin also had an interest in kayak angst. He and I wrote a paper on the subject in which we commented on the fact that it had never been reported from other parts of the Arctic/Sub-arctic, but only from Greenland. We suggested that there might be a genetic predisposition to the problem, such that it occurred only among the Inuit of Greenland (Taylor and Laughlin 1963 and 1991). While preparing that paper, I read Bertelsen’s 1905 publication “Neuro-patologiske Meddelelser fra Grønland” and his later 1940 publication in which he essentially repeats his earlier conclusions. He worked both as a district medical officer and in more senior positions on the West Greenland coast from the early 1900s to 1927. It was in 1902-1903 that he recorded the 60 case histories of men afflicted by kayak angst included in his 1905 publication  —  5 of them from the Uummannaq district where Illorsuit is located.

A few other people had already written about kayak angst. Bertelsen tells us that in 1864 a Dr. Carl Lange had attributed it to excessive enjoyment of coffee. In 1882 tobacco was given as the cause by Dr. L. C. von Haven. In 1883, Dr. M. Hastrup suggested it might be a form of epilepsy and then, in 1886, wrote that he believed that it had existed before the Greenlanders had any access to coffee or tobacco. Dr. G. Meldorf, in 1900, agreed with von Haven that tobacco might be the cause. Meldorf, it turns out, was the first person to inquire into the incidence of the ailment: he found that it was reported by at least 10% of the men over 18 years of age of the Qaqortoq district [then Juliannehaab] in southwest Greenland.

Bertelsen notes that Dr. Knud Pontoppidan, in his “Psychiatriake forelaesninger og studies [Psychiatric lessons and studies]” of 1893, had suggested that kayak angst might be a form of agoraphobia. This is interesting as Bertelsen describes how, when he was invited in 1902 to join the Danish Literary Greenland Expedition, Dr. Pontoppidan (who had always claimed that the Danes had a special obligation to study kayak angst as a national affliction of the Greenlanders) made a point of encouraging him to give his attention to the matter. Bertelsen says that it was in response to this encouragement that he collected the 60 case histories that are in his 1905 report.

Bertelsen’s data on kayak angst

The information in Bertelsen’s case histories [here I am using the translation helpfully provided by Gussow (1970)] has to do with the personal backgrounds of the 60 kayak angst victims who had sought him out, recent events in their lives, whether or not the men had relatives who also suffered from the ailment, any past or recent stress or alarms they had experienced. There is information on the weather and other conditions on the days when they experienced their attacks of the angst, if they were alone or with other kayakers, were they close to land or far out at sea, etc., etc. Bertelsen himself seems to have wondered if any of these factors might explain the occurrence of kayak angst. He reports, however, that while the onset often occurred when the kayaker was alone at sea, a number of cases were known where it happened in the company of others. It could occur under various water and weather conditions  —  in calm and rough water, on foggy and sunny days, with the sun low and in the man’s eyes or high and well out of his field of vision. But no single factor (or cluster of factors) consistently preceded the attacks, and could be considered the “cause” of the experience. No doubt it would make more sense to see these factors, or certain of these factors, as possible “triggers” of an attack.

The survey he carried out in 1903-1904 (for which he followed Meldorf’s example of using questionnaires) gave him some limited information on 70 kayakers, in addition to the 60 of his earlier study. For this total number of 130 men, he gave the following information on the percentages of kayakers suffering from kayak angst:

Upernavik district                                                                15%

Uummannaq district                                                           12%

Ilulissat and Qasigiannguit districts                             12%

Qerqertarssuaq and Aasiaat districts                           13%

and, from Meldorf, for the

Qaqortoq district                                                                  10%

There could be no doubt, then, that for the Greenland Inuit it was a serious problem. Speaking of the total of 130 kayakers (all in northwest Greenland) Bertelsen reported that after 12 years of experiencing the problem 18% of the victims had to give up kayaking altogether; after 7 years, 51% could continue but only if in the company of others; and after 6 years, 31% could still kayak alone “but with lessened confidence [for example, fishing but not hunting].” He also calculated from Meldorf’s data that the equivalent figures for the Qaqortoq district were: 24%; 39%; and 37%.

John Pedersen of Ilulissat says, in a comment on an earlier draft of this article, “many of [the victims of kayak angst] abandon the community and become ‘qivitoq‘ and live for themselves [in the wilderness]. Others commit suicide.”

Sensory Deprivation in Gussow’s interpretation

First, I need to point out that Gussow is not talking about all the 60 men of Bertelsen’s case histories. For some reason this has not been noticed by the several people who have commented on, or simply cite, his 1970 article. This is strange because Gussow states quite clearly that he is talking about what he terms kayak angst “Type II.” What he calls “Type I” angst, “seems to be a regular accompaniment of hunting, common to a majority of hunters, and perhaps to all, at one time or another, [occurring] when the hunter finds himself in an immediate and realistically dangerous situation” (page 229). His “Type II,” on the other hand, which he considers to result from sensory deprivation, he presents as affecting just 20 of these 60 kayakers.

He speaks of nine circumstances which he believes may have led to sensory deprivation being experienced by these 20 men. These are: 1) being alone; 2) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 3) being in a visually “fixed” or “staring” position; 4) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 5) being in monotonously rolling ground swells; 6) being on “glistening” seas; 7) a suggestion of “bottomlessness;” 8) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; 9) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal.

“Being alone” is the condition mentioned by the greatest number of the 60 kayakers. A total of 37 men spoke of this. But Gussow also gives “being alone” as a condition for his “Type I” kayak angst and only 14 of these 37 kayakers are on his list of the 20 men who had “Type II.” “Being in a visually ‘fixed’ of ‘staring’ position” is really just an aspect of the “sitting quietly or paddling slowly” condition and is not mentioned explicitly by any of the 60 men. “Being on ‘glistening’ seas” is mentioned by only one man, not on Gussow’s list of 20. Experiencing a suggestion of “bottomlessness” is also mentioned only once, by a man on the list of 20.

Removing these four leaves us with a list of five conditions we can consider as possibly having led to experiences of sensory deprivation: 1) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 2) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 3) in monotonously rolling ground swell; 4) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; and 5) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal. So, in which of the 20 cases did these conditions apply? There is only one case (# 60) in which all five conditions apply. In one case (# 31) none of the conditions apply. And here we have a problem in examining Gussow’s proposal. At no point does he say which, or how many, of these conditions need apply for the kayaker to have experienced sensory deprivation.

Looking at the five conditions, one by one  —  for all of Bertelsen’s 60 cases  —  we have the following.

1) “Sitting quietly or paddling slowly” is mentioned by 23 men, 9 of them on Gussow’s list of 20.

2) Being on smooth “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas is mentioned by 30 men, 10 of them on his list of 20.

3) Being in monotonously rolling ground swells is mentioned by 17 men, 9 of them on his list of 20.

4) The sun being in the kayaker’s eyes is mentioned by 8 men, 3 of them on his list of 20.

5) Nothing in view to establish the horizontal. This is mentioned by 16 men, 5 of them on his list of 20.

From Bertelsen’s data, then, we see that all of the five conditions Gussow speaks of as having led to sensory deprivation were experienced “across the board,” not only by men on his list of 20 but also by a high number (32) of the other 40 men of the case histories. Gussow’s suggestion that (unlike the other 40) these 20 men experienced kayak angst because of sensory deprivation is not at all confirmed by the data in Bertelsen’s 60 case histories.

In fact, it seems that Gussow selected his group of 20 simply from the similarity he saw between their hallucinatory experiences while undergoing an attack of kayak angst and observations from laboratory experiments on sensory deprivation. “A regularly occurring perceptual distortion is that [a man’s] kayak is shrinking in size, becoming narrower or strangely small,” and: “In the laboratory it has been repeatedly noted that pronounced experiences of body-size changes occur during sensory and perceptual isolating experiments” (page 231).

Kayak angst as a phobia

After detailed discussion of the material in the 60 case histories and in other authors, Bertelsen concluded that the affliction was a phobia; that it was a pathological fear. He goes on to say: “something quite similar … is well known from … material on phobias [he mentions agoraphobia and more specifically topophobia, which is defined as “the fear of certain places or situations”] and I have no doubt that it would be justified here to [name] a particular kind of phobia  for which I would recommend the name Laitmatophobia.” This suggestion of a new label for the affliction, however, has never been adopted.

From  medical websites on the internet I found the following, “Agoraphobia: an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives the environment to be unsafe … The cause of agoraphobia is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The condition often runs in families, …” And Bertelsen says, “in [a number of cases] the affliction is seen to be a family illness.” Of his 60 cases, in 45 of these the kayaker had family members who also had kayak angst.

Panic attacks

I also found that “people with phobias often have panic attacks … And panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a panic attack can cause physical symptoms …” This concept of “panic attack,” of course, was not available to Bertelsen back at the beginning of last century.  Apparently it was adopted and added to the list of Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC) in 1975, and then later adopted by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980.

Kayak hunting, of course, could be extremely dangerous. The risks presented by the waves of an iceberg breaking up or turning over to a new position of stability, the attack of a threatened or wounded sea mammal, accidental entanglement in the harpoon line, the wild seas of storm conditions  —  the hunters had to live with and cope with a constant awareness, and completely rational fear, of these possibilities.

What the 60 men of Bertelsen’s case histories describe, however, indicates that kayak angst had to do with what we would call an irrational fear. In 1995 Dr. Klaus G. Hansen published an article on the traditional belief of the Greenland Inuit that the (to us) supernatural creatures called tupilaq caused the attacks of kayak angst. And, as Hansen tells us, Kleinschmidt’s 1871 dictionary definition of tupilaq is: “A monster, which people thought, that somebody could put together of certain bones and other things, brought to life by a spell and sent to overturn and kill a particular kayaker …” (Hansen, page 59). A tupilaq could look like a seal, a dog, some other animal, even be invisible. In one kind of attack, in the form of a seal, it would let the hunter harpoon it but then make it impossible for the hunter to release the hunting float from the kayak, capsize the kayak and drown its victim (Petersen 1964, Rasmussen 1938).

Hansen goes on to say: “without wanting to do so [the victim] has created an environment for envy or jealousy” … [for example by being an especially successful hunter or by winning the love of a woman desired by another man]. He quotes from Bertelsen’s case history #12: “It is known that the patient in 1887 was attacked by an opponent suitor who tried to murder him with [a] harpoon from behind.” Later he also says “all Greenlanders [know] the risk of being [the] object of revenge …” (pages 66 and 67). And this revenge, in some cases, would have been attempted by creating a tupilaq and sending it to attack the victim.

We need to remember that, back in 1902-1903, when the 60 kayakers of his case histories were interviewed by Bertelsen, they will have been very aware that they were speaking to a trained medical doctor from Denmark. Until as late as 1953 Greenland was still a colony of Denmark. It seems most unlikely that his patients would have readily talked with Bertelsen about such beings as tupilaq which they surely knew he would consider superstition-based and purely imaginary. Nevertheless, 13 of the 60 men spoke of “feeling threatened by something they could not explain” which I read as having been the oblique way in which a few of them managed to refer to the dangers of attack by a tupilaq. As I’ve said above, in the 20 cases focused on by Gussow the men all describe what he calls “A regularly occurring perceptual distortion [in which a man’s] kayak is shrinking in size, becoming narrower of strangely small …” Four of these men were among the 13 who referred to tupilaq attack, which leaves us with 29 men who had irrational experiences in one or other of those two ways.

Another 28 men reported other experiences and sensations that were also what I believe we would consider entirely irrational  —  for example: Case # 2 where the kayaker described his kayak “becoming heavier and sinking deeper;” Case # 9: “he felt his kayak getting heavy and water getting in;” Case # 13: “he couldn’t raise the paddle which seemed extremely heavy … the kayak became too heavy to paddle;” Case # 17: “as if soot rained down around him;” and Case # 47: “he felt his kayak sinking bow first into the depths.”

In one way or another, then, 57 of the 60 kayakers spoke of something irrational, of experiences that we cannot attribute to any rational fear of danger.  

From the websites I’ve mentioned I also compiled a list of 18 common signs of panic attack.  Twelve of these are mentioned by Bertelsen’s patients, with these eight being the signs most often described:

1. the attack is brief;

2, fear of death (by capsize or sinking);

3. trembling;

4. sweating;

5. loss of control;

6. headache; 

7. palpitations; and

8. hot flushes or chills.

Apparently, anyone evincing four or more of these signs can be taken as having a panic attack. And four or more of these eight signs are mentioned in 43 of the case histories. In one case all eight are mentioned.

The information in the 60 case histories strongly suggests that an experience of kayak angst was that of having a panic attack.


I have shown that Gussow’s suggestion that sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst for 20 of Bertelsen’s patients is not at all borne out by the data in the 60 case histories.

Re-examining Bertelsen’s data in light of the concept of panic attack confirms his original interpretation of kayak angst as a kind of phobia.

References cited

Bertelsen, Alfred

1905       Neuro-patologiske meddelelser fra Grønland. Bibliotek for Laeger, rk 8, bd 6: 109-135, 280-335. Copenhagen

1940       Grønlandsk medicinsk Statistik og Nosografi. Meddelelser om Grønland, bd 117(3). Copenhagen

Gussow, Zachary

1970       Some responses of West Greenland Eskimos to a naturalistic situation of perceptual deprivation. Inter-Nord, International Journal of Arctic and Nordic Studies, vol 11:227-62. Paris

Hansen, Klaus Georg

1995       Kayak Dizziness. Historical Reflections about a Greenlandic Predicament. Folk, vol 37: 51-74. Copenhagen

Pedersen, John

2017     Re Kayak Angst (11/29/17). QajaqUSA, Greenland Kayaking Forum

Petersen, Robert

1964     The Greenland Tupilak. Folk, vol 6, 2:73-101. Copenhagen

Pontoppidan, Knud

1892       Psykiatriske Forelaesninger og Studier. Th. Lind. Copenhagen

Rasmussen, Knud

1938     (Posthumous Notes On) The Life and Doings of the East Greenlanders in Olden Times. Ostermann, H. (ed) Meddelelser om Grønland, Bd 109, 1. Copenhagen

Taylor, Kenneth I. and Laughlin, William S.

1963     Sub-arctic kayak commitment and “kayak fear.” Paper presented by Taylor. American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. San Francisco

and published in:

Arima, Eugene Y. (ed.)

1991       Contributions to Kayak Studies: 79-91. Canadian Ethnology Service, Mercury Series, Paper 122. Canadian Museum of Civilization 

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Kayak Rolling at Illorsuit

Kayak Rolling at Illorsuit

Chapter Eleven

Ken Taylor / Cameron


March 18, 2015 and March 28, 2015 for additional information on two of the rolls listed by Crantz

Nov 7, 2016 for new title


Jonas Malakiasen doing a dance on the beach before he inaugurates my new “tuilik.

Immediately after the race was over we moved on to the rolling  —  only Enoch, Johan and Hendrik, as it was such a cold day.  A fine display from Enoch, I filmed it all [with the defective camera, so all for nothing] and he carefully did them one by one for this.  Johan was not on form and eventually wrenched the “tuilik from the coaming of the kayak and got soaked.  Hendrik very good at the sculling braces and also managed the elbow stroke for the first time in his life!

Enoch took my tent as first prize; Hendrik a toy submarine for his son as second; and Johan a primus stove for his grandson Bintsi.  He was terribly delighted with this, effusively grateful.  A day or two later, at Sakeus’ where the trophy which Drever had given to the village was for safekeeping, Enoch watched as I carefully engraved “Enoch Nielsen 1959” on the front of the trophy.  He was immensely proud, spoke of how his son would show it to his friends at school!

Maybe because I already had the still photos taken on that earlier occasion (September 23) I didn’t take any photos on the day of the race.  So all the photos shown here are from that earlier day.  But first a word about kayak rolling in general.


Kayak hunting, in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, has always been a dangerous thing to do.  From the waves created by an iceberg breaking up or turning over to a new position of stability, from the risks of attack by a threatened or wounded sea mammal, from accidental entanglement in the harpoon line, from the wild seas of storm conditions, there has always been the possibility of a kayaker being capsized.  Since getting out of the kayak to save yourself, if you were alone, was never an option due to the extreme coldness of the water, the Inuit of Greenland and their relatives all the way across the Arctic and down to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, had developed a number of ways to bring themselves back upright after a capsize.  “Kayak rolling,” as we call it, has been observed and commented on from the earliest times of outsider contact with the Inuit of Greenland.  

Before I left for Greenland, in 1959, I had read one of the earliest accounts for West Greenland  — David Crantz’ 1767 description.  In this he says, “I have observed ten different exercises; there are probably several others which have escaped my notice.”

First he describes what we nowadays call side and chest sculling braces in which you catch the kayak when only halfway over and return it to the vertical by sculling the paddle blade back and forth.  Next, eight rolls using the paddle to recover from a full capsize.  These are: (1) recovering with “a swing of the pautik [paddle] on either side,” what we nowadays call the standard sweep roll; (2) with one end of the paddle under one or more of the fore deck thongs and “a quick motion of the other end;”

[Greg Stamer has posted  —  “I have seen (and performed) Masikkut aalatsineq (forward leaning scull with the paddle on the fore deck) performed with one end of the paddle slid under the fore deck lines.  I have seen a number of Greeenlanders perform this roll.” (qajaqusa.org, Greenland Kayaking Forum, 3/23/2015]

(3) “they take hold of one end of the pautik with their mouths, moving the other with their hand;”

[Greg Stamer has posted  —  “Maligiaq told me of rolling with one end of the paddle held in your teeth as a modification to the “armpit roll”, I did try and succeed at this roll, but it’s painful and hard on both your teeth and paddle.” (qajaqusa.org, Greenland Kayaking Forum, 3/23/2015]

(4) with the paddle held “across the nape of the neck;” (5) with the paddle held “behind the back;” (6) with the paddle held over the shoulder; (7) with the paddle held under the bottom of the kayak with both hands; and (8) by leaving the paddle on the surface of the water and then pulling down on it once capsized.  Then, three rolls without the paddle: (1) using the throwing stick; (2) or a knife; (3) “or even the palm of the hand …”  Of this last he remarks that it “rarely succeeds.”  So, though he is usually cited (quoted) as speaking of ten ways of rolling, in fact he lists the two sculling brace maneuvers and twelve ways of rolling (The History of Greenland, English language edition, 1820, pages 140-141).  

Most of these maneuvers are well enough known nowadays and are included in the 35 performed at the annual competitions of the  Greenland Inuit kayaking association Qaannat Kattuffiat [QK].

Three of the paddle rolls he describes, however, are not performed at the QK competitions  —  the one with the end of the paddle under the deck thong(s), though something very similar was known in East Greenland;  the one with one end of the paddle held in your mouth, which I had not seen mentioned anywhere else; and the one where you pull down on the paddle as it floats on the surface of the water, though this one is known nowadays, by non-Inuit recreational kayakers, as the “butterfly roll.”

I had also read Fridtjof Nansen’s “The First Crossing of Greenland” (1890) and “Eskimo Life” (1893).  In these books he describes how, after their successful crossing of the Greenland ice cap, from east to west, Nansen and his five companions spent almost seven months living among the Inuit in the Nuuk district of West Greenland.  He and four of his group became fascinated by the local people’s kayaks and soon acquired and learned to use kayaks of their own.  While it seems that none of them ever learned to roll their kayaks, he did give some account of the rolling skills of the Inuit they lived among  —

“You cannot rank as an expert kaiak-man until you have mastered the art of righting yourself after capsizing.  …   A thorough kaiak-man can also right himself without an oar by help of his throwing stick, or even without it, by means of one arm.  The height of accomplishment is reached when he does not even need to use the flat of his hand, but can clench it; and to show that he really does so, I have seen a man take a stone in his clenched hand before capsizing, and come up with it still in his grasp” (1893, pages 52-4).

Two other valuable sources of information were Spencer Chapman’s “Northern Lights” (1934a) and his “Watkins’ Last Expedition” (1934b). These are his reports on the two expeditions to East Greenland led by Gino Watkins in 1930-31 and 1932-33.  His accounts were especially interesting to me as Watkins, Chapman and others learned to kayak and to roll their kayaks.  

Chapman reports that “only about one in four of the hunters [could kayak roll] … the more skillful … had a great many ‘trick’ rolls.  …  and about half a dozen in the whole Angmagssalik district  —  have learned to roll … with the hand alone.”  Seven of the expedition members learned to roll but Watkins was the only one who could do so [at that time] with the throwing stick or with the hand alone (1934a, pages 204-205).

When he returned to Greenland on the second of these expeditions, Chapman continued his kayaking and added to his rolling skills: “[One day] I managed to roll in eight different ways with the paddle, then for the first time I came up with my hand alone” (1934b, page 303).

Tragically, it was on this second expedition that Watkins, while out alone seal hunting by kayak (something that he loved to do), had an accident of some sort and was drowned.  The others found his kayak but they never did find his body.

Kayak Rolling in 1959

During my years of sea kayaking back in Scotland, while of course we knew of kayak rolling as a skill that the Inuit had developed, this was simply not a part of what it was all about for us.  I never heard of anyone even thinking of trying to roll our beamy Scottish kayaks.  For us rolling was just that amazing thing that whitewater kayakers did.  And, when I wanted to learn at least the basics of rolling a kayak before I left for Greenland, it was with the help of some whitewater kayakers that Campbell had met that it happened.  Campbell was able to borrow a whitewater kayak for an evening and, in the Glasgow Western Baths swimming pool, he and I managed to teach ourselves how to do the “Pawlata” or basic sweep roll (the Standard Greenland roll).  I was glad that we had as I did need to know that roll the time I capsized in Ludwig’s kayak (see my “Illorsuit Adventure” article in QajaqUSA’s newsletter MASIK, Spring/Summer 2009 issue).

While I was in Greenland none of the hunters I knew ever needed to roll.  But I did learn of a few kayaking accidents.  The highest peak on Upernavik Island visible from Illorsuit, so Drever told me, had been named Paulus Peak in memory of Johan Zeeb’s younger brother who died while kayaking.  Kent describes witnessing the rescue, in view of the village, of a hunter called David who capsized when a Harp Seal he had harpooned off his left bow dragged his harpoon line across the kayak and pulled him over.  He also tells of how a man he knew called Peter was “lost at sea.  They found his kayak later, torn to shreds.  Only a walrus it is thought, could have done it” (Salamina, pages 105-6 and 330).

But some of the men were willing to roll when I asked them to, as a demonstration.  Whatever practicing and/or training of novices happened that summer, it was all over and done with before I even arrived at Illorsuit in early August.  There was in fact a special kayak in the village used for training boys aged 8 to 10 years old to kayak (though not to roll).  Hendrik was the villager employed to provide this training. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the summer to see this being done.

The second time that I asked people to put on a demonstration that I could photograph  —  actually to take part in the competition we held on October 14th, the day of the race  —  several men said “thanks but no thanks” … already the weather was just too cold.

Enoch Nielsen, Illorsuit’s champion roller, was always keen on the idea so once that beautiful full jacket (“tuilik“) had been made for me by Tobias’ wife Emilia with the ivory buckles and hooks done by Enoch himself, we had two fine sessions of kayak rolling.  Apparently no-one else in the village had a “tuilik” (it was mid-September by this time) so my brand new one would be used.  Jonas Malakiasen, Johan Zeeb, Enoch and I did the rolling that and the next day.  

5 02 Ill. Jonas dons tuvilik      

Back to Jonas putting on the “tuilik,”  getting help tying the sleeves tight around his wrists …

Jonas adjusts tuilik 12.tif 5 - 04

… and making sure it was tight around his face.

The dead eye at waist level is part of the “suspender” arrangement for when (in the old days) a kayaker wanted to shorten the length of the jacket while out hunting for example and not at that moment using it to roll.  With one pull to let the bone or ivory hooks on the thongs coming over his shoulders slip through the dead eye he could release the “suspender” and have the full length of the jacket free to allow him to move his body as needed for whatever roll or rolls he needed to do.  As I’ve mentioned in Chapter Eight on The Hunting Equipment, Petersen (1986) tells how important, in fact essential, for successful kayak rolling it was to have the jacket opened out to its full length. 

Jonas went first and did some side and chest sculling braces with no problem but when he went over to do a full roll he lost his grip on the paddle and floundered badly.  Someone was able to quickly go out in a boat to help him but by that time he was half out of the kayak and got his pants soaked and the “tuilik” wet.  Martin Zeeb had been planning to do some rolls but now didn’t want to because of the “tuilik” being so wet.  But then Johan showed up and agreed to try, to my surprise as he was about 57 years old and a “retired” kayaker.  He gave us a thoroughly expert display of three or four different rolls and both sculling braces.  

The next day it was Enoch’s turn  —  the champion.  So I began by filming him doing several rolls.  As I’ve already mentioned the camera turned out to be defective so, of course, that was a waste of time and opportunity.  He must have run through his repertoire quickly giving me only time to get it all (supposedly) with the movie camera.  It then took some persuading to get him to go out again and I was only able to get these few still photos.  


Here he is squeezing himself into his kayak before his first set of rolls.  Notice that, as was always the case when anyone demonstrated rolling, he has the harpoon line tray and gun bag in their normal place on the fore deck.  At least eight of the 18 active kayakers had the front end of their gun bags permanently stitched to the deck of the kayak.

roll-enoch-looking-back_NO BORD 5_06_ice-tif

On his way back out again for the second set of rolls, joking with someone back on shore.

Roll 50% Enoch chest scull_5_09_ice

As everyone always did, he “warmed up” first with some side and chest sculling braces.

It seemed that all the kayakers knew both the side (on your back) and the chest sculling brace techniques.  In fact, one man said that he was so good at these that he didn’t need to learn the “real” rolls.  If that sounds a little strange, it’s worth remembering that two of the rolls in Enoch’s repertoire use these sculling techniques to recover from a fully capsized position.

Enoch begin rec chest scull 35% tylr_gl59_5_17_ice

Beginning his recovery from the chest sculling brace.

Enoch chest scull rec 35 % tylr_gl59_5_15_ice

Up again from the chest sculling brace with his hands now in the low brace position.

Enoch and everyone else at Illorsuit did the chest sculling brace with both thumbs pointing at the tip of the paddle.  At the Qaannat Kattuffiat championships , “some judges allow [this], but in 2003 you were required to keep your normal paddling grip” (see Capsize Maneuvers Performed at the Greenland Kayaking Championships, http://www.qajaqusa.org/QK/rolls/html).  Which is what I saw being done, and it was the first time I’d ever seen this, by members of QajaqUSA at Delmarva in 2004.

Enoch begin sweep cropped 100% 7.tif  

Going over to perform a basic sweep roll (the Standard Greenland Roll), his paddle close up against the bow of the kayak.

10.tif Enoch cap'd ready to sweep 

Now fully capsized, paddle still close to the bow, both hands at the water’s surface, ready to begin the sweeping recovery.

One thing that really impressed me was that Enoch and other men too could do this roll so well that they would be upright again with the paddle having swept through only some 25 to 30 degrees.  They would then turn the paddle over to a low brace position and complete their recovery bent over the fore deck.  While this may not always have been the case, in the rolling that I saw in 1959, they never completed leaning back on the after deck.  At the QK championships nowadays when you do a Standard Greenland Roll you are expected to “finish leaning aft [but you] are optionally permitted to finish in a low brace, sweeping forward, as shown in the video clip” (see qajaqusa.org).

When it was my turn that first day I tried to do that too (i.e. sweep through only 25 to 30 degrees) but I couldn’t.  Enoch told me that it was OK for me (a novice) to go ahead and sweep my paddle out to the full 90 degrees if necessary.  One other thing he said struck me as interesting: “the chest must work.”

Given that they had that level of skill, they also did the side sculling brace with their paddle kept close to the bow of the kayak  —  again sweeping out from the bow only those 25 to 30 degrees.

More rolling by Enoch

9.tif Enoch hands together recovery

Recovering from a hands together in the center roll.  It looks like he almost overdid it!

Roll 50% Enoch recover in elbow 8.tif

Recovering from a “paddle held in crook of elbow” roll.

1959 Illorsuit kayak rolling in perspective

Soon after I returned from Greenland Drever arranged for me to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, where I was shown films of Watkins and other of his expedition members performing some of the rolls they had learned in East Greenland.  Especially interesting was to see the East Greenland version of one of the rolls that Enoch had shown me in Illorsuit.

In the early 1960s, when John Heath and I were working on what in due course became his Appendix on “The Kayak Roll” in Adney and Chapelle (1964), I sent him detailed descriptions of the full list of rolls that I had seen and learned of and heard about at Illorsuit.  For some reason (I’m not sure that I ever did learn what that reason was) that information didn’t make it into the final text, though six of my photos (one of Jonas and five of Enoch) were used.  Heath gives a fine introduction to the art of kayak rolling in which he quotes Crantz (1767) in full and it was in this Appendix that he first published his brilliant “turn the page upside down” drawing of how a basic sweep roll is done.

cameron0001source: Adney and Chapelle 1964, page 224

Since that time a number of sources have greatly increased our knowledge of the traditional kayak rolling of the Inuit of Greenland.  

Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayaking Association, was founded in 1985.  It now holds an international kayaking competition in a different town in West Greenland each year.  At these, in addition to various races, Inuit and foreigners compete in performing 29 different kayak rolls and six related maneuvers.  Manasse Mathaeussen, who died in 1989, had known all of these maneuvers and taught others any that they wanted to learn.  It was Manasse, by the way, whose family was living in East Greenland at the time, who taught Gino Watkins how to roll (see Heath 1990).  QajaqUSA (which is the American chapter of Qaannat Kattuffiat) gives a description of all of these 35 maneuvers, with video clips of several of them, on its website (see reference above).

So, 29 different ways of rolling a kayak.  That sounds like a lot I know but, as Martin Nissen says, “kayak rolling has developed into a discipline in its own right … while many methods of rolling developed from hunting needs, other ways of rolling have developed simply because they can be done, and they are fun” (2012, page 3).

In 1989 Paul-Emile Victor and Joelle Robert-Lambin published their “La Civilisation du Phoque: Jeux, Gestes et Techniques des Eskimo d’Ammassalik.”  I am grateful to Vernon Doucette for telling me about this source.  In this, Victor gives detailed descriptions of 18 rolling and four related maneuvers he had observed in East Greenland back in the 1930s (volume one, pages 66-79).  Sixteen of these were approximately the same or very similar to sixteen of the maneuvers nowadays done at the Qaannat Kattuffiat competitions.  Six others, so far as I know, were unique to East Greenland.  These were  —

(1) a sweep roll beginning with your arms crossed, paddle at the stern of the kayak, first sweep downwards, uncross your arms, sweep back to the stern, end leaning foward.  (2) a sculling roll with the working end of your paddle reaching only to the tip of your elbow.  (3) a sculling roll with the middle of your paddle under a longitudinal fore deck thong (this is obviously similar to Crantz’ “[one end] of the pautik among the cross straps of the kaiak”).  (4) a sculling brace where with the kayak on its side, you reach over the kayak and by sculling  on the other side you can hold the kayak in that almost 90 degrees from vertical position.  (5) what non-Inuit recreational kayakers nowadays know as the “balance brace” where you lie with your back in the water, paddle on the surface, and without moving your paddle hold that position.  (6) the same as #5 but face down in the water.

In 1990 John Heath published, in Sea Kayaker, an obituary for Manasse Mathaeussen.  For years Manasse had been the undisputed dean of Greenland Inuit kayaking and kayak rolling.  I’ve mentioned what an invaluable resource he was in the bringing into being of Qaannat Kattuffiat in the mid 1980s. 

In his article in Eastern Arctic Kayaks (2004), Heath gives extremely detailed descriptions of 41 kayak maneuvers (most of them kayak rolls) known in West Greenland.  With the exception of five variations of other rolls on the list, these include all of the 29 actual rolls performed at the QK competitions.  He also describes the roll with one end of the paddle tucked under the fore deck thongs listed by Crantz.

Included in Heath’s article is a series of excellent, step-by-step, close up photos, by Vernon Doucette, of Pavia Tobiassen and Ove Hansen, both from Greenland, performing eight of the rolls discussed.

Martin Nissen (a past president of Qajaq København, the Danish chapter of Qaannat Kattuffiat) published a definitive account of the history of kayak rolling in West Greenland in the Sea Kayaker magazine of August 2012.  Among much else, he describes how it was demonstrated numerous times in Europe and eventually learned by a number of Europeans and others.  Back in the 1920s, it was Edi Hans Pawlata, an Austrian sportsman, who became the best known of the Europeans who learned to roll a kayak.  As I’ve mentioned above, we still speak of the “Pawlata” roll, his version of the standard Greenland Inuit sweep roll.  Volume Four (2009) of QajaqUSA’s journal QAJAQ is devoted to a translation of an article by Pawlata and one by a Franzl Schulhof  with information on their involvement in making known and popularizing the art of kayak rolling.

Back to Illorsuit

Enoch either demonstrated or told me of both the side and the chest sculling braces as well as 19 different ways he knew to roll a kayak.  Eleven of these 19 (as I now know) are included on the list of rolls to be performed at the Qaannat Kattuffiat championships.  But he also knew eight other rolls.  In fact, what seemed to be his favorite “trick” roll is not on the QK list.  In this, which was a sweep roll, he would grip his paddle so that the end of the blade he was about to roll with reached only as far as the tip of his elbow.

Of the 29 actual rolls on the QK list of 35 maneuvers, the eleven that he knew were:

eight sweep rolls  —

(1) the standard Greenland roll (demonstrated, see photos), the basic sweep roll of the repertoire[QK #3]; (2) paddle in crook of elbow  (demonstrated, see photos) [QK #4]; (3) paddle behind neck (demonstrated) [QK #9]; (4) paddle in armpit (demonstrated) [QK #11]; (5) with arms crossed, hands apart, (demonstrated) [QK #15]; (6) sealing float held between hands apart (not seen) [QK #19]; (7) throwing stick from stern to bow (not seen) [QK #21]; (8) throwing stick from bow to stern (not seen) [QK #22]

two sculling rolls  —

(9) the paddle vertical roll (not seen) [QK #12]; (10) paddle held under kayak roll (not seen) [QK #16]

and one “pull down” roll  —

(11) the storm roll (not seen) [QK #5].

The eight other rolls (not on the QK list) that he also knew were:

six sweep rolls  —

(12) hands in paddling position (demonstrated), this is the one that non-Inuit recreational kayakers nowadays call the “screw roll;” (13) hands together in center of paddle (demonstrated, see photos); (14) arms crossed, hands in center of paddle (demonstrated); (15) working blade reaching only to your elbow (demonstrated), Enoch’s favorite “trick” roll  —  I was fascinated to read Victor’s description of the similar East Greenland roll which, however, is done as a sculling roll; (16) end of paddle held in to your belly (demonstrated); (17) beginning with your body on the after deck (similar to the Steyr roll, not the same as the reverse sweep roll on the QK list) (demonstrated, see photos);

and two sculling rolls  —

(18) from fully capsized, use side sculling to recover, with paddle at water’s surface (demonstrated); (19) from fully capsized, use chest sculling to recover, again with paddle at water’s surface (demonstrated)  —  Enoch did this roll by falling forward to capsize, in East Greenland it was done by falling backwards (which is how I assume Heath did and I saw it done in the films at the Scott Polar Institute).  Oddly enough, this way of rolling is not mentioned by Victor.

I want to emphasize that roll number (17) in this list of Enoch’s rolls is absolutely not the same as the “reverse sweep roll” performed in the QK championships.  As I say, it is close to being a Steyr roll.  In “Rolling from the Back Deck” by Chris Joosse: “The set up position is different in that instead of facing up towards the surface, [you will be] leaning against the back deck of your boat facing the bottom of whatever body of water you’re in.  … consider the sweep a constant exercise in looking more or less down.”

Years later, in Madison, Wisconsin, this Steyr-like roll that Enoch had taught me became my favorite.  For me, it was the easiest and the most elegant of them all.     

I’ve already mentioned a particularly interesting thing about rolling as done at Illorsuit in 1959  —  forgive me if I repeat it here.  The Illorsuit kayakers always completed their roll recoveries bent forward over their fore decks.  They did not complete their rolls leaning back on their after decks.  I was puzzled when I first saw this technique used with great care by QajaqUSA kayakers  —  at Delmarva in 2004.  And then I learned that this is how you are expected to complete seven of the rolls at the Qaannat Kattuffiat competitions in Greenland.  And three of the rolls described by Victor for East Greenland also have this feature.

I was told about two other ways of rolling.  Sakeus Bertelsen the village catechist and school teacher told me that in the Upernavik District (immediately to the north of Uummannaq), where he had lived for a while, some hunters could roll using their harpoon shaft instead of a paddle.  And various of the Illorsuit villagers knew that Manasse, at that time living at Saqqaq in the Vaigat District on the south side of the Nuussuaq Peninsula, could roll by sweeping with his two hands, in kayaking mittens, held side by side.

Of the eighteen active kayakers in Illorsuit, in 1959, fourteen could roll and most of them by a number of methods.  Three men could roll by more than ten methods.  Four kayakers could not roll, though they could do the side and chest sculling braces.  Two of these four were young hunters who had been kayaking for only one or two seasons.  The six older men in the village, who no longer kayaked, were all said to have been skillful kayak rollers in their younger days.


Enoch recovering from an after deck roll (the Steyr-like one).  You can see he has both hands in low brace position and he’s about to complete by leaning forward over his fore deck.

Roll 73% Enoch warm hands after 20.tif

And here, of course, trying to warm his hands back up again.

So … I was duly impressed!  Compared to what I had read up until that time (in Crantz, Nansen and Chapman), Enoch’s ability to roll his kayak in 19 different ways struck me as being definitely impressive.  I only wish there was information on the traditional rolling skills of other individual Greenland Inuit hunters to compare with Enoch’s.  But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such information available in any source. Except, of course, for what Heath tells us of Manasse: “[as of 1985] he was the only Greenlander who could perform all of the rolls, braces, and rescue maneuvers that Greenlanders have developed over many centuries” (1990, page 10).  

Nissen gives an astonishing statistic for rolling as it was practiced in Greenland in 1911, “just before the dramatic decline in the use of kayaks in Greenland and throughout the Arctic.”  According to the figures put together by a Hans Reynolds, only 867 of 2,228 active kayakers in Greenland (only 39%) knew how to roll.  And this in spite of the fact that, as Nissen says, “rolling competitions and shows have taken place in Greenland as far back as anyone remembers” (2012, page 3).  Similarly, as I mentioned above, Chapman says of the Ammassalik people that “only about one in four of the hunters [could kayak roll]” (1934a, page 204).

John Heath (2004, page 41) has an account that I think puts these possibly surprising facts in the appropriate perspective.  “One of the veteran seal catchers at Sisimiut in 1995 could not do any of the capsizing maneuvers that the youngsters were performing.  But he had once caught 20 seals in one day, which won him more respect in his community than he would have gotten as a champion [kayak roller].”

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Some Final Thoughts




Table of Contents:  Chapter One  Reaching Illorsuit;  Chapter Two  Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such;  Chapter Three  Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life;  Chapter Four  Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town;  Chapter Five  Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Six  Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Seven  Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Eight  The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Nine  The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Ten  The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Eleven  The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Twelve  Re-encounters with the Kayak;  Some Final Thoughts  

Some Final Thoughts  

Ken Taylor / Cameron


November 21, 2015, with some additions on January 10, 2016

It’s been a great satisfaction for me to finally get this report out on the internet. An unexpected result, and a tremendous pleasure, has been that Kattanguaq, of Ikerasak, who was with me in Illorsuit in 1959 (and who I mention so constantly in the report) and Paninnguaq, Emanuele Korneliussen’s granddaughter, have both contacted me by email after seeing some piece of the report online. We’ve stayed in touch and Paninnguaq, in fact, has been able to help me check out one or two facts for the report. What an amazing bonus! I had honestly never expected to hear from either of them.  That someone, related in some way or other to the people and events of 1959, might contact me some day was of course always a possibility. But you two particular people, Kattanguaq and Paninnguaq, amazing!

As I said at the beginning, it was the enthusiastic encouragement of members of QajaqUSA that got me going on converting my “good old” slide show into a “blog” on the internet.  I’m especially grateful for all kinds of encouragement, support and assistance to Richard Nonas, Vernon Doucette, Harvey Golden, Greg Stamer and Eric Eaton.

Duncan Winning having arranged for the kayak made for me in 1959 to end up in the care of the Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museum (in my home town, Glasgow) was perfect. His and Bill Samson’s and Sue Ellcome’s visit to the Museum’s warehouse to see the kayak, in 2012, and Bill and Sue sending me their photos, with permission to use them in my report, made it even more so. I am tremendously grateful to all three of them.

In 2004, Duncan and Gordon Brown, a well known Scottish sea kayaking coach and author, travelled to Greenland and kayaked from Uummannaq to Illorsuit.  They used two “Expedition” kayaks donated by Island Kayaks of Skye.  As Duncan says in his report, “This was particularly appropriate as they were the latest design to be based on Ken Taylor’s kayak.”  At Illorsuit, Duncan and Gordon met two of Emanuele’s sons and one grandson.

Duncan submitted a report, “Inuit Origins of Modern Recreational Sea Kayaks,” to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which had financed the trip.  A revised version of this report was later published in the December 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker.

Duncan’s email address is: duncanwinning@gmail.com

QajaqUSA which I have mentioned so many times, can be found at http://www.qajaqusa.org

Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayak Association of which QajaqUSA is the American chapter, can be found on facebook, and at Qaannat Kattuffiat, P.O. Box 1171, 3900 Nuuk, Greenland.

I also want to give my thanks and appreciation to my old friend Mr Campbell Semple, who first suggested that we take up sea kayaking and with whom I spent those wonderful summer vacations kayaking much of the west coast of Scotland.

And, of course, none of it would have happened if the late Professor Harald I. Drever, after Campbell and I met him at Kinlochbervie on the northwest coast of Scotland on the last of our many kayaking trips, if he had not invited me and arranged for me to go to Illorsuit in 1959.

As I’ve said, that summer in Illorsuit was the most wonderful experience of my life.  To return to it in my memories while putting together this report has been very special.  So, once again, I want to thank the people of Illorsuit for welcoming me into their village life and for giving me such an unforgettable experience.  I so admired and still admire the extraordinary skills, the fortitude, the patience, the forbearance and good humor of those wonderful people who, with so much friendliness, put up with my intrusion into their life in Illorsuit of 1959.

And now  …  what I’ve been saving ’til last:

First, a photo looking at the Uummannatsiaq mountain from above Uummannaq town as of  September 28th:

1 aaa to Ikerasak cd

and, finally, here is my favorite photo of them all, the same view as of October 19th, a few days before I left:

1 aaaa to Ikerasak later cd

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