The Kayak & The Womens Boat

The Kayak

Together with the women’s boat (umiaq) and the dog sledge the kayak was an important craft for the survival and distribution of the Inuit from Siberia to the coast of East Greenland. The East Greenlandic kayak is a perfect vessel for hunting the large mammals of the sea. Developed from the experience of generations and adapted to the hunting grounds of the Greenlandic Inuit. It is a testimony of an unbelievable adaptability to an arctic environment. The East Greenlandic kayak is distinct from the West Greenlandic kayaks; it is usually longer and wider, adapted to hunting on the open sea.

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Altogether the form of the kayak varies in Greenland, depending on prevailing wind-, water- and weather conditions at the intended place of use. But the fundamental principle is the same; the kayak is build after the measurement of the user to obtain the perfect balance and fitting. Therefore it is not a good idea to borrow another person’s kayak. A well-equipped kayak includes a large number of weapons or hunting tools designed for the catch of the prey most common to the area.
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The kayaks successes as a seagoing vessel were not only due to the construction as such but also to the development of suitable clothing. Many relates the Greenlandic kayak to skilful kayakers, who can perform the difficult “Eskimo roll” to rise again after capsizing. In order to perform this breathtaking exercise, clothing, making the kayaker part of the vessel, is needed. The kayak-anorak, with watertight seams, is lashed around the hole in the kayak and laced tightly around the head and wrists.
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The hunter and the vessel is now a whole and able to make the roll without a drop of water penetrating the outfit. In this case, as in every other aspect of life in the traditional Greenland, the wellbeing of the hunter and of the whole family depended on the ability of the hunter’s wife as a skilled seamstress, who mastered the art of treating the skins and make them into warm functional clothing, protecting the family under the extreme weather and climatic conditions where life was to be maintained. A good hunter could have 2 wives, because there were so many skins to be taken care of. To day the kayak has only limited use for hunting purposes, but is used in connection with hunting of narwhales, a shy animal, which need to be harpooned in order not to sink, before the riffle is used.
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The construction is the same as the traditional kayak though the material have changed from sealskin to painted linen or glass fibre. However in the glass fibre is moulded hooks for attaching the harpoon and hunting bladder. The kayak has gained a renaissance as a sports kayak. Many towns have every year competitions in kayaking, to maintain the knowledge and ability of the kayak hunter. It is the same type of kayak as the original one.
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Umiaq – the women’s boat

The distribution of the Inuit from remote regions of Siberia to East Greenland would have been unthinkable without the umiaq – the boat was used both as a family boat and for long journeys. It is known throughout the region and the word for the boat is similar everywhere in the Inuit region. However, the form and purpose varies from the small umiaqs in Alaska that are used for hunting larger whales to the wider, more spacious transport boats used in Ammassalik.

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Women rowed the boat

It is also called the women’s boat, as it was the women who rowed the boat, whilst the men sailed alongside in their kayaks. Loaded as it was with household implements, children and perhaps dogs, summer tent etc., it carried the whole family’s worldly possessions. There are usually four women rowers and, to some extent, a sail was used for propulsion.

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A transportation boat

The umiaq was used for summer transportation and it was indispensable for Ammassalik. In this large, extensive district with deep fjords and countless islands, it was necessary then, as now, with transportation that could bring the whole family across long distances. People met at the hunting grounds or at the big summer gatherings. Family visits and summer gatherings where you met new people, exchanged news and made agreements for the coming year, where events that were looked forward to, after the long isolation of the winter. The families sailed together to gather supplies. The big spring seal migration at the outer islands where meat was dried, fishing for capelin (Ammassat) and later Arctic char were all part of the rhythm of the season.

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The boats returned home heavily loaded with supplies for the long winter, before the advent of autumn’s dangerous, thin ice. Nevertheless, a tear or hole in the boat’s skin was not necessarily fatal. A piece of blubber was pushed into the hole and when the boat came ashore, it could easily be repaired with the needle and sinew thread that was always stowed at the top of the baggage. Although the women’s boat in Ammassalik was primarily a cargo vessel capable of carrying many kilos, it was a very light construction that could be carried over land or up onto ice flows, if the ice suddenly blocked the way.
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Also a shelter

It was used for night shelter during the many day’s journey to the summer places. It was carried ashore and turned upside down. Supported by a small stick on one side it quickly provided good shelter for the night. The same naturally applied, if the weather turned bad – storm or rain – on the way. It was probably a beautiful sight in the summer night, almost like Chinese lanterns on the beach, with light shining through the skin of the umiaq and the ribs of the boat like a dark, regular pattern against the golden skin.

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The oldest known umiaq

The oldest known umiaq in Greenland and the oldest in the world is the 500-year old umiaq, which was found at the end of the 1940’s in northernmost East Greenland, in Pearyland by polar explorer Eigil Knuth. The boat is also the longest ever to be found in Greenland, with a length of 11 metres, it is narrower than the umiaqs that were usually used in Greenland and resembles more those used in Alaska for whale hunting. Whether it had made the journey from Alaska to East Greenland is obviously not known, but it is quite possible. A copy of the old boat was made was made at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Denmark) in 1980. Elderly Greenlanders from the Nanortalik region in South Greenland came to Roskilde to build the boat. The umiaq was in use up to 40 years ago in Ammassalik but has now been replaced by boats with motors, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people with the skill to build umiaqs. The copy in Roskilde may well be the last umiaq ever to be built.

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