I have long been fascinated by Greenland kayaking techniques that explore that nebulous gray zone between a fully upright and a fully capsized position. John Heath has done much to promote and popularize several Greenland paddling techniques that hold the paddler in a stable position with his torso immersed and his face just above the surface of the water. These techniques include the balance brace, chest-scull, side-scull and back-scull maneuvers (see "Three Braces from Gronland," SK, Fall '86). Today, these skills are widely known and practiced among many North American Greenland-style paddlers.
Sea Kayaker Editor Christopher Cunningham hinted to another of these interesting techniques when he recounted the story of Greenlander Peter Petrussen of Kangaamiut (1894-1970), a young kayaker who had not yet learned to roll (see "Greenland-style tuiliqs," SK, Oct. '99). He capsized while on a solo outing yet lived to tell the tale. Petrussen credited the saving of his life to the sealskin kayak jacket, or tuilik, sewn by his mother. While shorter length garments were fashionable at the time, Petrussen's mother had wisely made his tuilik long enough so that it hung to his knees, in the traditional style. Since the sealskin of a tuilik does not stretch, mobility is gained by having a loose, generous fit.
After young Petrussen capsized, the length of this tuilik allowed him to push himself slightly away from his seat, twist his body around the capsized kayak, and then raise his head above the water to cry out for help. Some kayak hunters who were in the area heard his cries, and Petrussen was saved. This technique is actually quite ancient, and was described along with a variety of Greenlandic rolling methods in "History of Greenland", by David Crantz, in 1767. Crantz writes: "If [the Greenlanders] overturn and lose all means of helping themselves, they are wont to creep out of the kayak while under water, put up their head and call to any one that is near to help them".
I had envisioned Petrussen dog-paddling to the surface for a breath of air and a quick shout, then sinking back into the frigid water beneath his kayak to wait for another attempt. It was not until I had the chance to practice rolling with Maligiaq Padilla, the 1998 and 2000 Greenland kayak champion (see "Maligiaq Makes Waves on His U.S. Visit," SK, June '00), that I learned about the technique that Petrussen most likely used. During one practice session, I watched as Maligiaq capsized and reached up with both hands on one side of his kayak. He grasped the chine and, then, using a motion similar to a pull-up, he lifted his head up to the chine to breathe. He could hold this position with his head above water indefinitely. An observer might well assume that Maligiaq had bailed out of his kayak when, in fact, he was still in the cockpit and only extended an inch away from his seat!
Initially I assumed that this technique could be done only by someone as flexible as Maligiaq, and in an extremely low-volume Greenland-style kayak. After trying it myself, I was delighted to learn that this skill should be within the reach of many recreational paddlers using touring kayaks. In fact, I found it easier to perform this skill in a 24"-wide Chinook than in my 20.5"-wide, hard-chined Greenland-style Anas Acuta. In the case of the Chinook, the wider beam and large cockpit allows you to to shift about more in the seat, requiring less torso rotation. However, you need the support of good thigh braces, or you will simply fall out of your kayak when you capsize. It helps to be somewhat limber to perform this technique, but no more so than that required to perform a balance brace or many other Greenland rolling maneuvers.
Fortunately, to do this maneuver, you don't need a tuilik. While the nylon skirts that I used often had the frustrating tendency to pop off the cockpit coaming, my short neoprene spray skirt stretched more than enough to allow me to twist into position. If you do have access to a tuilik then you will find it to be a wonderful piece of gear that makes performing this technique much easier. Not only does the tuilik give you tremendous freedom of movement, but it eliminates the rubber-band effect of a neoprene skirt that resists your efforts to stretch your torso away from the cockpit.
Performing the Petrussen Maneuver
For your first attempts, practice in shallow water and have a partner standing close by. Stow your paddle securely. The following directions are for performing the Petrussen maneuver on your right side. I recommend practicing the following set-up position on the surface prior to capsizing. (click on the images below to see a larger image)
Rotate your body strongly counter-clockwise, as if to look behind you over your left shoulder. Place your hands on the gunwale about a shoulder's width apart. Your right hand will be near your left hip, and your left hand will be well behind you. Rotate your butt counterclockwise in your seat. You will need to brace with your legs, but the exact technique you use will depend upon the fit of your kayak. In a narrow kayak I bend both knees and place both legs together with my knees hard against the left thigh brace. Neither foot rests on the foot brace. Your buttocks will feel as if they are resting on the right side of your seat. In a wider kayak, I prefer to press both legs against the sides of the hull. Whichever method you choose, ensure that your legs press against the thigh braces and not directly against the spray skirt, or you may dislodge the skirt or even fall out of your kayak.
Once you achieve the set-up position, slowly capsize to starboard (fall backward). Upon capsizing, reach upward, toward the surface, and move your hands from the gunwale to the chine. If your kayak does not have hard chines, find a point near the turn of the bilge that you can cup your hands over without slipping. As you first enter the water, you will briefly sink downward before rebounding quickly toward the surface. The buoyancy of your body and PFD will bring your face very close to or above the surface. Once you and your kayak reach equilibrium, if you face is still slightly submerged, pull down on the chine (or bilge) with your hands while using your legs to keep the kayak level. If you have enough flexibility and a kayak with a complementary hull shape, your face should easily clear the surface. You are now free to relax, take a deep breath and, if need be, shout for your chiropractor! You may find that your first attempts leave your mouth and nose slightly submerged. It takes a little practice to find the proper body position to enable your face or entire head to clear the surface. Also, as you become more limber, you may find the final position to be surprisingly comfortable.
You can perform the maneuver with the paddle held on top of the upturned hull. If the conditions are not too severe, you can also hold the paddle vertically above water, in the crook of an arm, to attract attention. After you have succeeded once or twice, you can skip the preparatory step and do the set-up while underwater.
Although we will probably never know if the technique demonstrated by Maligiaq is exactly the same technique Peter Petrussen used to save his life, it is, nevertheless, a very useful skill that has great potential for rescue situations. In "Please Remain Seated" (SK, Summer '90), John Heath presents a strong argument for staying put following a capsize. John states: "With few exceptions, it is better to stay in the kayak after a capsize for the best chance of survival. The lung full of air that you have when you capsize is not necessarily the only one you have to work with to recover. By staying seated with your spray skirt secured, you are less exposed to cold water, you limit the amount of water entering the cockpit, and you avoid the risks and difficulties of bail-out and reentry rescues." John also notes that the capsized kayaker must avoid panic. The overwhelming fear of entrapment that many people feel when capsized often fuels the rush to bail out immediately and reach the surface.
The beauty of the Petrussen maneuver is that it is a quick and effective way to satisfy the natural urge to quickly get your head above water. I sometimes use it to rest during hand-rolling practice if I get tired after several roll attempts fail. For paddlers who feel a sense of panic and entrapment, it offers a way to get their head above water without breaking the cockpit seal. In an unexpected capsize, the method might help you keep panic under control and get plenty of air in your lungs to call out for assistance or perform a self-rescue that does not require leaving the kayak. Self-rescues at this point include rolling, rolling with a float on the paddle blade, or hand rolling with a float. Whether or not you can use this in an emergency depends upon how easily you can reach the surface, whether or not the sea conditions will allow you to breathe in this position and how well you can remain in this position with your face comfortably above the water.
Perhaps the real strength of the Petrussen maneuver is in its use for capsized victims who have partners close at hand who can provide assistance for a rescue. When practicing assisted Eskimo rescues (see "Eskimo Rescue Technique", SK, June '97) it's a common and frustrating occurrence to have your partner bail out of his kayak, just as the bow of your kayak reaches him. The victim is frequently unsure of where the rescuer is, if he is on the way, and how long it will take for the rescuer to arrive. With all of these doubts, many victims simply do not have the confidence to hang out and wait for a period of time.
When an assisted rescue is combined with the Petrussen maneuver, the victim can verbally contact you, blow a whistle or drum loudly on his upturned hull, and then verbally keep tabs on your progress as you approach. You should exercise great caution when approaching a capsized victim during any assisted rescue, but especially with this technique, since the victim's head and hands are exposed and a collision could easily lead to an injury.
The Petrussen maneuver is an interesting traditional technique, but its use is not at all limited to Greenland-style aficionados; it offers benefits to a large number of kayakers. With a little practice, you can add this old Greenland skill to your set of rescue skills, and enhance both your assisted and self-rescue techniques.
Photo Credits: Patrick McCaffrey
This article first appeared in the August, 2000 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine.
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