Paul, the owner of Northern Lights Paddles (NLP), recently gave me a paddle to review. Paul knows I am an ardent supporter of Novorca Paddles. Ron Steinwall the artisan owner is a great friend of mine. So it was with some trepidation that Paul provided the paddle. I promised to be fair and reasonable in reviewing the paddle.
I have over a dozen Greenland paddles in my rack. They vary in shape and size. A couple are wooden but most are carbon. My tripping paddle (and by tripping I mean the paddle I take on longer trips, not drug induced euphoria) is an 86 inch long paddle. The maximum blade width is 3.25 inches and the ends of the blades are rounded. The edges come to a fine (not sharp) point. The loom is 19 inches long, and oval in cross section. In Ron’s dimension grid on the Novorca website you can find this paddle’s configuration as the 86B, along with fifty other unique models.
If I had used either of the two “standard” methods that are espoused for measuring a paddle then I would never have chosen this as my dream size. To quote Qajaq USA ”For a full-size paddle, a very common measurement is one-arm-span plus a cubit (the distance from your elbow to your fingertips). Another common method is to ensure that you can just curl your fingers over the top of your paddle, with it standing vertically next to you.” These methods suggest I need a longer paddle, of perhaps 93″. The loom length is influenced by your shoulder width as well as your kayak’s beam. I mainly use two kayaks; a Tahe Greenland with a 19¾” beam and an NDK Explorer with a 21¼” beam. I find my 86″ tripping paddle works very well with either of these kayaks.
The NLP is a three part paddle. My Novorcas are either one or two piece, depending upon which one I choose from my rack. The NLP length is set by using varying length inserts for the loom. Paul supplied me with an insert to ensure the paddle was 86” in length. The loom insert is secured by two stainless steel set-screws. This resulted in the loom being 20.5” long. The loom has a distinct square section with flats on all four sides. The NLP blade’s maximum width is fixed at 3.45” by the molding, as are the cross sectional profile and tip shape. This is an important difference between the two paddles. With a custom made Novorca I am able to specify the blade length and width (and even profile) independent of the loom length. With the NLP these are fixed dimensions. You are able to specify only the loom length. For example, if you chose a narrow loom for a narrow kayak you end up with a shorter paddle, because the loom length defines the paddle length as the blade lengths are fixed. Sometimes this may be okay, but other times this may present you with a paddle that is not quite what you are looking for. The NLP tip is squarer and the blade is considerably flatter (less airfoil shaped) than my custom Novorcas.
Paddle sizing and “feel” is so intensely personal that it is almost impossible to define what makes a good paddle for an individual. The other factor that is often ignored is the individual’s requirements for the specific purposes of the paddler. Super lightweight? Touring? Day tripping? Rock gardens? Surf? Ice floes and extreme temperatures? Airplane travel? Or full on expeditions where all of the above may apply? All of these are possible reasons for buying a particular paddle. There is no question that Paul had to make a decision initially of how many of the above aspects of a paddle he thought should be on the top of the list and what had lesser importance. Ultimately, Paul designed a paddle that could be manufactured economically, be simply disassembled, and be strong enough to survive rock garden paddling and air travel.
NLP paddle blades are blow molded in China and Spain as separate half blades and then bonded together. Paul does the final finishing in the US. The center of the shell this creates is then filled with foam. The foam simply fills the void and prevents ingress of water to an extent. The method used by Novorca is considerably different in that the carbon and epoxy are vacuum formed over a structural foam core, providing strength and structural integrity. Novorca are made in Minnesota USA using a single tube of carbon, so there is no bonding of separate shells. To support the bonded joints NLP added interleaved carbon material to ensure the structural integrity is maintained when under load. There is an added I-beam of carbon fiber running the length of the blade, and additional Kevlar on the edges that was added when Paul was developing the paddle for rock gardening. This additional material, combined with the solid loom section, creates additional weight, but a strong and stiff paddle.
Paul believes that his paddles complement those that Ron makes. Paul made the decision to change loom lengths instead of paddle blade length to change the size of his paddles. Ron custom makes paddles to the exact dimensional specification of the individual. Paul provides a number of options for colors but mainly sells either black or black with white edges. Ron custom colors and decorates his paddles to the exact specification of the individual (my daughters have Ron’s green and pink sparkly glitter paddles). A major design principle of the NLP is that it is a multipart paddle designed with air travel in mind. This requires the paddle to be made with enough robustness to survive the rigors of air travel and luggage handlers.
Other variations between the two paddles are weight and stiffness. The NLP is roughly 38% heavier; 29oz compared to my 21oz Novorca. Various schools of thought exist about the “correct” weight. In my experience, on long trips lighter paddles create less fatigue. Others may disagree. The extra material in the NLP decreases the natural flexibility in the paddle and so the Novorca flexes more under load. This becomes apparent when performing a reverse sweep roll where you can (if you wish) apply considerable pressure to the paddle. I feel this has no significant practical effect on my rolling.
When I used the NLP I noticed the increased weight compared to the Novorca. The NLP has a matt finish and the Novorca has a gloss finish. They felt different in my hands but I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling. I don’t think it affected my paddling. The square loom on the NLP forced me to hold the paddle at a specific angle that is different to how I hold the Novorca oval loom. As a result I had to change my wrist angle to get the canting I desired. Under intense, high-energy paddling I could tell that the NLP blade had a larger surface area in the water than the Novorca. I deliberately paddle with a longer narrow blade to reduce the initial load on the arms as the paddle enters the water. I could feel the difference caused by the flatter tip and the wider blade. None of these features had any practical impact on my rolling. I performed a number of layback and forward finishing rolls with both.
Yesterday, my father and I paddled using both paddles to judge the effect on a seasoned GP paddler and on a novice GP paddler. My father has had no previous experience of using a GP. He has 50+ years of Euro spoon paddling behind him. For context, he is a BCU 4 star paddler from the wild coastline of Cornwall in the UK. He noticed that the Novorca moved or fluttered in his hands when initially accelerating and the NLP did not. I believe this is caused by the angle of his canted stroke. His usual paddle stroke is similar to a winged paddle stroke with a movement outwards and sideways. The NLP does not come to a fine edge. It has a radius of several millimeters and a very flat profile, especially near the tip. I believe this makes it more forgiving of various angles of paddling. Perhaps it is best to describe the NLP as a less technically demanding paddle.
To sum up the experience: I find that they are different horses for different courses. The NLP is a multi-part paddle that can serve as an introductory GP for those who do not know, or have yet to form an opinion of, the exact specification of a GP that would suit them. It should allow many people to be introduced to the techniques and traditions of Greenland paddling and rolling. Once someone has gained experience of using one, I suspect that, if they are hooked, they will then be looking for a custom paddle. This is the market that Novorca and others fulfill, by offering custom paddles manufactured to one’s specific needs and dimensions. I am fortunate and privileged to be in a position to have the exact paddles I want, made for me here in Minnesota.
Later this month I will be getting a Joe O’Blenis wooden Greenland paddle, and I look forward to comparing it to my carbon paddles.
Based upon some of Paul’s customers reactions on Facebook and other forum, it is apparent that some people have an issue with my opinion that the NLP can serve as an introductory paddle and that people may end up looking for a custom paddle. Please take note that nothing behind my intent in writing this statement was meant to preclude the fact that the paddle is indeed the perfect fit and function for many people and that they will choose to stick with it (pun intended). Also, the low price point makes it attractive for people to try. As does its ability to vary in length, allowing, as I stated, many people to be introduced to the techniques, which, in my opinion, is a great thing. The NLP is a single size molded blade, and a single cross-section loom. The mold design was, I am sure, carefully thought out to match the greatest possible number of paddlers based upon the data available on paddle and paddlers dimensions. It is one blade size amongst many out there, it is one loom cross section of many out there. I have not seen Paul make the claim that this blade and loom is perfect for everyone. There is still a need for people to be able to get paddles made to their body, arm and hand size, kayak size and stroke style. If this need didn’t exist our cousins who paddle with spoons would all ladle with the same spoon. This is my opinion only (of course) and BTW I like soup and do use a spoon occasionally.