Taiwan is a collection of Islands off the coast of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). Many Europeans and Americans that I have spoken with have been uncertain of the status of Taiwan, also known as Republic of China (R.O.C.), and have incorrectly assumed that it is a part of what they know as China (P.R.C.). Taiwan is generally ranked highly in terms of freedom of the press, health care, public education, economic freedom, and human development.
When you look at the Gearlab back story you will find a group of Taiwanese entrepreneurial outdoor enthusiasts who could just have well been living in Seattle as Taipei. Their passions span not just kayaking, but include cycling, mountain climbing and many other outdoor pursuits. These guys are engineers and designers by training, and paddlers, climbers and cyclists in their hearts.
It is not surprising that if you give a young designer and engineer the challenge of mass producing a Greenland paddle, that the solution they develop will substantially differ from the traditional methods of construction the Inuit used. Mass production requires the establishment of an economic process that can create a repeatable result within certain tolerances. In my opinion modern composites can be used to create consistent material properties with greater ease than wood. Wood’s very essence is its uniqueness. Each tree produces timber that differs in physical and aesthetic properties. These variations are wood’s charm and its challenge. The skills and experience necessary to select wood, and then to carve it to provide the desired characteristics are hard won over years of practice. Solid wood is not well suited for mass production due to the knowledge and skill needed to predict the properties of the resulting paddle. This is why good wooden paddles have to be custom carved by a skilled crafts-person, with knowledge of the paddler, their kayak and the type of paddling activities they intend to use the paddle for so they can match the wood characteristics, size and shape to the individual.
Gearlab chose to use a blend of Carbon and Glass fiber. They use 12K carbon fiber, because they say it has the largest weave and is the stiffest. It also results in a very distinctive visual appearance. (information on the meaning of 12k and its impact on the strength and flexibility can be found here.) By using the stiff carbon fiber and combining it with glass fiber they have been able to create a very lightweight two part paddle, weighing in at 24oz.
The paddle I purchased is the Oyashio design. From Wikipedia, Oyashio is the name of a cold subarctic ocean current that flows south and circulates counterclockwise in the western North Pacific Ocean. Gearlab sell three different design paddles, and they sent me a second paddle to test later this year. The Oyashio is their shoulder-less design. It is a two part paddle joined in the center of the loom using a carbon fiber push button. There are no metal parts in the paddle construction. The maximum blade width is 3.25 inches and it is 86.5 inches in length.
I tested the paddles flexibility. I found that it was approximately equal in flexibility to the most flexible solid cedar paddle I had in my collection, which is a 3 inch wide solid, wide grained, cedar paddle custom carved for touring due to its ultralight weight (19oz) and extreme flex. Using my paddle test rig (more details here) I was able to measure 1.155 inches tip deflection when I applied 10 pounds 3 feet from the center of the loom. I noticed that of all the paddles I have tested this paddle has the largest loom flexibility (0.07 Inches at 10 pounds load), I presume this is due to the thin walls of the tube used in the loom.
I paddled with the Oyashio this Saturday on the Mississippi. This gave me plenty of opportunities to put it to the test. When paddling upstream against the fast river flow (4-5 knots) I was hugging the shore, so I accidentally banged the paddle tip against submerged rocks numerous times. The paddle has a very different sound than any other I have used. It is hollow, there is no foam filling the void within the paddle. You can hear the difference when you bang the paddle. The tip survived without any visible damage. Being hollow, if the paddle tip were to be penetrated through impact with a rock, then water would be able to enter the paddle.
The paddles density is low, due to being hollow, and consequently the paddle is very buoyant. This buoyancy is a bonus when learning rolls and static braces. I did not find the paddle’s flexibility an issue during the morning’s paddling. It provided ample power for my forward stroke and I found the loom-to-blade transition comfortable to hold.
The blade edges are round. They do not come to a sharp point. This made the blade fairly forgiving to paddle, being insensitive to the angle of cant. Sculling required slight wrist rotation to create lift as the blade is nearly flat at the tip.
The push button fixture that holds the paddle together is in the middle of the loom. It stands proud of the looms surface so you can feel it when you slide the paddle between hands for extended sweep and rolls. I did not have any issues of the button depressing during use, nor the paddle releasing. I would have preferred it if the button had been level with the surface material, so there was no possibility of fouling it. The joint felt solid with the two tubes fitting snugly together.
The flexibility of the blade had planted a seed of doubt in my mind about the paddle’s strength. Despite my best/worst efforts the paddle stayed together through aggressive bracing and powerful sweep strokes. Clearly the Gearlab designers have engineered a highly flexible and strong composite. Much like a pole vault, nothing says that a flexible paddle can’t also be strong when built correctly.
Paddling with a flexible paddle has a distinctive feel to it. There is a discernible kick at the end of each stroke. You can feel the paddle flex when you heave on it during rapid forward stroke acceleration.
The range of sizes is limited to five different overall paddle lengths. There are no loom or blade size options. I ordered mine online and paid using PayPal. The paddle arrived within a week packaged in a rugged cardboard container that protected it during transit. Gearlab also sells a nice bag to transport paddles and provide some protection from baggage handlers etc. The paddle cost $328 (US Dollars)
If you enjoy using flexible paddles, and are looking for a Carbon one, then this could be a good choice for you, always provided that the paddle size fits your body, kayak and paddling style. I would be cautious of using this in shallow rocky rivers or rock gardens due to the hollow construction. I look forward to testing and documenting the Kuroshio WL which Gearlab provided gratis.
Here is a link to the paddle specification sheet I documented for this paddle: Gearlab Oyashio Composite