Your most intimate paddling relationship?

by | Feb 11, 2016

Do you fall in love with paddles? I do. I must confess though I am a paddle philanderer. My passion for paddles continues to grow, each time I meet a new paddle I imagine how it will feel slicing though the water, I get giddy anticipating what it can teach me. Each time I experience a new blade’s performance I am surprised by what I don’t know and can’t predict. But before I delve into introducing you to some recent explorations into paddles I want to talk about something that has been on my mind for a while.

The quest for lightness and sharpness: Modern materials allow innovations that previously would not have been practical. The advent of carbon fiber paddles has allowed the development of paddles with shapes and dimensions that would simply either break if made of wood or be so vulnerable to damage that they would not last. The Greenland paddle evolved as far as we can tell over three thousand years, being constructed from drift wood that washed up on the storm battered shores of the Greenland coast. The Inuit innovated in shape and size to suit their purposes using the tools and materials available to them. Much as their qajaq designs were adapted to the sea sate and purpose they did the same with their paatit or paddle.

My purpose of mentioning the Inuit is the internal struggle I have with continued innovation, on the one hand it is consistent with the philosophy of a subsistence culture, to use everything available to ensure your continued survival. But at the same time the ability to commercially “mass” produce composite materials feels like it has the potential to be seen as co-opting and commercializing the qajaq culture for gain. Putting that aside, the new materials have led to an evolution in paddle shape, the quest for lighter and sharper paddles. They almost always come hand in hand, a sharp blade ends up being a light blade. Each characteristic provides both benefits and challenges.

Challenges with lightness

    Strength
    Durability
    Reduced momentum

Benefits with lightness

    Lower fatigue
    Greater buoyancy

Challenges with sharp and flat

    Edge vulnerability
    Sensitivity to blade angle (rolling and paddling)
    Cavitation
    Reduced foil lift generation
    Flexibility – decreased acceleration

Benefits of sharp and flat

    Sculling?
    Flexibility – decreased shock loading on shoulders
    Lower weight

I am drawn to the feel of these modern designs and materials, and I have many in my paddle collection. They are functionally excellent, but despite their performance I still find myself drawn to the beauty of wood. I wonder if the two can ever meet? I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on why you prefer your paddle and if its material is a factor. What can we add to the lists above? Add you comments below and I will update the post.

Aluu Paddles – Made By Chuck Smith

For full disclosure I have known Chuck for four years, and consider him a friend. Chuck has been active for many years building skin-on-frame kayaks (qajaq) and runs workshops, passing on these skills to fellow enthusiasts and beginners alike. In early 2015 Chuck mentioned that he was starting a business venture building paddles. Knowing my passion for paddles, he offered to build me one.

11999721_920871751325822_1808789653202637185_o Chuck’s approach to his business is one of continued innovation, mirroring the Inuit culture. He has focused on automating some aspects of the paddle making process so he can achieve consistency, quality and maintain costs to create a viable venture. The resulting shape, which is predominately fashioned by a CNC mill, is transferable from paddle to paddle, the biggest remaining variable then becomes the wood. Chuck gave me the paddle at the Traditional Paddler’s Gathering in the fall of 2015.

I asked Chuck to make the paddle without shoulders as I have grown to prefer the feel of the loom and the ease with which I can extend the paddle as it slides between my hands. I had given him some guidance on dimensions but left most of it up to him.
The paddle is light and flexible. Whippy is the word that comes to mind, it has fine edges and for a wooden paddle I was surprised at how thin the blade was at the tip. This paddle is a slicer. What I mean is if you want it to it slices through the water very quickly, almost effortlessly. I found it a technical paddle, meaning it needed good technique to be used efficiently, but boy when you use it right is is powerful. Many people who do not use Greenland paddles wrongly assume that you need a big shovel to create power. This is the type of paddle that disproves that notion.

I used the paddle on numerous trips travelling many miles as I learned how to paddle efficiently with it. This is a paddle you can paddle with all day and eat the miles up with little fatigue or wear on your joints. I would not choose to surf with this paddle, mainly because I like a fatter shorter paddle in the waves, but to be honest such a light paddle feels like to may give in a big broach, all though I have no proof of that. I am very excited that another paddle maker has established himself in the mid-west, I look forward to continuing to use the Aluu paddle and see what other shapes and design Chuck comes up with over the coming years.

You can reach Chuck through his website here: http://aluupaddles.com/

EastPole Paddles – Made by Margus Lelle

You may recall I previously wrote about a couple of different paddles from EastPole Paddles. One was especially interesting an Aleut paddle that was spectacular.

glowOut of the blue I was contacted by Margus who said he was going to send me a paddle with eyes to try. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but now I do. Each paddle tip has an integrated round eye of glow-in-the dark material. So as you paddle through the twilight of evening to your camp site your paddle tips show up gently glowing blue, allowing your paddling partners to see you, and hopefully other marine vessels avoid you. I found it hard to photograph the glow, but it really worked.

Okay, so before you write this off as a gimmick let me tell you about the rest of the paddle, because it impressed me. I communicate a lot with paddle makers, many of whom ask my opinion on shapes materials etc. Margus and I had exchanged a few messages about the transition from Loom to blade, and I had explained the shape and feeling of my favorite paddle. I like a pronounced lenticular or diamond shape as I find that causes the paddle to naturally cant against my middle and ring finger. Margus clearly listened to me and the paddle he produced has exactly the feel I like. It is a short strong paddle with good blade width, I think I am going to like using this paddle in big water. The blade cross section is a good compromise leaving enough wood to be strong and sufficient shape to create lift if I paddle properly. The paddle has the trade mark laminated wood on the shaft that is visually appealing. EastPole Paddles are very reasonably priced and I see from the web site they also make a norsaq now too. If you are looking for a wooden paddle these are worth checking out, I recommend speaking with Margus to see what he can recommend for you.

Margus can be reached through the EastPole Paddles web site: http://eastpolepaddles.com

Gram Kajak – Made by Lars Gram

I know if I met Lars I think would like him. He thinks like I do, we share the same passion for paddles. This quote from his website really resonates with me:

Giant factories and chimneys belching out smoke do not really interest me. That is why I build my paddles in my own workshop where I will never stop experimenting with different types of wood and seeking out new and better designs. Here, I use my hands and simple tools to produce paddles – paddles that are unique and will come to tell their own stories in the hands of their paddler.

larsgramHailing from Denmark Lars has created a one man business producing both Carbon fiber and wooden paddles. The build quality of the two that he sent me are impressive. The laminated wooden paddle is a beauty to behold. The multiple timbers not just chosen for the aesthetics, but for their properties, weight, flexibility, comprehensive strength.

There is something intrinsically appealing to me when function and form come together and result in engineering beauty. The carbon paddle is a very modern design, by that I mean it is chasing the thin and sharp characteristics I talked about earlier. I used the paddle for teaching last month and handed it to several highly competent paddlers, each of whom coveted it and didn’t want to give it back. Its a gem. Light, strong, easily paddled with minimal canting needed.

feruleDid I mention its a two part paddle? Both the Carbon and the wood paddle are two part paddles, joined by a system that is another example of clever elegant engineering. The diamond shape of the paddle ferule prevents inserting the paddle at the wrong angle, aligning the blades perfectly, and means the push buttons purpose is simply to hold the two pieces together rather than resist rotation. The only improvement I can come up with is to reduce the height of the button so it is flush with the loom. However being rounded it is very easy to pass through the hands.

The wooden laminated paddle is a classic design with relatively parallel blade edges for a good section of the blade. Unlike the carbon paddle the edges are soft making this a very forgiving paddle. It feels strong in my hands, the soft shoulder almost non existent, allow for easy extension and bracing. The quality of the construction is some of the best I have seen in a laminated paddle. The integrated ferule blends perfectly with the wooden loom and blade.These are works of love and art. I travel to many paddling events so the convenience of a two part paddle, combined with this paddles beauty, may make this my new travelling companion. I suspect we will become regulars at MSP airport.

You can contact Lars through his website: http://www.gramkajak.com/

Disclosure: Each of the three paddle makers provided these paddles free of charge, and have not asked for them to be returned. I did not solicit them and they did not solicit this blog post nor did they edit it prior to its posting.

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