Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The paddle

We talk a lot about kayaks, and what properties different shapes offer. How to control them, and how to best use them to get the needs we require. We talk about the fit, and the connection between ourselves and our kayaks. But what we haven't spoken about, and I think most don't speak about, is our paddles.

Frequently I see people who have decided that they are going to do it, they are going to buy a kayak, but then they realize that there are things they need in order to paddle. Among them are the PFD and paddle. You can't really save of money with your pfd choice. Yes, there are expensive and less expensive pfd's to choose from, but not to the degree that you can save money on a paddle. But spending less on a paddle is truly a mistake.

The paddle is our connection to the water, and our means of propulsion. Or at least our means of transmitting propulsion power to the water. I don't think there is a single piece of gear that is as important as your paddle. I tend to think of it as being like the idea of buying a Ferrari, and putting cheap tires on it. What would be the point. I am not going to get into the debate of Greenland or euro - what ever works for you, works for you! - But I will say a few words about length, and materials.

Length, I feel, is a lot like hemlines. They go up and down with the times. I paddle a 220 cm paddle. If I go to the Werner website and fill out a quick survey, it will tell me I should be paddling a 215 cm paddle. Today I was reading a kayaking book, by who's formula I should be paddling a 230 cm paddle. At this point I wouldn't change the length of my paddle because I am comfortable with it, but my guess is the Werner formula is closer to the truth.

In terms of materials you have a handful of choices. The paddle shaft can be Aluminum, fiberglass, wood, or carbon fiber. With wood being almost exclusively the domain of Greenland style paddles - though bending branches makes a nice wooden paddle.

As you go up in price, you go down in weight, and here is what I think is important. Weight should be low. As low as you can afford. Here is why.

If you paddle for four hours, you will do about fourteen thousand paddle strokes. if you save five ounces, by going up in price, that is well over two tons you don't have to lift. If you are kayak touring, four hours is a short day. For that reason I paddle with a Werner Kalliste, which is a carbon shaft, with carbon blades. It weighs 23 ounces. Compared to the previously mentioned Wooden bending branches paddle which weighs 41 ounces. The carbon is stiff, and light, and a dream. Students regularly ask me to try my paddle, and I tell them they can try it, for 30 seconds. And I hold them to it. Mostly I limit their time because I don't want to paddle with their almost universally heavy paddle. And also because I want to make sure I get it back. That paddle is mine. This is another thing I feel strongly about. Connection.

In Feng Shui they explain that a room with good Feng Shui will just feel right. Similarly, when picking a piece of fruit, let your hand wander over the choices and one will just 'feel right'. This is how I feel about paddles. I feel that there is a bond between myself and my paddle. I found this quote about Samurai and their Katana:

The bond between the katana and samurai was sacred. The sword was always used as a last resort. The samurai believed the katana was linked to their soul

For this reason I limit the time my paddle spends in another's hand. She is mine, and I am hers. I know her every scratch, as they tell a story of the journey similar to a persons scars. She is kept in a soft cloth bag when not in use, she is treated with respect. She is my connection to the water. As important as I think choosing the right kayak is, I think choosing the right paddle is more important. Spend a little extra money, and more importantly a little extra time. Check your prospective paddle for scratches, and if faced with more than one of the same paddle, let both of them - or more - rest in your hands, and see which one sings to you. This will be a partner in many great journeys. Choose her wisely.

A short word on 'spare paddles'. When I do long trips I carry a spare paddle. She is an older, but still solid Werner carbon fiber paddle. The Camano, also 220 cm. Many people use a less expensive paddle as their backup. One school I almost taught for - used smaller Greenland paddles as their backup paddles. Regardless of what the primary paddle was. I think this is a mistake. If your paddle fails you, it will likely be in bad conditions. You will probably do something to stress the paddle in a way that it wasn't meant to be stressed. This is no time to switch to something new. Something that doesn't feel natural, or right, in your hands. Your backup paddle should be very close to your primary paddle in terms of weight, and feel.

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