fredag 11 juli 2014

Open canoe paddles 1: The paddle and materials

The choice of paddle is just as important as the choice of canoe. It greatly affects your paddling and could be the difference between a stiff neck with headache as a result or a fantastic day on the lake. 
This is the first part in a series of 4. In this part I'll talk about the different parts of the paddle, materials, balance, weight and flexibility.

This picture is from the book "Canoe Paddles- A complete guide to building your own"  by Graham Warren and David Gidmark. It's a great book if you want to learn more about paddles and especially if you want to make your own.
In the next 3 parts of this series I'll go into detail on the shaft, grip and blade. For now I'll focus on the paddle as a whole. There are 4 things to think about here, material, balance, weight and flexibility. And I won't say the cliche phrase that it's all about compromises. You can actually combine all these 4 attributes quite well in a wooden paddle. Though lighter weight will obviously make the paddle weaker in most cases. Well, I'll go through these attributes one by one.
The things you should consider when choosing material is; hardness, weight, feel in hands, toughness, environmental impact, flexibility, maintenance and price. 
The most common materials in paddles are aluminum, plastic or wood. Then there are more high tech materials like glass fiber and carbon fiber.
It's a good idea to have a paddle which matches the gunwales on the canoe in hardness, otherwise if the paddle is too soft the abrasion will wear it down eventually, or if it's too hard the gunwales will be worn down. So for an aluminum canoe you'll want an aluminum paddle, unless of course, the canoe have gunwales in another material.
Wooden paddles have imo hands down the best feel. Even when paddling in winter they feel warm in your hands and if the shaft is just oiled and not varnished you won't have to worry about blisters when paddling. Aluminum are probably the only paddles which you want to avoid using. Even in summer they feel cold and in winter they could cost you your fingers. Most other paddles will feel okay but maybe give you blisters if you paddle for too long. 
Toughness is not the same as hardness, though a harder paddle will be tougher than a soft one. A paddle with thicker shaft and blade will be tougher. But also heavier and not as smooth on flat water. More on this in the "blade" post.
If you want an environment friendly paddle, which I think should be highly prioritized since we paddle and enjoy the nature. Then take one in wood. The other ones require lots of processing with toxic rest products, and if lost when paddling they won't decompose.
Wooden paddles probably require the most Maintenance. If they're oiled you should re-oil them at least once a year, but more can't hurt. But make sure to wipe them off about 30 min after oiling, otherwise you'll get a sticky surface which isn't nice. Varnished paddles don't need maintenance as often, but it's more work when you actually do it. Non-wooden paddles don't really need any maintenance at all.
Plastic paddles are the cheapest, but they usually have poor design, especially the grip. They are also quite heavy. Cheap wooden paddles usually lack good design as well, though they are usually a bit better than the plastic ones. Carbon fiber and good laminated wooden paddles are the most expensive, but well worth the price.
Most of the time while paddling you're holding the paddle in air or water. If we say your paddle weights one kg (35 oz) and you paddle for 3 hours that's like walking for 3 hours with a 1l pack of milk which you constantly move up and down. Gets quite tiring after a while... So a lighter paddle will make it more fun and less tiring to paddle. But don't get too stuck on the weight. A well balanced paddle will have a much bigger effect on the paddling than a light one. Carbon fiber are the lightest paddles you'll find and quite hard too for that weight. Wooden paddles are also unexpectedly light, especially laminated ones can get a really good weight to toughness ratio.
The balance is what really makes the paddle feel light. If you ever try a well balanced paddle you'll never again want to use one that is not.
Generally it is said that you want the balance point, with waterfilm (more on this soon) to be at the paddles throat. However I personally disagree with this. I think the balance point should be where you hold your lower hand when you lift the paddle since that is the point you pivot the paddle on. This though, is quite hard to accomplish on a wooden paddle without lamination.
Since the blade is usually much heavier than the grip, the balance point tends to go towards the blade. Especially on shorter paddles where the grip isn't as far away. To complicate it further a water film is added to the blade while paddling. When you lift the paddle from the water a film of water remains on the blade, adding weight towards the blade. To compensate for this the initial balance point should be 2-5 cm (3/4" - 2") (depending on blade area and paddle length) closer to the grip than the final point.
A little flex in the paddle saves your body from shocks when you hit a stone or accelerate too fast. It also makes the paddle feel more alive. Too much flex however, will take lots of power just to bend the paddle. And the water will just slip off the blade if it's too flexible. Trust me, I once made a paddle with too much flex in the blade and it's quite heavy and unresponsive when paddling.
To complicate it a bit it also matters where the flex is in the paddle. There isn't a lot of research done on this so I can only talk from my own experience. As I mentioned I made a paddle with lots of flex in the blade and it didn't work very well. So I'm of the opinion that there should be a little flex through the whole paddle instead of lots of flex in one part.
To try the flex in a paddle, put it against the ground at about 45 degrees and hold the grip with one hand and push with light force on the middle of the paddle. It should flex around 2 cm (3/4") at the spot you're pushing.

In the next part: Open canoe paddles 2: The shaft, I'll talk about what you need to consider when choosing shaft form and length.