In the last twenty years of paddling I have used four differently designed paddles, each one in its day offering what I thought was the ultimate in design finesse. As I sit in my cabin looking out on the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, there is a beautiful wooden paddle hanging on a beam over my head. The paddle is twenty years old and the varnish still catches the light coming in from the windows. The blades are slightly scooped, with very little dihedral, 80 degree feathering, and though the tips have been repaired with epoxy, the paddle is as good today as it was in 1984 when I used it to finish an 8,000 mile paddle around the US and Canada. This first paddle was the wooden Mitchell, which holds a special significance as a turning point in my life - it was the paddle that introduced me to the sea. Degrees of blade feathering, wood versus fiberglass, dihedral or scooped blade, were all questions that I was blissfully unaware of. I bought the Mitchell on a recommendation and took off on a wonderful adventure that continues to this day.
Of course, I learned a great deal along the route of that first water journey. I had never taken a kayaking class, but there are some things that can be learned simply by observation and tweaking one's developing style. I didn't know anything about high or low angle paddling, but as I sat and watched the bow of my boat I noticed it wandering slightly from side to side as I paddled. It didn't take long for me to figure out that this was wasted movement. If I was going to paddle this super sleek fifteen and a half foot long by twenty-four inch wide boat 8,000 miles I needed to somehow get rid of the bow wobble. It just seemed to make sense to put the paddle as close to the boat as possible and pull it straight back. That solved the problem with the first part of the stroke.
There’s a lot to see on a long paddling journey but, lets face it, boredom and repetition are also big players. While the body is busy with its task, the brain has to also be kept out of mischief. After the minor victory up at the bow, I figured maybe there was something I should be looking at back aft. So…. I started looking at - or maybe just feeling - the last part of the stroke. I was getting the blade in close to the boat up forward (which took care of the “wandering bow syndrome? and felt better on my shoulders) but by the time the paddle came out of the water it felt kind of heavy, as if it were lifting rather than pushing the water past the boat. Something wasn’t right, but the only way to fix it would have been to cut a little off the length of the paddle. This seemed pretty extreme. The paddle was already 220cm - shorter than most in those days, and besides, who was I that I should think my paddle was too long? I had only been paddling for a month! (A note about experts: the greatest teacher we all have is the one sitting in the cockpit of our boats. If something doesn’t feel right then it isn’t - no matter what someone else may say. As in so many other aspects of life, we need to give ourselves more credit for what we know intuitively). I'd just have to deal with the added lift of water and keep paddling. Maybe someday someone would make a shorter paddle. Eight thousand miles later I was back at the same beach where the journey had begun.
I tried being a normal person after that first trip. And it seemed to work for almost two years. But then something happened at about eighteen-months. I started thinking of how it felt to be in the cockpit of a kayak, and imagined myself off on another journey.
Six months later I was at the mouth of the Humber River in England, sitting in a brand new boat - three inches narrower than my first one - and looking out on the North Sea. I had traded my wooden paddle for a fiberglass Werner San Juan. It was still 220cm long, because that’s the shortest available, but it entered the water very cleanly, and - it was yellow. That was important. Why? I don’t know. But it was yellow and pretty and I was off on another adventure. What more could anyone ask for?
The English waters taught me a lot! I got trounced in surf, hammered by cold winds, spent days on end in the tent waiting for the winds to calm, and almost drowned when I smashed my boats on rocks and swam off something called “The Lizard?- the southern most point in England. The learning curve was steep, but with lots of luck and perseverance I managed to circumnavigate England, Wales and Scotland.
After the British trip I again tried to be normal and actually succeeded, somewhat, for almost ten years. But then... the urge struck again. I got to thinking about a small (relatively speaking) island just to the west of England. "I wonder if I could paddle around Ireland?" Of course a question like that can only be answered one way. " Well maybe I'll just give it a try and see what happens." I called Werner Paddles and asked if they could make a paddle that was 215cm - a brave request on my part. Shelley and Bruce Furrer said they had a new paddle called the Molokai they could easily make in that length and they’d be happy to let me use one on the expedition. To make a long story short- Ireland was incredible and there no way to make it into a short story but since this is an article about paddles and equipment….
Twelve hundred miles later I was back and firmly convinced that I had found the ultimate paddle. The Molokai was BIG - lots of power in the surf, it was STABLE- a result of something called dihedral which translated into a firm grab of water on each stroke, and LIGHT- the carbon fiber was tougher than the wood and fiberglass blades I had used in the past. By shortening the shaft to 215cm I had gotten rid of that heavy feel of lifting water in the back. I could still spin the large blades relatively fast and keep the stress off my arms by rotating from my torso. The big blades gave me all the power I needed as well as the support for braces and rolls.
My next trip was a circumnavigation of New Zealand in 1999: 1,700 miles of the biggest water I had ever seen. Once again it was the Molokai that sliced through the Great Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea and brought the boat back around after many capsizes. I loved the solid feel of the blade and the light weight of the carbon. The shorter length gave me all of the advantages I was looking for - fast revolutions in the surf as well as being easier to set up after getting rolled and pummeled in the surf. I was sure I had found just the right combination of length and blade size and that this would be my last paddle.
Atlantic Kayak Tours, Expert Center
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