Saturday, December 29, 2007

Testing touring paddles

There is a strange thing between seakayakers and paddles. As a lot of kayakers experiment with different boat-designs and change kayaks during their kayaking career, most stick to their (first) paddle. The type of paddle you are using however, can have serious effect on paddling-pleasure and efficiency. Strange that most seakayakers don't experiment more with paddles.

One of the reasons for this might be that good occasions to try out different paddles are rare. Most people will give you a go in their kayak, but do hesitate to lent their paddle. Dutch kayak-gear suppliers (and as a matter of fact there is only one Dutch kayak-dealer that has a wider range of touring paddles in store...) don't offer test paddles. If you are seriously interested, and the chef has a good day, he might give you the chance to try out a paddle a few minutes on the lake before his store, but that's all. When you are about to invest 300 euro's or more in a new paddle there should be a better occasion to get a good impression of its qualities!

So I was lucky when I had this year the opportunity to try out a series of elite class touring paddles over a longer period. The tested paddles represent the top of the range of Lendal, Werner and Epic:
- Lendal Kinetic Wing - Paddlock system;
- Lendal Kinetic Touring - Varilock system;
- Werner Ikelos;
- Werner Cyprus;
- Epic Mid Wing Full Carbon Stiff (Blue) Shaft Length-Lock™.
Common on these paddles is that it are full carbon breakdown-versions, retail prices vary from around 350 to almost 600 euro's (the low exchange-course of the Dollar hasn't worked out in the price tags in the European kayak-stores). I used the paddles on canals and lakes around Woerden, at sea in surf and swell, on short paddles and multiple day tours, under circumstances varying from flat water to the rough stuff. Enough for a good impression. It won’t be long before there is a successor for my good old Lendal Nordkapp.

I am not going to do a review of the tested paddles, nor to do any advise on which one to choose. What’s perfect for me, doesn’t necessarily fit you. Choosing a paddle is personal: What’s the intended use, what’s the paddle style? Physical constitution, condition, power of the kayaker and type and size of the kayak - are just some of the factors that have influence on the performance of a paddle design and size. With this in mind, I like to share some of mine observations.

Wing blade vs. conventional blade:
A real advantage of the wing design is the very powerful catch and the lift it generates when it’s pulled through the water. The wing design forces to paddle in a efficient high angle style. I do love it – and see obvious advantages - also for touring use. I suppose most wing blades are designed for use in a fast racing kayak. The combination of a seakayak with a racing wing (my Brasca I) doesn’t suit me: to heavy – I lack power! I found the smaller blades of the Epic Mid Wing a perfect match with the bigger resistance of a seakayak. The Epic paddles give also a more robust impression for daily use than the ultra-light but fragile construction of the racing wing. That, despite the advantages in efficiency, the wing paddle won’t be my first choice for seakayaking has to do with the handling: forwards paddling, sweep strokes, bracing and rolling are no problem, but with the more playful moves like draw strokes, bow and stern rudders the wing blade sometimes has naughty surprises for me: sometimes it suddenly catched the water and took me of balance – the blade shape is non-forgiving. This is where the semi-wing design of the Lendal Kinetic Wing shows his advantages: it still needs some attention with the special moves, but it’s far more forgiving than a real Wing. With some practice it’s possible to perform most of the more playful moves with this paddle. But it is a compromise: the semi-wing design doesn’t offer a similar catch and lift as a real wing. It doesn’t force you in the high angle wing style like a wing does: it requires more concentration on your paddling technique to really benefit from it’s design.

Blade size: size really matters!
From the first minute I loved the refreshing light action of the small blades of the Werner Cyprus. The lighter action gives a dynamic impression and invites to accelerate continuously. But how do the smaller blades work out on efficiency? I find it very difficult to draw a conclusion on this aspect. I had no problem keeping up with faster groups with the smaller blade. But solo paddling and extensively measuring speed with the GPS I measured a drop of touring speed of about 10% when using the smaller blades. I suppose I do compensate this with paddling in a slightly higher rev when paddling in a group. And that brings it to the point - what is more fatiguing on a long distance: paddling in a slightly higher rev, or applying a bit more power on every stroke? My conclusion is that - as I still feel fit after paddling 40 km’s with the rather big Lendal Nordkapps – slightly larger blades fit me better. Length of the paddle is relevant too: I prefer a shorter paddle because of it’s handling – for the more playful moves and because it invites to a high angle style. ( I still notice much touring kayakers using long paddles of 2.20 cm or even longer, doing more low action sweep strokes than high angle power strokes).

Foam core blades:

The Werner and the Lendal Kinetic Wing blades offer, due to their foam core, noticeable more flotation than I was used to. It feels a bit different on the first moves but it’s great: planting in the blade feels very secure and pulling the blade out the water goes swiftly and effortless. The added buoyancy was also welcome with rolling and with the balance brace.

Cranked shaft/straight shaft:
I always paddled a straight shaft and never had any complaints about the ergonomics, but I was very curious about the handling of the modern ergonomic designs. The Werner cranked shaft felt very natural with forward paddling, bracing, rolling, rudders and draw strokes from the very first moment. I didn’t need any time to get used to it. But did it really feel “better” than a traditional shaft? Hard to say, for me handling was very similar and the only thing I can say about performance is that I didn’t notice much of a difference. Strangely enough the similar cranked shaft of the Lendal paddles took some time for me to get used to. I really needed two or three days to get used to it and to relax my grip on the paddle. But as I got used to it – the Lendal Paddle gave with forward paddling a feeling of higher efficiency - due to the increased leverage? I don’t know what the subtle differences are between the Lendal and the Werner crank shaft. Perhaps it’s all between the ears?

Ferrule systems:
All the tested paddles offer advanced systems to split the paddles. On high priced paddles like these it's almost a must -> to stow it safely away from eagerly eyes in your car or the cockpit of the kayak! All systems have proven to be reliable after long and extensive use. With the Lendal Varilock system you can not only vary the feather of the paddle but also the length. A minor disadvantage of the Lendal system is that an extra tool is needed to secure it – risking that at the moment that you need it – it won’t be there. But for private use that’s not a big issue – once you have found your ideal feather and length you won’t change it a lot anyhow.

The carbon blades make the paddles considerably lighter than I am used to. The difference with my Glass-Nylon Lendal Nordkapp is up to 350 grams... So after paddling one of these ultra light paddles my own paddle felt dramtically heavy. But luckily only for the first 10 minutes - and than I was used again to the extra weight. (But the light feelinhg won't be forgotten ;-).

1. It sure is worth experimenting with different paddle designs. Even minor details like the diameter and texture of the shaft, the way it's ovalized have effect. When I started comparing the different designs I wanted to make my choices as objective as possible. I did try to measure speed, stroke frequency, effect on heart rate etc. But going on I found out that something as subjective as "the feel" became the most significant criterion for me. I am no competition paddler - I want paddle that gives me the most fun: of course it should be effective in forward paddling, but it should also give a good feel and feedback with the so called special manoeuvres. 2. Are these "top of the range paddles" worth the extra money, compared with their middle range equivalents? - Yes they do - especially in the handling and feel they offer advantages. Ok, you can also look upon it in another way: compared to a decent standard paddle: the 10% extra fun will cost you 100% extra money... Make up your mind yourself, try it out...
3. "Don't blame your paddle" - sure there are (more or less subtle) differences in performance between the paddles - but no paddle will make a slow paddler a fast one (or a bad roller a good roller) - technique, power and condition are far more crucial!

With special thanks to Axel, Bernhard and Freya for letting me use the tested paddles over a long period!!


Eric J. said...

I guess the paddlers in my local club are pretty fortunate that they get plenty of opportunities to try different paddles!! People are always willing to swap if asked. Most people rarely ask (except when they see a stick and then they give it back in horror after a few strokes).
A wise coach once told me that the single most important piece of gear in kayaking was a good paddle. It is your interface with the water - the piece of gear you use the most.
Finding the right one is trickier than finding the right kayak, yet most paddlers spend very little time trying out paddles. One of the most poignant lessons for me was feeling the subtle differences between each stick. When I was a stick neophyte I used several sticks -ones I had made, ones friends made, ones professionally made- and it took awhile before I found the combinations of wood and size that worked best for me.
In a class I took last summer the instructors (Cherri Peri and Turner Wilson) made us switch paddles several times during the afternoon. It was a great way to get a sense of how minor variations change the "feel" of a paddle.

Hans said...

Hi eric!
The paddlers in your club are realy lucky! A lot of paddles and a great place to paddle on the doorstep!
I like your blog, when you don't mind i'll add it to the bloglist.

René said...

Hi Hans,

You wrote a real interesting post here!!!

In evaluating all those paddles you did create a valuable checklist of issues for selecting a (sea)paddle.

I must say that I fully agree with your thoughts and experiences.

Although I did not have the opportunity yet to try a cranked shaft paddle, I would like to mention that the forward part of each stroke adds most to the driving force you create with a paddle. The more forward you start your stroke the more driving force; and thus a better efficiency. This is of course part of the paddle-technique that a paddles did master. For the cranked shaft this means that if the geometry of a particular cranked shaft puts the centreline of the blade forward of your hands, gripping the shaft, you will be able to start your strokes automatically more forward (maybe up to 10 cm) and thus gaining in efficiency. May be you can examine the different cranks you evaluated, on this issue to look if the Lendal paddle for instance matches this theory with your feeling of higher efficiency.

Another thing is that I think that the link you make between "a 2,20m-shaft-length and a high angle paddle stroke" is too generalising! Following my competition background I am still paddling longer shafts and am still being able to paddle high angled in a seakayak. (meaning that the pushing hand is only slightly higher than the shoulder; higher is a loss of energy)
For me the trigger to a lower stroke will be somewhere at shafts of 2,30-2,40m. Anyhow when I paddle a shorter shaft of 2,15m on longer trips (requiring a higher paddling frequency) , this feels to nervous for me; not relaxed enough. On the contrary, when paddling surf I like the 2,15m shaft for fast accelerations.
All this meaning that shaft lengths are a personal issue as well!

Your comment on the "chef's good day" made me grin. Yeah, you are right; but is a pity indeed.

Can you tell which paddle you bought or will buy in the end???


Wenley said...

René wrote:

"For the cranked shaft this means that if the geometry of a particular cranked shaft puts the centreline of the blade forward of your hands, gripping the shaft, you will be able to start your strokes automatically more forward (maybe up to 10 cm) and thus gaining in efficiency..."

Very interesting. That is actually the point of the cranked shaft, and not ergonomy. But to achieve this the crank should be both double and negative as the Lendals.

Hans said...

Hi Wenley and René!

Thanks for your valuable additions! I think Wenley has got the point on the cranked shaft design. His analysis matches with my experiences, as I found the Lendal crank more efficient, but the Werner more "ergonomic". Alas I haven't been able yet to compare both designs visual side to side. I am not ready, the story continues...

About the final decission -> I prefer to tell you personal above publishing it on the web,