Monday, April 19, 2010

Empirical Feel for the Paddle Length

My first paddle was made by Canon. It had a fiberglass shaft and nylon blades. It's 230cm long. I got it to propel myself in a barge of a kayak: the folding Folbot Greenland II double. That's a beast with 34" of beam and 17" cockpit height. Folbot recommended 260cm for that boat but 230cm worked for me as long as I but a few inches of padding on my seat and was able to clear the coaming.

Since then I slimmed down. First came a single Folbot Cooper with a 24" beam. After that an old Valley Nordkapp HS—my slimmest boat at 20.5". With slimming boats and increasing appetite and skills, my paddles shrunk too. First I got an all-fiberglass 215cm Lendal, then another Lendal shaft to go with the fiberglass blades—a carbon bent-shaft 210cm. For the past 6 months I've been paddling a loaner 210cm all-carbon Werner Ikelos.

All along the way, "shorter is better and more efficient" has been the word.

This past weekend, I went for a paddle on a shallow rocky West Branch of the DuPage river. For the first time in years I've brought out my 230cm fiberglass-plastic Canon weapon. Just wanted to see how it feels and what difference 20cm in length really makes. Did not really want to bang up the primary guns against the bottom either.

First impression—the paddle felt very comfortable and efficient for casual stroking. The weight was not noticeably different from my fiberglass Lendal and the paddling was not any harder due to extra length. Very quickly I noted that the shaft was not as stiff as Lendal or Werner. It felt more like a Greenland stick as it obviously flexed with every stroke. I kinda liked that… I also liked the longer reach at the beginning of the stroke. It seemed like I could put more into each stroke and apply more power if I wanted to. So I decided to want to…

That's where things started to break apart. First, it was hard to maintain a high angle stroke as the blade went too deep under water and was harder to take out of the water. There was also no way I could generate high-frequency cadence with the longer shaft. Even though the blades on this Canon Heritage paddle had much lower surface area than my Lendal Kinetic or Werner Ikelos, the longer shaft increased the arm of the lever to the point where even these smaller blades quickly exceeded my available power. So while a fresh 4.5-knot touring pace with a stroke somewhere between a high and a low-angle felt very relaxed comfortable and efficient, sprinting with this paddle was awkward. Shorter paddle definitely has an advantage here regardless of the blade size.

Then I tried maneuvering strokes. I loved the extra extension on the stern ruddering strokes. Put the paddle parallel to the boat and work the throttle to see-saw from a pry to a draw. The boat responded wonderfully. Longer blade gives greater leverage and since the loads during ruddering are relatively low on intensity, extra length is an advantage. Something makes me think that the speed and power involved in surfing would most likely overwhelm the hands wielding a longer weapon.

Extra length does not work so well on bow rudders either. I immediately got lost with upper hand somewhere in the sky, lower blade deep under water and the amount of strain on the body noticeably greater than with a shorter paddle. Positioning the blade was also more lethargic, fine control more elusive. This could be, in part, due to the fact that I have not used this paddle for a long time but the difference was so stark that I tend to dismiss this argument of disuse.

Sweep strokes with a longer paddle—you guessed it—are more efficient. Here the more power and leverage you have the better. Since the blade is farther away from the boat, both the turning and the supporting momentums benefit.

In summary, longer paddles have come in disrepute lately. After a few hours of paddling a low-tech cheap long paddle, I could see no prohibitive disadvantages to using it for casual paddling. Some maneuvering strokes and bracing may be a bit slower with the longer paddle; however, this lag is more than compensated by the additional leverage that a blade gains when it is used farther away from the hull. As long as the blade is not too big, a longer paddle seems perfectly appropriate for a non-technical paddler. Lower paddling angle is also known as less demanding on the upper body strength and seems more appropriate for people who are less physically fit.

Except for the stern rudder and sweep strokes, a longer paddle will most likely interfere with technical paddling strokes and intermediate-to-advanced maneuvers. Acceleration is sluggish, bow rudder is awkward, braces are slower, draw strokes seemed less efficient due to sinking blade. It also seems like a longer paddle would be more of a hindrance than help when rolling in rough water. Extra leverage will be nullified by the difficultly of maneuvering the blades into proper position.

At the end of the day, I expect that longer paddles will be back in vogue in the next decade or so.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Standing Waves on the Mighty West Branch DuPage River

With the water about a foot above average, there are some surfable standing waves on the normally placid West Branch of DuPage river just north of Butterfield Rd. in Warenville.
About four of them are progressively longer from the first one with all of 2' to the last one that's probably good 6-8' long. They are not steep, hard to get on to, reside in swift current artificially produced by strategically placed boulders that constrict the flow. The water is about a foot deep on either side.
It is a pretty good place to practice surfing as the set-up is completely unforgiving.  I clocked the average drift speed at 5.5 knots with the GPS.

PS Here's a picture of the spot from the other side at an average flow.

When it is that low, I can paddle through the constriction.  GPS speed with average water levels was just a hair over 3 knots.