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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Different Strokes

Double Your Pleasure?

By Farwell Forrest

Going straight. We've been there before, and it's not always as easy as it looks. In a canoe, with a single-bladed paddle, one solution is the J-stroke. There are others. Switching, for example. Just paddle on one side of your boat for a few strokes, and then, before you've veered too far away from your intended course, switch your blade over to the other side and paddle there. Beginners do it instinctively, if a bit clumsily. Experts do it with well-practiced efficiency. It works. In experienced hands, with a bent-shaft paddle and a lean, straight-keeled boat, it's probably the fastest way to move down a long stretch of quiet water.

Suppose, now, that you had a blade on each end of your paddle. Then you wouldn't have to switch your paddle from one side of your boat to the other. You'd just dip one blade in the water, complete the stroke on that side, and then dip the other blade in the water on the other side. You'd be alternating sides, stroke for stroke, in a smooth, continuous application of power. There'd be no time lost in switching, and no energy lost in correcting for your boat's drift. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?

Happily, it's not. And it's not a new idea, either. As far back as 1576, when the English explorer Martin Frobisher sailed into the arctic bay that now bears his name, his ship was met by a "a number of small things fleeting in the Sea a farre off, whyche he supposed to be Porposes, or Ceales, or some kinde of a strange fishe." They weren't seals or porpoises, of course. They were men, Inuit hunters. Men in kayaks. And each man had a double-bladed paddle.

John ("Rob Roy") MacGregor, the irrepressible nineteenth-century English barrister who pioneered the sport of recreational canoeing, visited North America in 1858. He watched Alaskan natives hunting from kayaks, and he had the sense to know a good idea when he saw one. The sport canoes he subsequently designed and popularized—we'd call them "touring kayaks" today—were all propelled with double paddles. Soon, other sportsmen were picking up the new fashion. George Washington Sears, the cobbler turned paddler who wrote a series of popular articles for Forest and Stream in the 1880s under the pen-name "Nessmuk," confidently predicted that the "light, single canoe with double-bladed paddle is bound to ... become a leading .... feature in summer recreation." And he wasn't far wrong, though the double-bladed paddle suffered a half-century-long eclipse when the tandem canoe replaced solo canoes and kayaks in America's affections. Today, however, both of these long-neglected craft are newly popular, and if you buy a kayak, you'll be sold a "kayak paddle" to go with it. It will look very much like the paddle built to MacGregor's direction in 1865, as well as those later wielded by Nessmuk: two approximately oval blades at either end of a long central shaft, some seven feet in length overall. Good ideas stay around.

Measuring Up Still, as good as it is, the double-bladed paddle isn't a magic wand. You'll need to choose your paddle well, and use it skillfully, if you want to get the most out of it. In MacGregor's day, the choice was easy. Nowadays, however, there are dozens of brands of paddle, in a bewildering variety of lengths and types. Fortunately, it's not too hard to make sense of what's on offer. Length? An old rule of thumb for whitewater paddlers suggested that you plant the paddle you were interested in at your feet, hold it vertically, and see if you could curl the fingers of an upraised hand over the edge of the upper blade. If you could, you'd found your length. For many adults, this meant choosing a paddle that was seven feet (about 215 centimeters) long. Whitewater paddlers now favor shorter blades, but touring and recreational boaters won't go far wrong if they follow this old rule. Most lines of touring paddle start at 220 centimeters, and that's a good choice for paddlers whose kayaks are no more than 24 inches wide. (This confusion of metric and English measures is unavoidable, I'm afraid, at least in the U.S..) Paddlers with wider boats—some recreational kayaks are as wide as 30 inches—will be happier with slightly longer paddles, 230 centimeters (7½ feet) or even 245 (8 feet).

Getting the length right isn't the only problem. The working ends of double-paddles now come in a fantastic array of shapes, from long, thin "Greenland-" or "Inuit-style" blades, some of which are little wider than the paddle shaft itself, to the big, broad, squarish blades favored by whitewater enthusiasts. Most touring and recreational paddlers will be happiest with the mid-sized, asymmetric blades described as—surprise!—"touring paddles."

That's not all. The first time someone looks closely at a double-bladed touring paddle, he (or she) is likely to think he's got hold of one that was rejected by the manufacturer's quality assurance people. The blades don't line up! They're offset, one from the other, at an angle somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees. Grab another paddle off the rack, though, and you'll see that it, too, has the same "defect." The offset is deliberate. It's called feathering, and it's been around for more than a century. The rationale—that this offset minimizes the wind resistance offered by the "airborne" (upper) blade, thereby reducing wind-flutter and making paddling easier—is debatable at best, but fashion is fashion. And feathered blades are the norm, though since many (if not most) touring paddles sold today are of the two-piece, break-down type, it's often possible to eliminate the offset between blades, effectively unfeathering the paddle.

Feathering introduces new complications. Since most paddle blades today are asymmetric, there's only one correct way to hold (and use) a feathered paddle. Grip a feathered paddle as if you were about to start a stroke on the right side. If the face of the left-hand paddle blade—that's the blade in the air as you start your stroke—points up, you have a right-hand control paddle. These are the most common type, and it really doesn't matter if you're a right-hander or a southpaw. Most folks are comfortable with right-hand control.

When you've chosen your paddle, you have to learn to use it to make your boat go where you want it to go. This isn't as hard as mastering the canoeist's "J," to be sure, but it's not exactly intuitive, either. Here's how to get started.

First, once you're in the water (warm, quiet water, I hope, with an instructor or experienced friend beside you!), check your boat's trim. Kayaks—and solo canoes—are low-volume boats. If they're not in balance, their performance will suffer. What's "in balance"? For a kayak, or for a canoe being paddled with a double-blade, being in balance means trimmed level—both fore and aft and side to side. If you can't quite get your boat level, it's better that it be just a bit light in the bow.

Raise your rudder, too—if your boat has a rudder, of course. Relying on a rudder before you've learned to paddle is like putting training wheels on your bicycle. Real learning starts when your take them off. Rudders are useful adjuncts, but you want to be able to paddle without one if you have to. Is it too windy to raise the rudder? Then come back some other day. If it's so windy that you need a rudder to control your boat, then it's too windy to learn to paddle.

Settled down in your boat? Life-jacket on? Good. Hold your paddle in front of you, with your hands equidistant from the mid-point of the shaft and a little more than shoulder-width apart. Rotate the paddle shaft in your hands until the face of the right blade points to the rear. Now clamp down hard on the shaft with your right hand. Not a death grip, of course, but a good, firm hold. Think "spot weld" and you won't go far wrong. Your right hand is your control hand (if you have a right-hand control paddle, that is). You want it to stay put.

Does this mean that you'll have to keep looking at your paddle to see if it's shifted around in your hand? Not at all. Most good-quality paddles have slightly out-of-round shafts for just this reason. When you've "locked on" with the paddle in the proper orientation, you'll feel it. Then, should your grip ever loosen or the paddle slip out of position, you'll be able to get back to the right place by feel alone. (If your paddle doesn't have an oval shaft, you can make do by taping a plastic soda straw to the paddle shaft under the fingers of your right hand. It's not as comfortable as an oval shaft, of course, but it makes a serviceable tactile reference.)

The mechanics of the basic forward stroke with a double-blade are a lot like those I described in my earlier article for the canoe. Here's how it's done. (I'm assuming you have a feathered paddle, and that it's set up for right-hand control.) Reach forward on your right side, rotating your upper body slightly, and place your right blade in the water. As your upper body uncoils and the paddle blade starts back*, push forward with your left arm, keeping it more or less at the level of your shoulders. As the blade passes your body, begin your recovery. Make the stroke parallel to your boat's keel. (You'll probably find that your off-side arm moves diagonally across your body during the stroke. So long as it doesn't go too far, this is OK. If you're bumping your chin with your off-side biceps, however, or if your paddle shaft rubs against the gunwale of your boat, you may be holding your paddle too high. Lower the paddle a bit, and try again. If that doesn't help, you may have too short a paddle. The remedy? Get a longer one—or a narrower boat.)

It's All in the Wrist So far, both wrists have been straight. Now, however, as you lift the right-hand blade from the water, cock your right wrist up and back. Keep the left wrist straight, though. Let the paddle shaft rotate in your LEFT hand until the face of the left blade points toward the rear. The first few times you do this, you'll have to look to see that you've got the angle right. After that, you'll be able to feel when it's right. Place the left-hand blade in the water. Uncoil. Push forward with the right arm. Recover. Straighten your right wrist. Repeat the cycle. At first you'll veer and waver as much as any novice canoeist. Don't worry—and don't drop your rudder to "help out"! Just keep trying. Don't rush things, and don't try for power at the start. Concentrate on developing a smooth, "circular" motion. Speed and power will come later, after you've learned to go straight.

It won't take long. By the end of your first hour on the water, you'll be well on your way to mastering the art. Don't be surprised if your right wrist aches a bit, though. Tenosynovitis (also known as "carpal tunnel syndrome") is part of the price we paddlers pay for the fashion in feathered paddles. Some folks are never bothered, but others start hurting right from day one. If you're one of these unlucky folks, consider switching to an unfeathered paddle. It's more important to be happy than it is to be fashionable, after all. But don't plan on switching back and forth from one type of paddle to another. There are good reasons not to do this. We'll get to those reasons in later articles in this series, but for now just make your choice and stick to it.

That's it. You've answered "Yes!" to the question, "Double your pleasure?" Aren't you glad you did?

* A Dutch paddler who read the first article in this series reminds me that it's the boat and not the paddle that moves through the water. He's right. If water weren't both dense and incompressible, paddles wouldn't work. Neither would oars or propellers. Still, a paddler's usual frame of reference is his boat. When he follows his paddle with his eyes, he sees it move. This is an illusion, of course, but it's a mighty convincing illusion. In the interest of clarity, therefore, I've found it best to adopt the paddler's frame of reference when describing strokes. Most of us learn best when descriptions of physical phenomenon correspond to our perceptions, whatever the real truth of the matter is.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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