Doubling Up Makes Sense for Solo Canoeists
As our Québec companion's example proved. But there's more to his story. The paddle he plied to such good effect was a beautifully crafted, jointed spruce "canoe double," all of nine feet long, with copper bang strips on the blade tips. And it was as light as it was lovely. Too light perhaps. Because the strain of driving a loaded 15-foot Prospector against the wind proved more than the ferruled joint could take. Halfway down the four-mile-long lake it parted with a crack like a rifle shot, leaving our companion at the mercy of the Old Woman, and she gave him very little slack. In seconds he was scudding backward faster than he'd been going forward, helped along by his poncho. Of course, being an old hand at backcountry voyaging, he had a spare paddle in his boat. But it was a single blade, and try as he might he couldn't keep pace with the rest of us. The other solo boater in the group had a sleek, seaworthy Sawyer downriver canoe, and he drove it hard with a bent-shaft paddle. Yet he, too, was struggling to keep up.
With our poncho-clad friend's double blade now lying in two pieces in the bottom of his Prospector, he didn't have a chance. Still, he wasn't about to give up. So after a few fruitless and exhausting minutes trying to defy the Old Woman's wrath with his spare single, he opted for the canoeing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: He pulled out the aluminum setting pole he'd stowed under the thwarts of his boat and started paddling with it, dipping the ends into the water alternately and relying on the cross-sectional area of the immersed pole in lieu of proper blades. And wonder of wonders, it worked. At least it worked better than his single blade. He caught up to the rest of us in no time, and we all reached the foot of the lake together, without having to slow the pace to match that of our unfortunate companion.
My conclusion? When the chips are down—and the wind is up—even a bladeless double trumps a conventional canoe paddle, at least for solo canoeists. (Using doubles in a tandem is certainly possible, but careful choreography is needed to avoid entanglements, and the gain in efficiency is less marked.) Which bring us to the next big question:
Which Double for Me?
The perfect double paddle would be gossamer light, Samson strong, and dirt cheap. It would also be elegant enough to win a blue ribbon in you local craft show, as well as being easy on your hands. Sadly, though, this Ideal Double doesn't exist—or if it does, I haven't discovered it. But I have found that you can get a Pretty Decent Double for a reasonable price, and that's good enough for me. Length is the critical dimension. Unless you're a racer, however, it's not as critical as all that. The classic spruce "canoe doubles" were nine feet long. Most were jointed in the middle, and as our friend's brush with disaster on that lake in Québec demonstrated, the joint was often a weak point. Finding a nine-foot-long double today isn't impossible (Shaw & Tenney of Orono, Maine, still make them, and they're beauties), but you're not likely to see one in most outfitters' catalogs. Luckily, eight-foot (240-245 cm) blades are relatively common, and serviceable examples can be had for less than USD100. These work well for most folks in solo canoes, provided that their boat's beam doesn't exceed 32 inches or so. One word of warning: Funnily enough, very short folks may want a slightly longer paddle. (Why? In order to minimize gunwale strikes without having to adopt an exaggeratedly high stroke.) So if you think this might be a problem for you, see if you can borrow or rent a number of doubles of varying lengths and give them all a good tryout. The Paddling.net Reviews can also help.
Most long double paddles today can be broken down into two pieces, with the join at or near the center, and though this joint is always a potential weak link, breakdown paddles have obvious advantages. After all, an eight-foot-long paddle is an awkward thing to store in a boat (or a closet). Furthermore, the joint usually makes it possible to vary the angle of the blades, and while most paddlers prefer feathered (aka "offset") blades to start with, some of us soon discover that we like unfeathered paddles better, at least under most circumstances. Many jointed paddles give you the choice. In the photo below, the unfeathered paddle is on top: