The Old Sea Dog’s Gear Locker [27]

By Norm Sanders

The OSD has been thinking a lot about paddles lately. Paddles are, after all, what makes the kayak move. (Some might argue that sails can also be used. The OSD rejects this recidivist concept with a contemptuous snarl and the observation that If you want to sail, get a Hobie Cat.)

The fact that paddles are essential to kayak progress should startle no one, but a quick look around at the devices actually in use reveals a lack of understanding of this basic concept.

The first paddle was, no doubt, a stick or small log. The Inuit developed this design into narrow blades, separated by a short shaft. For many thousands of years, the clever users of Qajaqs fashioned narrow un-feathered blades out of round driftwood, intuitively recognising the advantages of the flat configuration: easy to stow, less wrist RSI, less upsetting tendency in strong cross winds.

Now, says the OSD, wander into the paddle section of your favourite water sports shop. Most of the stock is comprised of HEAVY squat, plastic bladed, aluminium shafted, offset paddles. Why? Well, most of the staff, if they kayak at all, are white water types. They use the paddle for steering and balance. The river itself furnishes the motive power. They need a sturdy paddle for bashing rocks and occasionally cutting down small trees for firewood.

But, you may well ask, why the offset? Wouldn’t a non-offset blade be easier and quicker to position for quick bracing and rolls? Of course, says the OSD.

The OSD has lived many years on this planet and has learned that practicality often takes a back seat to fashion. He observes that there is one activity where an offset blade might be an advantage — racing into a headwind. (He has never been particularly bothered by paddle air resistance while slogging into strong winds, noting that the drag on his kayak and body were by far the biggest factors.) When a group of top racers go at it, milliseconds count. A SLIGHT advantage could mean the difference between glorious victory and ignominious defeat. One victorious jock somewhere no doubt modestly attributed his win to his feathered paddle and the rot started.

It takes a lot of courage to state publicly that not only is the Emperor naked, he is using the wrong paddle with his sea kayak. Fortunately, the steadfast and courageous ex-fisheries inspector Dave Winkworth is up to the task and has dragged many a young (and not so young) kayaker back out of the abyss which they have dug with their offset blades.

Having established the value of the paddle in the minds of the gentle readers, the OSD then turned his attention to spares. Many sea kayakers don’t even own a spare paddle, much less carry one. Tsk, Tsk! admonishes the OSD. He observes that even the most experienced of kayakers have broken paddles while attempting to extract themselves from their craft after having landed on an unruly beach.

O.K., O.K., so a spare paddle is a good thing. But what kind? Matt Broze, paddling guru for Sea Kayaker magazine, claims that the main attribute of a good spare paddle is that it shouldn’t scratch the deck where it is stowed.

The OSD dares to differ. He observes that the average aluminium-shafted clam shovel which is normally strapped to the after deck weighs enough to have Swarzenegger himself slumped across the cockpit after an hour or two.

Shouldn’t the spare paddle be just as light and efficient as the main paddle? The OSD asks reasonably.

Of course it should. This is why the OSD asked Alan Wilson of Power Paddles to make a two piece version of his popular and light (28 ounces) sea kayak paddle. The clever OSD suggested that Alan cut the paddle shaft off-center so that the two halves would be the same length when stowed.

Now, the OSD never ventures offshore without his Power Paddle spare — a paddle which he could happily use for days on end.

‘Ah,’ the reader is thinking, ‘But where can I stow the paddle?’ The OSD slips the blades under the bungee cords behind him (and on top of a bag of shade cloth which is itself part of a Dirk Stuber paddle float. Also in the bag is a V Sheet which can be used for signalling or as a tarp.) The paddle shafts are held to the aft decklines with bungee cords and olive clips. Foam wrapped around the shafts keep them from scratching the deck (this would please M. Broze) while still allowing the paddles to be pulled free from the cockpit.

This paddle location is convenient, but may cause problems with aft hatch access. The OSD and Fishkiller have solved this problem by putting VCP hatches in the aft bulkhead rather than on the deck. The OSD marvels that most manufacturers have not seen the advantages of this system. The exception, of course, is the well-designed Inuit Classic which will have this configuration.

Some may argue that the after deck hatch location allows a larger hatch to be used. ‘Pshaw!’ snorts the OSD (and Dave Winkworth, who decked over the aft hatch on his Puffin.)

The OSD reckons that anything which can’t fit through a 7 inch VCP hatch has no business being in a kayak.

Fishkiller, incidentally, caries HIS spare paddle in the cockpit of his much modified Seafarer Plus, a practice which has earned him a despairing glance or two from the OSD. The OSD philosophically accepts FK’s aberration as merely another example of youthful rebellion.

O.K., fine. But what was this reference to the ‘Dirk Stuber paddle float’? ‘Ah,’ sighs the OSD approvingly. ‘A very clever piece of engineering by our President.’

The OSD observes that, while paddle floats are good things for self rescues by non-rollers, they cost a lot of money. The Dirk Stuber paddle float, however, is practically free. It consists of shade cloth sewn into a two compartment bag. One compartment holds an (empty) wine cask bladder. The other slips over the paddle blade after the bladder has been inflated by mouth. All this can be done while in the water, which is attested to by the OSD who owes his life to this marvellous invention.

‘Enough of paddles,’ the OSD cries. ‘On to higher matters — helmets, in fact.’

As in Harley-Davidson circles, helmets are sneered at by red-blooded sea kayakers, driven as they are by ego and testosterone. The OSD however, never one to bow to community pressure, will not set forth on ANY patch of water without a helmet on his head.

He reasons that, though drowning while unconscious might be a painless way to go, he is not yet ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. In addition, he hates the sight of blood, especially his own. He observes that paddles, rudders and Pittarak bows can cause grievous bodily harm.

Chris Soutter, a nice guy, even if he is a fishkiller, recently had two knocks on the head while touring the famous Nadgee area. In one episode, the rudder of his Puffin skidded viscously across his lid after a surf bail-out. He emerged unscathed, thankful that his scalp had been protected by the plastic shell of his helmet.

Helmets come in many shapes and price ranges. Surfers wear a Darth Vader type unit made by GATH which costs in the vicinity of $100. It is very strong and classy, but looks a bit confining and hot.

Whitewater helmets are lighter and cheaper, but seem TOO flimsy. The OSD wears a Bell bicycle helmet, which has the advantage of light weight, quality construction and price (which is free, because the OSD already owned it.)

He reports that the only disadvantage is that salt water pours on his head when he puts on the helmet to go bike riding.

Characteristically concerned with safety, the OSD has plastered his helmet with reflective tape for night visibility. (He also has patches of reflective tape on his paddle blades.)

He wears his helmet over a cap with a bill and neck protection. He also uses sunglasses with Chum straps attached. The OSD reports that the helmet holds the hat and glasses firmly in place, even in surf and during rolls. (Philip Winkworth, please note.)

The OSD senses the mutterings of the Editor, that harassed collater of verbosity, that this epistle is getting too long. So, knowing full well the dangers of alienating the person into whose hands his lovingly created words will be delivered, the OSD will leave you here. Next time, an on the spot report of North American gear. Is it really so flash or are we Antipodeans, in our own quiet way, leading the world?