Making a Superlight Greenland Paddle [30]

By Norm Sanders

Several years ago, I made a Greenland paddle to a John Heath design described in Sea Kayaker magazine. I enjoyed the feel of it and appreciated the Greenland paddling style, but used the paddle rarely — at 68 oz. (1.9 kg), it was far too heavy.

This was partly a function of the wood I used. I combed through the stacks of the local yards and selected the best timber available. I chose a clear but dense lump of what they call Oregon in Australia. In the early days, Oregon was the major area exporting Douglas Fir to the Pacific.

I later experimented with a lighter Greenland-style paddle with a Radiata pine shaft and 1/8 inch (3 mm) plywood blades. At 40 oz. (1120 grams), this paddle was about as light as I could go with the wood available to me. At first, I was very disappointed by the flutter. I accidentally discovered that the paddle became stable when I used the back of the paddle as the working surface instead of the flat front of the blade. The ridge of the shaft split the flow of water evenly and the annoying flutter disappeared.

I used this paddle more often than the solid Greenland version, but still preferred my standard 32 ounce (896 grams) fibreglass, non-offset model for touring and surfing. Then, as a result of adopting a more vertical, racing style stroke, I started having shoulder problems. I found the lower Greenland style of paddling far more comfortable. A superlight Greenland paddle started looking very good indeed.

Given my experience with my plywood-bladed paddle, I was pretty sure that a full-length, round shaft with glassed on plywood blades would be free of flutter. I decided to take a gamble. I ordered two 120 cm Epoxy Carbon Fibre shafts (170 grams per metre) and a split shaft insert from Pacific Composites in Queensland [PO Box 391, Archerfield, Qld. 4108, Phone (07) 3274 1099]. With shipping and air freight, the total cost was $76.25. Since I used scraps and a minimum of epoxy, the whole paddle ended up costing less than $80.00.

The two 120 cm shafts would give me the 240 cm length (almost 8 feet) I was after, while at the same time making the paddle easier to transport. As usual, this is a compromise. The insert weighs 3 ounces (84 grams). A one-piece paddle would be that much lighter, weighing only 25 ounces (700 grams).

While waiting for the shafts to arrive, I cut out four half blades from 1/8 inch (3 mm) exterior ply. They were 32 inches (81 cm) long, 1 9/16 inches (40 mm) wide at the tip, tapering to 1/2 inch (12 mm) at the inner end. This blade is 4 inches (10 cm) shorter than the John Heath design which has the same overall paddle length. I find that I occasionally like to grip the paddle a bit further out on the shaft.

Foam would also work for the blades, but the weight saved would be negligible and the plywood has greater strength. I also made a simple jig to hold the shaft while I positioned the blades. I nailed two pieces of 1/4 inch (6 mm) plywood on each side of the centerline to raise the blades to a position halfway up the 1 1/8 inch (29 mm) diameter shaft.

Morris the postman had scarcely putted off on his Honda before I had the shafts out of their wrappings. I first tapered the ends for about an inch and then epoxied foam plugs in place. I mounted the jig on a saw horse and strapped the shafts down with strips of inntertube. I use these strips for a multitude of clamping and holding operations and find them indispensable for awkward shapes. Then I stapled the blades to the jig, using little pieces of packaging band under the staples to facilitate removal and avoid scarring the wood.

Finished paddles. Left to right: solid wood Greenland paddle; plywood bladed, pine shaft paddle; carbon fibre ‘Superlight Paddle’

I sanded the shaft and then tacked on the blade sections with an ice cream stick-sized fillet of epoxy filler. When the epoxy had set up, I turned the paddle over and filleted the other side. Once both fillets were in place, the blades were secure enough to be given a final shaping and sanding. I cut the tips in a large radius curve as further insurance against flutter. Next, I cut and installed the foam plugs in the shaft ends.

Then I glassed the blades and shaft with 6 oz. (200 grams) cloth and epoxy, one side at a time. In the interests of saving weight, I filled the weave, but didn’t flood the glass with resin. After I trimmed off the excess glass, the only jobs left were to put plugs in the inboard ends of the shafts so they would be watertight and then epoxy the insert in place. I used a windsurfing boom spring pin to lock the shaft to the insert.

I had been weighing the bits and pieces as they went together and was anxiously watching the total get bigger and bigger. Now I took a deep breath and put the finished product on the scales — 28 ounces (784 grams) for a 240 cm Greenlander! If it passed the sea trials, this was going to be one fine paddle.

With potentially dangerous over-confidence I launched into the 1.5 meter surf in front of my house. I had a second to note that there was no flutter before having to punch into the break. I could get all the power I needed simply by holding the paddle more vertically — the entire blade surface was then in use.

Once outside the break, I found the paddle delightful for cruising. The relatively small blade area in the water when the paddle is kept low is still enough to keep the kayak moving at a good clip into the wind. There is a slight amount of slippage which is actually an advantage — it prevents me from overloading my tender shoulders.

Back in the surf, I was surprised at the ease of bracing into waves. It was far less strenuous than with my “normal” paddle. Traditional wisdom has it that short paddles are best in the soup. I don’t believe that anymore. After the inevitable trashing, I tried a roll. My first effort was pretty ragged. I was trying to snap the paddle too fast. I then made a slower sweep and allowed the length to work for me. Wonderfully easy!

I have now had a chance to test the paddle thoroughly and find it without vices. My other paddles sit forlornly in the garage and I feel deprived if I can’t use my superlight Greenlander. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, however. Many paddlers have been corrupted in their early years by deviant paddle salespersons who get the novices hooked on offset paddles. Friends who are thus afflicted return the Greenlander with, at best, a polite “Interesting.” Others, less bound to the convention of the moment, try it and race home to make their own. Where else can you get a magnificent 28 oz. (784 grams) carbon fibre paddle for under $80.00?