Carbon Paddles, Team Canoes and Hybrids.
Paddling in a crew, by default ensures you are part of a team - and as they say, there is no ‘I’ in team. The best way to begin this missive is to say categorically, if you are of the belief as an individual within a crew, you can paddle with whatever paddle you choose, of any design, of any construction, in difference to the rest of your crew, then you’re probably not a team player and should confine your activities to a solo pursuit.
On the other hand perhaps it’s not a discussion the crew have raised or one in which a coach has intervened?
As an extension of your body and with the caveat paddlers must replicate one another, the paddle (the tool) used by all, needs to be the same and not some idiosyncratic expression of individualism. That freedom is reserved for the steerer, but even then, the flatter the conditions, the closer the steerer’s paddle design can be more in sync with the rest of the crews, which demands steerers aim to own as many as 3 differing paddles for differing conditions and situations.
As a rule, the crew should all paddle with the same degree bend (angle) same blade shape (template) and the same construction (flex) to ensure the power-band from the paddlers, has the best potential to be replicated by all during the power phase. Additionally, it will better ensure replication of the exit location, timing in the recovery and therefore the entry. You would not fit differing sized pistons in a engine - everything must be uniform. The only consideration you may have, is that seats 1 and 2 paddle can have marginally less blade area.
Once upon a time when ‘woodies’ only existed, the issue of material and construction was not up for debate. Variance of outrigger canoe paddle design since the introduction of formalised racing in the 50s through the 70s in the Hawaiian Islands, was limited at best and everyone just made do with straight, lolly-pop, water-whackers - while traditional dogma made it mandatory to stick with what was known.
This all began to change once T-Grips found there way into the sport and mainland paddlers from the USA involved in differing canoe sports entered the sport of outrigger canoeing as the 80s and 90s rolled on.
Carbon Paddles in OC Sport
Carbon paddles began their push onto paddle sports in a meaningful way during the mid 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the mid to late 90s, when the popularity of outrigger canoeing increased in Canada, the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast of America, did the notion of using all carbon paddles in team outrigger canoes take on any real consideration.
This was due in part to the large number of river marathon paddlers and dragon boat paddlers entering the sport, bringing with them what they were used to, so as carbon paddles began to find their way into team canoes by osmosis.
Not unsurprisingly, both ZRE (Bob Zaveral) and Black Bart Paddles, famous for their Carbon sticks were located on the East Coast of America and a synergy already existed between these paddlers and the manufacturers.
This ultimately created a mild clash of cultural standpoints. Walter Guild (Canoe Sports Hawaii) famously commented,
'If they want to sign up for this sport, that’s great, but not if they’re here to change it. If they see something they don’t like, then they have the option to not be a part of it.’
Ultimately elite carbon paddle makers of East Coast USA provided above all else, new ideas on blade shapes and refined designs in general, which in time were adopted by many timber paddle makers.
The Benefits of Carbon
The benefits of a well constructed carbon paddle - are stiffness and lightness. At the low end of the scale, a carbon paddle can weigh in at a mere 9oz and be as rigid as an iron bar. As to whether you will go further, faster, will depends on many factors, however, the use of carbon paddles for OC1s and OC2s was a popular consideration from the outset of their development in the mid 1990s and has remained so ever since, replicating most all other canoeing disciplines.
OC1 and OC2 and Carbon Paddles
In this context, the carbon paddle makes sense. The relatively low drag co-efficients and proportional weight (load) the paddler experiences, are significantly less than those experienced in a team canoe, which mitigates over-load injury. Add to this, the reduced risk of impacting of the paddle on the canoe itself, reduces the chance of shaft breakage. The paddler is also significantly lower to the water than in a team canoe and therefore the recovery phase is more manageable in high winds and rough water.
Paddlers notice a ‘snappier’ movement of their solo or duo wa`a as a result of using a carbon paddle, because of the added stiffness. However in a team canoe, this is not the case due to the added weight and drag.
Team Canoes and Rules
When carbon paddles were made readily available to Hawaiian paddlers who were now paddling OC1s and OC2s in the mid 90s, there was a resisted temptation to use them within team canoes, first and foremost on the grounds of tradition and rules.
The Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association (HCRA) in 1998, passed a ‘Wood Only’ policy for the State of Hawai`i, which related to their regatta events where Koa Wa`a are used. This raised interesting anomalies due in part to the fact that synthetic glues, edges and neck reinforcing were already now commonplace. Carbon blades, however can inflict serious damage to valuable and precious Koa Wa’a and it makes 100% sense to keep them away from these craft.
The Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association (OHCRA) moved to implement a ‘51%’ ruling, which stated that 51% of the paddle must be constructed from wood.
The 2004 OHCRA and HCRA race rules stated; ‘Paddles must be single bladed and shaped of wood only. However, the paddle used for racing may have a protective or supportive (strengthening) covering which may be fibrous, kevlar, carbon fibre, etc. The paddle may have an edging or prosthesis for protection on the bottom or sides. The paddle may have laminated (horizontally or vertically) synthetic materials (kevlar, etc.) for strength and support.’
In 1996, the Australia Outrigger Canoe Racing Association (AOCRA) moved to allow the use of carbon paddles in any context - however, teams continued to favour the use of timber paddles. California, East Coast America and Canada, also permitted the use of synthetic paddles very early on.
Carbon - But Not For Team Canoes
With the known merits of carbon paddles and the slackening of rules to permit them to be used in team canoes, they were tried and tested in this context and universally for the most part, failed to find favour.
The reasons for this become clear when you begin to micro-manage both the negative and plus factors of carbon and from the negatives, draw the conclusion, what was really wanted was a hybrid paddle, offering the plus factors from both carbon and timber construction to give you the best possible tool.
Primarily the negatives of using all carbon in team canoes are;
Breakage - shaft scuffing along the gunnel during the exit recovery will very easily cause a carbon shaft to crack, then snap. You simply cannot make repeated contact with the shaft along the gunnel, as the result can be catastrophic.
Safety - When a carbon shaft snaps, it lets go dramatically. A number of paddlers have required stitches to hands as a result of shafts snapping.
Over-Load - the added weight and drag experienced by the paddler in a team canoe through the body, makes it essential joints have some cushioning. You may feel a very solid catch, but this is due to the take-up of the load and lack of flex throughout the paddle.
Fatigue - It may feel encouraging at the entry and catch when using a carbon paddle in a team canoe, but the pull phase will take its toll on your body, faster than if using a timber shafted paddle - paddling is an endurance sport and you need always keep this in mind.
‘When I used a pure carbon, I used to have pain in my joints at night, even when I wasn't on the water,’ said Mike Judd.
Specificity - It’s all well and good to paddle 50 miles down river with the flow in super light carbon canoe with a super light carbon paddle - but outrigger canoeing in every sense, has very much bigger load demands when paddling upwind, crosswind even before consideration of the crafts weight and dynamics and in many regards, all carbon paddles were not designed with team OCs in mind.
Fly Away - Seated high, the carbon paddle in high winds is less manageable in the recovery. Seated low in an OC1 or OC2 not such an issue.
Durability - Carbon may be tough, but still will not stand up to the abuse that will be demanded of it in a team canoe over time.
Timing - Because of the ‘lifeless’ nature of a carbon paddle, the lack of flex limits recoil, so as the exit can be ‘dead’ and discouraging. Timing is better achieved when this recoil is ‘felt’ so as the paddle talks to you through what you feel. It’s like have ‘spring in your step’ as against being flat-footed.
Repairs - Timber paddles can take a huge amount of abuse and can be repaired relatively easily. Not so carbon paddles, which make them less practical in real terms.
Damage to Canoe - The impact damage from a carbon blade can be significant whereas the hybrid paddles are generally softer on impact, being as the edges tend not to be so knife-like.
Change Races - Carbon paddles can prove difficult, noisy and damaging to the canoe and paddler. The merits of the softer, marginally heavier hybrid paddle stack up when you get to try both.
‘In my opinion the weight of the canoe and load on the paddler is a very serious consideration regarding which paddle material to pick. Remember that along with being light, carbon paddles are extremely stiff. If the shaft of a carbon paddle cannot flex, then the load from the blade is transferred further up the system, to you. Your body’s joints, first your wrist, then elbow and shoulder, can be stressed and injured. It is very important not to use a blade that is too big for you when using stiffer shafts, especially if loads will be varying on the paddle such as open ocean, up wind, sprint turns, starts etc.
You may find that you can offset the strain of stiffer paddles by reducing the blade size and actually get the paddle deeper in the water. I personally prefer wood in the six man canoes. With the added weight of the canoe, it allows for a certain amount of flex in the shaft to take place and relieve some stress on the body.
There are some disadvantages to light paddles and also in ultra-stiff paddles. I have used them all, but would not make a blanket statement like “The lighter the better; always” not that light and stiff aren’t great, there’s more to it than that.’ Walter Guild
So far as team racing is concerned, few became convinced that super lightweight, super stiff carbon paddles were in fact superior to the light weight, timber paddle. No world-class team uses all carbon paddles, period. Therefore, to argue for their choice is to fly in the face of expert opinion and this truism remains today.
In 1995, Greg Barton predicted . . .
‘If the rules do change and allow carbon fibre paddles in all OC-6 races, I will switch over immediately. I predict that all the top teams would switch to carbon within a few years.’
This has not been the case even where ‘all’ carbon paddles are permitted (what has happened however in recent times, is that there has been an evolution of composite paddles, which retain elements of flex inherent in hybrid paddles, derived from plant based material - bamboo being one such ingredient to the mix)
The argument that light has to be superior, always - has been discounted by most of the world’s best OC paddlers, who genuinely prefer some discernable weight to give the paddle a degree of inertia during the recovery phase.
The notion of near zero shaft flex is also considered a negative, giving the paddle a lifeless feeling with no recoil at the exit phase of the stroke when load is released from the blade.
Where paddlers predominantly train and race in ʻflatʼ water conditions by virtue of where they live and have been raised on the use of all carbon paddles, so too, they have nurtured the use of carbon paddles in OC, rightly or wrongly.
Directly opposed to this, rough water ocean paddlers almost without exception, maintained a preference for light weight timber paddles.
Supply and demand being what it is, the vast majority of smaller Pacific islands do not use carbon paddles, period. In short, their use is confined to the more affluent areas of the world where river canoe racing and flatter conditions are prevalent.
‘It’s okay to advertise the merits of an ultra light paddle, but to imply that reduced weight will save energy channelled into paddling harder or efficiently is incorrect. I have an uncomfortable feeling about the reasoning. Many paddlers prefer a little heavier paddle in ocean swells and wind. The weight helps their swing and thus the rhythm.’ Al Ching.
Birth of Hybrid Paddles
It was concluded towards the end of the 1990s, that the ideal canoe paddle should have a super stiff blade and neck area to prevent ‘flex’ and morphing of the blade shape, and that the shaft should have a degree of inherent flex.
In response to carbon paddles being introduced into OC, but not finding favour in team canoes, super-light timber paddles were now being experimented with. Balsa was introduced and even bamboo for the blades, along with carbon layers between laminates. But breakages were commonplace.
Leading this charge in Hawaii was Les Look Hui Lanakila Canoe Club - Makana Alii Paddles, who made arguably the best Ultra-Lite timber paddles on the market, becoming super high in demand as an alternative to all carbon. Les estimated it took about 40% more time and twice the material to build one of his Ultra-Lites. Les should be acknowledged as true pioneer of this area of paddle development.
‘It's been a long road experimenting with our Ultra-Lite paddles. I spent a lot of time talking with surfboard makers, boat builders, etc., about the characteristics of composite material and epoxy.’ Les Look
The conclusion was to fabricate the blade from either balsa or a foam and to laminate this completely with carbon and the shaft be composed of timber laminates, in between which carbon is sandwiched.
There are two critical stress areas where flex can occur on a paddle, at the neck and further up the shaft, particularly just below the point where the lower hand grips.
If the neck and shaft flex as you apply pressure during your ‘pull’, it's like compressing a spring and this energy will remain stored in the paddle, until you release, when the pull is relaxed.
Essentially you've redirected and reduced the torque in the most powerful and efficient phase of your stroke, the pull, only to release that torque in the exit phase where it's all wasted energy.
A flexing (morphing) blade creates an inefficient shape on the blade face which allows water to slip away and creates a fluctuation in the pressure/vacuum ratio between the front and rear faces of the blade. This causes the blade to flutter.
While a stiff paddle is best for energy transfer, a paddle whose shaft has a slight amount of flex is easier on the body.
‘Since I changed to a paddle with a wood shaft, I haven't had any pain. The biggest thing about these paddles is the flex of the wood shaft with the efficient entry and exit of a very thin blade.’ Walter Guild
Taken to extremes, many islands of Oceania construct paddles from mangrove, which is flexible and strong. The paddlers of Tahiti and her islands use this timber extensively, though they do use a small quantity of other timbers such as Western Red Cedar, Mango and Monkey Pod, to add some variety to their appearance and performance.
The added flex within the shaft, suits the Tahitian style of paddling, thereby cushioning the joints in particular, especially over the super long-distances for which they are renowned.
Advances in materials and construction techniques led to the development of ‘hybrid’ paddles, which use a mix of timber and synthetic materials; they are truly new generation paddles and remain a significant contribution to paddle sports derived from the needs of outrigger canoe paddlers from Tahiti to Europe.
Where the two construction methods differ from all wood, is in the use of reinforcing composite skins such as fibreglass, kevlar, or carbon fibre on the blade.
The combination of the lightweight core and composite skin allows the builders to use lightweight woods, usually Balsa, as the core of the blade. The combination of a light weight core and composite skin produces paddles which are lighter, stronger and more durable than traditional wood paddles.
To a large extent, outrigger canoe paddle manufacturers were motivated to start building wood composites because of requests from their sponsored athletes.
'We wanted light paddles, because little things count when you are battling with another crew’, said Mike Judd of Lanikai. ‘The real light, all wood paddles were for race day only and weren't very durable even with limited use. It seemed like a waste to throw away a paddle after only a few uses. So we asked the Hawaiian builders if they could come up with something light, yet durable enough for everyday use. We felt strongly that we wanted to develop something with our builders, rather than look outside the sport.’
Kialoa Paddles, through Dave Chun, created the 99 Hybrid which became the ʻoriginalʼ hybrid model which went into production in June of 2001. Daveʼs pioneering work with hybrid paddles provided the missing link between, too soft and too stiff, in terms of paddle feel.
He combined a super stiff blade face and neck area with a shaft which provided a comfortable level of flex and at a weight which provided enough inertia in the recovery without being too light or too heavy.
Composite Paddles - a Question of Semantics
Wood is a composite – it is made from long cellulose fibres (a polymer) held together by a much weaker substance called lignin, therefore all paddles since the dawn of time are by default, 'composites' - infusing resin under pressure into bamboo or carbon via bladder moulding, vacuum bagging or any other method is simply a means to ensure maximum saturation of resin, into the fibres and maximum shedding of excess.
The main (composite) constituents of bamboo, are cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin, which amount to over 90% of the total mass. The minor constituents of bamboo are resins, tannins, waxes and inorganic salts.
If you replace carbon with bamboo for the shaft and infuse resin into it, it’s clear the maker is prioritising the qualities inherent in bamboo (a composite) and merely seeking to seal / protect and strengthen this natural material, via the infusion process.
You cannot make a composite, more composite than it already is, save to add more to it, to give it additional performance properties that are required / desired. Such is the intervention of science and technology.
Creative license has been used in the semantics when we acknowledge bamboo and wood are ‘natural composites’ even before any chemical intervention, therefore to speak of ‘composites’ in construction is a confusing nomenclature.
‘Composite’ construction / process, simply sounds high-tech and spooky when nature already provides this medium.
Hybrids in so far as paddle development is concerned, came to mean fabricating parts of the paddle using largely natural materials (wood /bamboo) the shaft, laminating strips sandwiched with carbon fibre and blades which are often shaped in balsa or foam and laminated over with carbon - a composite by any other name and also a hybrid.
‘Composite’ paddles, as some refer to them, is merely a bi-word for the latest transposition of an approach to fabrication born out of the carbon / ultra-lite / hybrid time continuum. Whether 'better' or not, in what context, is all a matter of personal taste, but what can be agreed, the very vast majority of paddlers and indeed manufacturers, embrace timber’s unique fundamental qualities, for shaft construction, whether in whole, in part or in composite form.
Fusion is an apt name - in so much as materials are being ‘fused’ together, as used by a line of Viper Va`a paddles.