Gear Review – October 2011
Modern materials; Ancient designs Carbon-fiber Greenland and Aleut paddles
Review by Christopher Cunningham
It’s an odd thing to combine some of the oldest kayak paddle designs with the most modern materials. In the span of time that separates the use of driftwood to carbon fiber, there have been countless advancements in paddle design: feathered blades, asymmetrical blades, wing blades, bent shafts and adjustable length shafts. Paddle manufacturers all over the world have devoted a lot of effort to designing new and better paddles.
For a while, traditional paddles were only of interest to kayakers drawn to replicas of skin-on-frame kayaks. Hand-carved wooden paddles had their advocates and a growing number of kayakers beyond the skin-on-frame crowd began trying them and learning how to use them.
Greenland paddles, and to a lesser degree Aleut paddles, proved their worth to many cruising sea kayakers, and a few manufacturers have interpreted these time-honored designs in modern materials using carbon-fiber composite laminates and foam cores for greater strength and lighter weight.
Wing paddles may be among the latest major development in paddle design, but the principle behind it, using lateral movement of the paddle blade through the water to generate lift, is an old idea. It’s what gives Greenland paddles great power in spite of their narrow width. While a modern wing paddle develops lift by moving outward from the kayak, a Greenland paddle does so by slicing downward and using the opposite edge of its blade as the leading edge. That lateral movement also keeps the paddle moving into water that is as yet undisturbed and provides more resistance to slip. The Greenland paddle has an advantage over the modern wing paddle in its symmetrical design: It is equally effective moving either direction. The narrow Greenland blades also allow users to grip the paddle anywhere along its length for a variety of techniques.
While the blades are narrow, they are quite long and have an area the equivalent of many Euro blades. The long blade is like a glider wing; its high-aspect ratio is particularly efficient at generating lift. Euro paddles used for sculling braces function like planning watercraft. They provide a lot of support while skimming across the surface. Greenland blades generate more lift while submerged.
Greenland paddles are often referred to as “sticks,” but they are sophisticated in design and versatile in use.
Aleut paddles haven’t achieved the same recognition as Greenland paddles, but they may yet become popular. While Greenland kayaking is perhaps best known for its variety of rolling techniques, the Aleuts had a reputation for traveling long distances at high speeds, so perhaps the interest in Aleut technology will grow among contemporary kayakers looking for an efficient means of covering a lot of sea miles.
Aleut paddles are symmetrical from edge to edge like Greenland paddles, but asymmetrical from face to face. One face is slightly arched and a ridge runs down the center of the opposite face. In some specimens the ridge had a narrow groove running the length of it. The blade is offset from the axis of the shaft. The blade face without the ridge is aligned with the edge of the shaft.
Though I’ve never seen evidence that would define which way the Aleut paddle is to be used, it is generally accepted that the ridged face is the power face. Wolfgang Brink, author of the construction manual The Aleut Kayak writes, “The correct way to hold an Aleutian paddle is with the ridge on the face of the blade facing back.”
My own experience with Aleut paddles suggests Wolfgang is correct. With the ridged side of the blade as the power face, the blade is forward of the shaft. When you apply power, the blade settles more comfortably behind the shaft, much in the same way that the caster wheels on the front end of a grocery cart fall in behind the caster’s pivot axis. You can paddle with the blade in the opposite orientation, but it takes a tighter grip to keep the paddle stable. For me, the other significant aspect of using the ridge face as the power face is evident when flipping out of a forward stroke and into a low brace. That transition puts the smooth face down—it skims across the water with much less drag than the ridged side of the blade.
The offset blade is exceptionally stable and allows the paddler to keep a loose grip. Add to that the soft catch of a narrow-bladed paddle and the Aleut-style paddle has some attributes cruising kayakers might find very beneficial over the long haul.
To test the five paddles here, I took the three Greenland paddles out for trials with my skin-on-frame Southwest Greenland replica, and the two Aleut paddles with my Hearst (formerly Lowie) Museum baidarka replica. It was clearly evident that there were differences in the flexibility of the paddles, so I did quick-and-dirty objective measurements on my workbench at home. With half of each paddle secured on the bench and the other half extending beyond the end of the bench, I measured the height of the cantilevered blade at rest and with a 10-pound weight set on the end of it. As a point of reference, I also measured the flex of wooden replica paddles I’d made. My 85-inch red-cedar Aleut paddle (weighing 29.2 ounces) flexed 2 3⁄4 inches. My 80-inch yellow cedar Greenland paddle (weighing 34.5 ounces) flexed 2 ¼ inches.
Superior Kayaks Greenland Paddle
I reviewed Superior’s earliest carbon-fiber Greenland paddle in the October 2001 issue of Sea Kayaker. The paddle reviewed at that time was a single piece. That version is still available but for this review, I took a look at the two-piece paddle. It uses the Lendal Paddlok to join the two halves. The button snaps in place to join the two halves and a hex key is used to tighten the joint by means of an internal expansion. That makes it less susceptible to wear and will take up any slack created by use over the years.
The two-piece 85-inch paddle weighed in at a mere 26.4 ounces. The blade has a maximum width of 3½-inches. The workmanship is exceptional. From end-to-end the carbon fiber weave has no irregularities. The 1¼ by 1½-inch shaft is oval, with short parallel sides, and is built around a cylindrical carbon-fiber ferrule. The seam left by the molds is trimmed flush, which is evident along the sides of the shaft but not on the edges of the blades.
The blades are foam core and shaped with uniform convex curves, with neither hollowing between the centerline to the edges nor a tighter radius defining a central ridge. The inboard ends of the blades have gently rounded shoulders to engage your pinkie and ring fingers. On some traditional Greenland paddles the blades taper smoothly from blade to shaft; I prefer the shoulders for giving the hands a more positive grip location and better control of the blade angle. With the slick finish of the Superior Greenland paddle, the shoulders also kept my hands from slipping.
The Superior paddle has a silky smooth feel in the water. It enters the water cleanly and is very stable through the Greenland stroke, even when accelerating at full power. The blades have tight radiused edges, but they’re not uncomfortable to grip for extended-paddle techniques.
The Superior paddle flexed 1 5⁄16-inches on the workbench. During paddling, rolling or bracing, I could detect only a slight flex while doing sharp braces with the extended paddle. With normal use, the flex is enough to cushion the sudden application of force.
The Superior paddle impressed me a decade ago. The latest incarnation, like its predecessor, feels and behaves very much like the wooden Greenland replicas I’ve enjoyed using for decades but with a lightweight feel.
Superior Kayaks Greenland Paddle
Lengths 76” to 90”<
Two-piece with Lendal Paddlok joint
Northern Lights Greenland Paddle
Northern Lights makes a three-piece Greenland paddle. The blades are built to a standard 36-inch length and the overall length of the paddle is determined by the center shaft, which is available in one-inch increments from 9-inches to 18-inches for overall lengths from 81-inches to 90-inches. The 84-inch version weighed 35.7 ounces. The blades are 3 3⁄4-inches wide at the tip. Each Northern Lights Greenland paddle comes with a storm-paddle center section that joins the two blades in a 72-inch overall length and with a 6-inch shaft, suitable for using with the Greenland sliding stroke where you alternate hands, pulling on the shaft and pushing on the upper blade.
Each joint is locked with a setscrew tightened by the Allen key provided with the paddle. There are no irregularities in the weave of the carbon-fiber fabric, and if there was a seam that needed trimming after the forming of the parts, I found no obvious trace of it; the finish is uniformly smooth over the entire paddle.
The curve of the grip carries into the blade faces as a gentle ridge and flattens gradually out to the end of the blade. There are very slight and narrow grooves paralleling the edges of the blades. The Northern Lights Greenland paddle was delivered in an innovative cover. Its looks like an 8-foot long tube sock because it was made at a sock factory—very clever.
The sample I initially tested developed a crack a couple of inches outboard of one blade’s shoulder. The paddle was still intact and quite solid feeling. I don’t know when the fracture occurred, but I’d guess it was while using the paddle extended from the aft deck while getting out of the kayak at the beach. The manufacturer had had no other reports of such a fracture. With the manufacturer’s permission I sawed the paddle open and discovered the internal reinforcement of the grip area had created a stress riser. To see how much weight it might take to create a similar fracture on the other blade I set the end of the shaft and the end of the blade on blocks and pushed on the suspended joint with my hands. When I had nearly my full weight on the joint, about 190 to 200 pounds, I heard a faint snap and found a 1⁄8-inch crack in the finish on the bottom side.
The manufacturer eliminated the stress riser and made a few more improvements to the paddle and sent a new one. (Northern Lights guarantees its paddles so consumers would receive free replacements of fractured paddles. As we go to press, Northern Lights has not examined the fractured blade to see if the proper layup schedule is present in the damaged area.) I put the new paddle to the same test and it was undamaged. Putting so much weight on a paddle shaft, especially on its joint, isn’t what I’d consider normal use, so I didn’t subject the other paddles here to the same test. Two Euro-style sectional paddles in our livery, one with a carbon shaft, the other with fiberglass—both with the ignoble distinction that I wouldn’t miss them if I broke them—survived my full weight on the shaft joint. The Northern Lights Greenland paddle meets that standard for strength.
The paddle’s finish is satin rather than glossy, so it’s not at all slippery in the hand. The shaft has flat sides and semicircular ends and offers a comfortable and positive grip. The shoulders of the blades are shaped just as I like them and let me know where the blades are with my pinkie fingers wrapped around the inner ends of the blades.
In use, the Northern Lights Greenland paddle was light, but not a featherweight, and very solid feeling. On the workbench I measured a 1 3⁄16 -inch flex with the 10-pound weight. I quickly found the angle at the catch that would get the blade immersed without dragging air in behind the blade. For sculling techniques the paddle was stable and predictable. The edges of the blades are about ¼-inch thick and are very comfortable in the hand during extended-paddle bracing and rolling. In general it had a very familiar feel to it.
Northern Lights Greenland
Three-piece (reviewed) $375
Northern Lights Aleut-inspired Paddle
The Aleut-inspired paddle from Northern Lights makes a few manufacturer-acknowledged departures from the traditional form. The ridge on the power face is without the groove and does not run the length of the blade—the outboard half of the blade is nearly flat. The power face is slightly convex rather than ridged and the back face is slightly convex, not more that 1⁄16-inch hollow. The Northern Lights website states that this concave side of the 3 ½ inchwide blade scan serves as an alternate power face, and the curved configuration has some of the lift-generating capabilities of a wing paddle. Like the blades of a wing paddle, the blades of the Northern Lights paddle are set at an angle to the shaft. Set the paddle on a flat surface, ridged side up, and the blade’s tips rise up about 5⁄8 inch. This would help make the blade more stable when used with the convex side as the power face, but I felt it was still easier to manage the paddle in its standard orientation. The construction of the Aleut-inspired paddle was quite similar to the Northern Lights Greenland paddle.
I didn’t detect any flex while using the paddle. It felt quite solid. On the workbench with the 10-pound weight its flex was identical to its Greenland counterpart: 1 3⁄16-inches. The 90-inch paddle (36-inch blades with 18-inch shaft) weighed 31.9 ounces.
Northern Light Aleut
Novorca Greenland Paddle
The Greenland paddle from Novorca is stunningly beautiful. Each foam-cored Novorca paddle is custom built and colored according to the buyer’s wishes. The paddle sent for review was a combination of red and orange. The colors are wiped down to leave the lustrous black carbon fiber showing in places. Pigment fills some of the hollows in the weave to accentuate the pattern. The result looks like it was pulled out of a koi pond. The finish has a high gloss and there’s no trace of molding lines. The company logo, the builder’s signature and date all lie on the shaft under the clear finish coat. The 84 ½-inch paddle has 3 ½-inch wide blades and weighed a remarkably light 24.2 ounces. The flex test on the workbench deflected the blade 2-inches. The shaft has an elliptical cross section without flats on the sides. The shouldered blades have a nearly diamond section with a slight convex curve between the edges and the central ridge.
On the water the Novorca Greenland was very light in the hands. The blade shoulders make a gentle transition from shaft to blade but have enough shape to provide a secure grip in spite of the mirror finish. The 1.2-inch x 1.4-inch shaft was smaller than what I’m used to, but didn’t compromise my grip or comfort. (Novorca offers a range of shaft sizes as well as a variety of shoulder shapes and blade-tip profiles.) The blades took the water cleanly, and it was easy to paddle without pulling any air down with the blade. The paddle had a whippy feel to it. I could feel the paddle flex when I pulled hard, particularly when doing extended-paddle strokes and braces. It was unusual but not disconcerting. Sculling with the Novorca Greenland was also an interesting experience. The blade seemed to snap through the change of direction at the ends of the sculling stroke, probably as the energy stored in the flexed paddle released at the change of direction. For rolling the blades provided good lift. Greenland rolls don’t rely on the application of a lot of force so I didn’t notice the flex unless I exaggerated the pull on the paddle.
The Novorca performed very well and it had a livelier feel than my wooden paddles. Like the colorful finish, the Novorca Greenland paddle’s performance added a new dimension to my Greenland experience.
Novorca Greenland Paddle
One-piece only $475
Novorca Aleut Paddle
Novorca’s foam-cored, carbon-fiber Aleut paddle has many of the features that are associated with traditional Aleut paddles. The back side of the blade is offset and aligned with the shaft. The power face has a long central ridge that extends nearly to the tip. Some Aleut paddles have a groove carved in the middle of the ridge, but Novorca has omitted this feature. I don’t know the purpose of the groove, so I don’t mind its absence in the updated form. The craftsmanship on the Novorca Aleut paddle is extraordinary. The carbon weave is uniform throughout and the glossy finish is as shiny as new patent leather. The purple pigment has an iridescent and mesmerizing blue glow.
The grip has an egg-shaped section with a broader curve fitting into the grip of the fingers and a tighter curve on the power face side that tucks into the web of the thumb. It has a comfortable but quite different feel either way you hold the paddle. The 91 ½-inch paddle weighs 26.4 ounces. It flexed 2 7⁄16-inches with the 10-pound weight resting on the cantilevered blade, but I didn’t feel it flexing in use. The blades are 3 ½-inch wide and have subtle shoulders at the juncture with the shaft which helped me keep a solid grip. I could get a clean entry with the paddle held ridge facing forward or aft, but I preferred the more stable feel of the paddle with the ridged side of the blade as the power face. As I mentioned earlier, I also like the low brace better with the ridge upward and the smooth back face skimming on the water. Rolling, sculling and bracing were all positive with the Aleut paddle. It was as much a pleasure to use as it is to look at.
Novorca Aleut Paddle
One-piece only $475
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Sea Kayaker magazine and the author of the Greenland Kayak: A Manual for its Construction and Use.