Friday, March 31, 2006

Of Paddles & Planes, Part II

Yes, one last semi-real post before I vanish into Budget Hell. I should start with a reiteration - a small geek advisory is in effect from now until the end of this post. Scott Chicken was very impressed with the intensity with which I've geeked out on both land and water...well, here we go again!

And as Yellow-Eye said in a comment on the same post - yes, it all comes back to kayaks - and more specifically, to the Sweetwater Kayaks BCU/Greenland Week. This time, my subject will be a really excellent afternoon class on Greenland fundamentals (of the rightside-up air-breathing variety, no less!) taught by Turner Wilson.

I finished my last Paddles & Planes post with pictures of some kayak paddles. Let's go back & look again - this time with a little more explanation. First one note - don't look too hard for direct parallels to the different jobs those 3 different planes specialize in doing, I realize it would be easy to say "Oh, she means paddle A is like plane A, paddle B is like plane B..." and I just want to steer everybody away from that path right now. The only comparison I'm after is that again, we have 3 different designs that all perform a similar task (for the planes, flying, for the paddles, moving kayaks), but in different ways.

Paddle (relevant definition only)
NOUN: 1. A usually wooden implement having a blade at one end or sometimes at both ends, used without an oarlock to propel a canoe or small boat.

First paddle for today is the wing paddle:

This is a highly specialized, very modern design that evolved in response to one very specific desire - the desire to move a boat through the water as fast as possible. I don't think I've ever seen one that wasn't made from carbon fiber. I've done a quick Google search and can't find anything more about the history of these things than a reference to the "winginess" of their shape becoming "more pronounced over the last two decades" in a Wikipedia article on canoe racing - however I think we can at least take that to mean that the idea is still pretty new. Did you by any chance read Greg Barton's article? That explains in depth. Quick explanation - you put a wing paddle in the water and that curved blade just grabs on it feels like you've planted your blade in quick-setting cement (this is actually why I don't use my wing with my Romany - a Romany is a pretty solid chunk of glass to be dragging around like that & I want my shoulder joints to stay intact for a good long time to come - but with a surfski, whee!)

Second paddle is what is known in kayaking circles (where there's awareness of Greenland style, particularly) as a Euroblade:

This design - the one that most people would picture if you said "Kayak paddle" - has been around for much longer than the more specialized wing paddle. In fact, I think it might even be a little Eurocentric to call it a Euroblade -
This image is from Chapter III of R.M. Ballantyne's 1863 book, Man on the Ocean, e-book version copyright Athelstane E-Books
Take this design without the double blade feature, and you've got something you'd see all over the world - and something that looks (be warned, I am venturing into pure off-the-top-of-my-head conjecture here) like what somebody might come up with if they'd never seen a paddle before in their life but had a need to make something to propel themself on the water. After all, the prototype is attached to the end of most healthy human arms. You can paddle a boat with your hands; occasionally on a white-water river you'll see a particularly skilled paddler doing so for fun (you can buy gloves that give you neoprene webbing between your fingers for just that purpose); if you want to paddle it faster, doesn't it just make sense to make yourself a bigger "hand" out of wood, making a blade that's broader & longer than your hand & attaching it to a handle so that you can wield it effectively?

Are you with me on this?

OK...if you are, then how the heck did this happen?

This is a West Greenland style kayak paddle (frequently abbreviated to "GP" - you'll also sometime hear these affectionately referred to as "skinny sticks"). There are definitely other varieties of traditional kayak paddles, both single and double bladed (for that matter, if you go to a kayak shop, you'll see a lot of variations on the basic Euro plan, too, that could be a whole future post in and of itself), but this is the one that most people in the US who know a little bit about Greenland style kayaking would picture if you said "Greenland paddle". So why the departure from the basic lollipop layout you see on so many paddles all over the world? Well, the impression I've gotten from listening to Greenland-style paddlers "talk story" is like this: the one catch (ha ha, that's a paddle pun...a pretty bad one though...sorry, it's late & did I mention I'm rewriting this entire post?) to a group's ability to consistently produce paddles with broad, flat blades is that you need a consistent supply of broad, flat pieces of wood. Where the kayak evolved, they didn't have much wood. Plenty of skin, bone, and stone, but the wood supply was mostly limited to whatever the tides & winds brought them - that meant mostly smaller pieces. The response to this challenge was the creation of the long narrow paddle you see above. It may look too skinny to be of much use, but if you'll notice how much of the length of the paddle is comprised of blade, you'll have the answer - the surface area of that blade (known as the "face")may be similar that of the Euro design, it's just stretched out over more length (I just took a quick measurement on the paddle Jack Gilman made for me & the blades on that are each 77cm long; for comparison, a basic Werner Skagit touring paddle has a blade length of 49 cm).

That scarcity of wood is also the reason for another design feature on the paddle shown above - traditional Greenland paddles frequently have bone tips and edges; this is to protect that valuable wood. You'll sometimes see Greenland paddles with simulated bone tips here, but that's generally more among the more serious Greenland replica builders - it looks cool & it's more authentic, but here in a land of wildly abundant 2x4's it's a very optional detail. Similarly, harpoons were designed with detachable heads; shafts were too valuable - and the skin-on-frame design itself allowed boats to be built using a minimum of wood in the first place.

Think that's enough for one night, but here's where I'm going with this:

As I mentioned in my last post, I currently have at least one of each of the aforementioned paddle designs - one wing, two Euros, and three Greenland paddles (a storm paddle & two full-sized, I bought the second as a spare to have in Florida). My first Euro was acquired in 1998, my first year of paddling. I believe I got the wing my second year (first year as a partner at MKC, Eric had gone off to Hawaii in the winter of 1998-99 & Bob Twogood had converted him to a surfski addict & we were all into racing that first year - unfortunately that was also the first year that my racing curse popped up...). I learned to use both of those paddles from very good instructors (the Euro initially from Eric, with significant tuning & refinement from Richard later; the wing from Bob Twogood (I went to visit my folks during the fall of '99, signed up for a private lesson with Bob, he's great). The wing is so specialized you almost really need instruction to get much out of it; the Euro somewhat less so but there are some very counterintuitive details that you would probably never guess left to your own devices.

I bought my first Greenland paddles early in the Spring of 2003. I carry my storm paddle as a spare, and I love to practice rolling with it after a good paddle - but for paddling with my speedy friends (all of whom favor the Euroblade) I always use the Euro. The paddle that gets the 2nd most use as far as covering distance is the wing - I use that with my surfski in the summertime. The GP - well, I've just never found it to be fast enough! I love rolling with it, I'll use it sometimes if I'm just puttering around on my own & don't really care about getting anywhere in particular, and I'll use it if I'm out with people in the "skinny stick" set.

But as far as getting from Point A to Point B - gimme the Euro, in the Romany, or the wing & the ski. Somehow I just didn't seem to be able to get the same kind of speed out of the Greenland paddle, with it's sliding-through-the-water feeling, as I could with the more positive bite of the Euro, or the planted-in-concrete catch of the wing.

Never blamed the paddle, though. You see, I knew exactly what I'd gotten out of lessons with both of the other kinds of paddle - those funny little un-obvious things that when done right let me use both much more efficiently than I ever would have otherwise.

I had a feeling that the same thing was probably true of the Greenland paddle - I'd had hours and hours of wonderful coaching, but that was all on the rolling end of things. The plain old forward stroke? That, I was figuring out for myself.

My experiences with the other two types of paddles told me that when you go at something that way, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be missing some really crucial thing - might even just be something simple, but even a simple thing can sometimes make a big difference. When I signed up for the BCU/Greenland week, one of the things I was really excited about was to finally fill in that gap in my learning, and see if there was something I was just plain missing.

My first afternoon at Sweetwater, therefore, was that long overdue Greenland basics class, taught by Turner Wilson.

Basics might sound boring, but it wasn't. Not a bit. And my just-plain-missing-something theory was just plain right.

1 comment:

Don said...

So how is the GP now for general use?
I found Turner's strokes course worthwhile.

One of my EP using friends (pretty hard core year round paddler) said he *used* to think GP's would be slower until he started paddling with us.