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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Spare Me!

Backing Up Ain't Hard to Do —
Lessons From a Girl Who's Been Up the Creek

By Tamia Nelson

October 2, 2007

I was in a lively Class III drop, and I was enjoying myself immensely. The feisty Québec river was speaking in tongues, but I wasn't having any trouble understanding what it was saying. I knew the language. Then I planted my blade a little too deep and wedged the tip firmly between a couple of rocks. It came free in a flash, but there was a price to pay: the effort tore the paddle's molded T-grip away from the hollow 'glass shaft. I didn't have time to make repairs. The river was hurrying me along to someplace I didn't want to go. Luckily, my spare paddle was within easy reach. So I dropped the wounded blade in the bilge of the boat and grabbed the spare. It was second-best, to be sure, but it was a damn sight better than going down a boulder-strewn stream without a paddle in my hand!

Stories like this explain why prudent paddlers always carry a spare blade. In fact, after my Québec misadventure, I carried two spares on long trips. Overkill? Probably. But I'd rather be safe than sorry, and a canoeist or kayaker without a paddle is little more than live ballast. Still, I've met paddlers who think they're exempt from Murphy's Law. A few of them have even gone so far as to tell me that carrying a backup paddle invites trouble, almost as if this is challenging Nemesis to do her worst. My reply is always the same, however:

Spare Me!

It all comes down to one thing. So long as you have a paddle in your hand, you're the captain of your little ship. You're in command. In your extended conversation with the elements of wind and water, you're an active verb. But the inverse is also true. Without a paddle, you're just along for the ride. You're reduced to the status of an object. You've been demoted from doer to done-by in a single stroke. You can't even brace to meet a wave, for example, and unless you're very lucky indeed you'll end your run upside down.

Verb or object? I know which I'd choose, and I bet we're in the same boat.

What's that? You never leave Golden Pond, and you can't imagine ever losing your grip on your blade? Well, think again. It's not very hard to lose a paddle overboard. Consider just a few of many possible scenarios. You're drifting close to a shoreline thicket, birdwatching from your pack canoe, with your paddle spanning the gunwales. All your attention is on what you can see through your binoculars or the viewfinder of your camera. So you don't notice when a drooping cedar branch sweeps your paddle into the water. Or let's say you're fishing from your kayak or SOT, and you hook the lunker you've been stalking for weeks. In the struggle to lead him to the net, you knock your blade out of the paddle park. That's when you realize that you unclipped the tether. Ouch! Or maybe you're humping your gear along the portage from hell, using your only paddle as a walking stick, when you slip on a moss-covered rock. You're not hurt, and you scramble to your feet immediately, but despite this you're not fast enough to keep your paddle from slithering off the trail into a deep ravine.

Don't think it can't happen to old hands, either. Farwell's about as careful as anyone I know, and he's been in and out of small boats for more than 50 years, but he still managed to drop a paddle twice in one day only last weekend. The first time he was hauling a race buoy. The anchor had settled deep into the ooze, so Farwell tugged on the line to free it. No go. He tugged harder, and the effort paid off. The anchor broke free. But the canoe rolled so violently that his paddle was catapulted right out of the boat, and the swift current carried it away from him in a second. Then, a couple of hours later, Farwell was grabbing a bite to eat when the race coordinator called him on his cell phone. Unfortunately, the phone was in his pack in the bow of the boat. He, on the other hand, was leaning back on his paddle, which he'd placed across the gunwales behind his seat. The phone rang. Farwell lurched forward. And the precariously balanced paddle slipped into the water with a splash. Neither episode did anything for his ego, of course, but that was the only downside. Farwell always has a spare blade in his boat, and last weekend was no exception.

You say you never drop things? Well, what about those times when a paddle simply breaks? Modern materials are strong, to be sure, but as I learned in Québec, nothing lasts forever. Most broken paddles can be repaired, of course, but you can't set up shop in the middle of a drop or halfway across a windswept bay. Repairs usually have to wait till you're in camp. And you won't get to camp very fast without a spare.

I'm sure you get the message. Now all that remains is to …

Choose Your Spare Paddle

Your choice will depend on the kind of paddling you do and the boat you use. A backup paddle has to fill in for your first-line paddle. That's your starting point. The squirt boater who plays in gnarly whitewater rivers needs a very different blade than the birdwatcher in a pack canoe. And a solo sea kayaker facing a long open-water crossing on a remote northern lake won't have much in common with the bowman in a tandem Tripper, on a weekend camping trip in a nearby park.

That said, there's a lot more overlap than you might think. And one thing's certain: any spare is better than none. A kayaker will probably want a break-down double, but solo canoeists can also use these. There are even four-piece doubles for the ultimate in portability. They're just the thing for amphibious paddlers, though many develop shaky joints sooner or later. (In this, they're a lot like most paddlers I know, come to think of it!) Tandem canoeists usually use single blades, and their spares are likely to be singles, too — but a kayaking birdwatcher may also find that a single is ideal for approaching wary waterfowl. If he takes the time to master the art of the J-stroke, the single can even double as his spare.

There are other, more exotic, alternatives, as well. For the ultimate in compact utility, consider a "pudding stick." Nessmuk swore by one — with this "little one-handed paddle," he wrote, "you can go almost anywhere a muskrat can" — and there's now an up-to-date plastic version called the Praddle. It's essentially a paddle blade without a shaft, but with a molded forearm grip, instead. The Praddle is a favorite among dinghy sailors, and while it wouldn't be my first choice as a backup for open water or rapids, paddlers who like to mess about in sheltered ponds, swamps, and shallows would probably find it ideal. At just 17 inches, it's certainly easy to stow. The only spare that would take up less space would be a pair of web-fingered gloves. (Yes, you can buy these, too.)

OK. Let's get to the bottom line. How much can you expect to spend? That depends. While it's generally true that you get what you pay for, serviceable blades can be had for less than the cost of a life jacket, and used paddles are cheaper yet. So if your pockets aren't bottomless, check out's Classifieds — and don't overlook your local paper, either.

Have you made your choice? Then you'll need to …

Know How to Stow 'Em

A backup paddle won't do you much good if it's buried in your gear, or lashed so tight that it can only be cut free with a sharp knife. After all, when you need your spare, you usually need it in a hurry. Kayakers can slide their break-down blades under their deck rigging, with the shafts pointing toward the cockpit. The stern deck is probably a better location than the bow. Either can usually be made to work, however. It's also a good idea to practice fitting the pieces together on the water, though in a really hard chance it's possible to use one half of a break-down double as a gripless single. Canoeists have more choices than kayakers. In sheltered water, they can simply toss their spare into the bilge, or — if the bilge is filled with float bags or packs — just slip it under the lashings that keep the bags in place. Whitewater boaters will probably want to secure the shaft to a thwart with a loop of light line, tied off in a slip knot, of course. (Velcro® ties work well, too.) There's only one universal rule: Keep the grip within reach. You don't want to have to scramble over your gear to grab your paddle, do you?

Sit-on-tops are at the other end of the convenience scale when it comes to stowing spare paddles. Most lack both long decks and deep bilges. So if yours doesn't have a molded paddle park, you'll have to use your ingenuity. Whatever your solution to the problem, however, and whatever type of boat you paddle, you'll want to …

Test the Waters …

Before you bet your life on your spare blade. There's theory, and then there's the real, watery world. In theory, a quick-release tie will always open on the first tug. In theory, a paddle wedged under a kayak's deck rigging will stay put in a breaking sea, yet slip free with only a moderate pull. In theory, a breakdown blade will be plenty strong enough to weather a storm. But will real-world experience always bear out these comforting theories? The only way you're going to know for sure is to put the theories to the test yourself, with your paddle and your boat, on the same sort of water where you spend most of your time. It's no different than doing self-rescue drills or practicing paddle strokes in an English gate. Ask any naval architect. There's no substitute for a sea trial. Period. So just do it!

Some paddlers think backup blades invite trouble, but I'm not one of them. "Spare me!" I say. I'd rather carry a few extra pounds in my boat than find myself up the creek without a paddle, thanks just the same. And what about you? If you're in the same boat with me on this one, you've got a clear course to follow. Get a spare paddle that does the job for you, and then carry it whenever you go afloat. If you do, you'll always be in command of your craft — you'll be the verb, not the object. The actor, not the acted-upon. And that's a mighty good feeling, on the water and off.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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