A Double-Bladed Paddle in a Single-Seat Canoe? Why Not?
By Tamia Nelson
July 14, 2009
Ask some folks—and this includes a lot of paddlers—to describe the difference between a canoe and a kayak, and they'll mostly talk about paddles. They'll tell you that canoeists use…well…canoe paddles. Just like the ones you used in scout camp. And kayakers use…you guessed it…kayak paddles, the sort with two blades, one at each end. Canoe paddles have a single blade, of course.
As working definitions go, this one is pretty fair. At least it avoids the confusion created by (for instance) decked canoes. But like all more or less arbitrary distinctions, it doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. For one thing, kayakers have been known to use single-blade canoe paddles. Single blades are particularly good for those times and places where a double paddle is too unwieldy—or where the semaphore flash of a double blade is unwelcome. But unless you're a hunter, a wildlife photographer, or a commando, such occasions are probably rare.
It's much more common to see canoeists opting for the double blade, instead. In fact, solo canoeists have been wielding double-bladed paddles since long before Nessmuk recommended them to his readers. It simply makes sense, efficiency-wise. No, you won't go twice as fast with half the effort when you switch to a double, but you will notice a real improvement. It doesn't matter if you're a member in good standing of the Over the Hill Gang, coming back to paddling after a twenty-year break, or if you're just starting out. Efficiency means getting more for less, and that's almost always a good thing. Doubles are a natural choice in single-seat boats, even when those boats are canoes.
I first saw a double-blade in action in a canoe some 30 years ago, when one of two solo boaters in a our party of six used a double to claw his way forward against half a gale of wind on a storm-tossed lake in northern Québec. It was an impressive performance. Despite the drogue-chute drag of a billowing poncho, he kept up with our tandem with little apparent effort. If he'd been wearing more sensible raingear, he might have led the pack. The lesson was clear:
Doubling Up Makes Sense for Solo Canoeists
As our Québec companion's example proved. But there's more to his story. The paddle he plied to such good effect was a beautifully crafted, jointed spruce "canoe double," all of nine feet long, with copper bang strips on the blade tips. And it was as light as it was lovely. Too light perhaps. Because the strain of driving a loaded 15-foot Prospector against the wind proved more than the ferruled joint could take. Halfway down the four-mile-long lake it parted with a crack like a rifle shot, leaving our companion at the mercy of the Old Woman, and she gave him very little slack. In seconds he was scudding backward faster than he'd been going forward, helped along by his poncho. Of course, being an old hand at backcountry voyaging, he had a spare paddle in his boat. But it was a single blade, and try as he might he couldn't keep pace with the rest of us. The other solo boater in the group had a sleek, seaworthy Sawyer downriver canoe, and he drove it hard with a bent-shaft paddle. Yet he, too, was struggling to keep up.
With our poncho-clad friend's double blade now lying in two pieces in the bottom of his Prospector, he didn't have a chance. Still, he wasn't about to give up. So after a few fruitless and exhausting minutes trying to defy the Old Woman's wrath with his spare single, he opted for the canoeing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: He pulled out the aluminum setting pole he'd stowed under the thwarts of his boat and started paddling with it, dipping the ends into the water alternately and relying on the cross-sectional area of the immersed pole in lieu of proper blades. And wonder of wonders, it worked. At least it worked better than his single blade. He caught up to the rest of us in no time, and we all reached the foot of the lake together, without having to slow the pace to match that of our unfortunate companion.
My conclusion? When the chips are down—and the wind is up—even a bladeless double trumps a conventional canoe paddle, at least for solo canoeists. (Using doubles in a tandem is certainly possible, but careful choreography is needed to avoid entanglements, and the gain in efficiency is less marked.) Which bring us to the next big question:
Which Double for Me?
The perfect double paddle would be gossamer light, Samson strong, and dirt cheap. It would also be elegant enough to win a blue ribbon in you local craft show, as well as being easy on your hands. Sadly, though, this Ideal Double doesn't exist—or if it does, I haven't discovered it. But I have found that you can get a Pretty Decent Double for a reasonable price, and that's good enough for me. Length is the critical dimension. Unless you're a racer, however, it's not as critical as all that. The classic spruce "canoe doubles" were nine feet long. Most were jointed in the middle, and as our friend's brush with disaster on that lake in Québec demonstrated, the joint was often a weak point. Finding a nine-foot-long double today isn't impossible (Shaw & Tenney of Orono, Maine, still make them, and they're beauties), but you're not likely to see one in most outfitters' catalogs. Luckily, eight-foot (240-245 cm) blades are relatively common, and serviceable examples can be had for less than USD100. These work well for most folks in solo canoes, provided that their boat's beam doesn't exceed 32 inches or so. One word of warning: Funnily enough, very short folks may want a slightly longer paddle. (Why? In order to minimize gunwale strikes without having to adopt an exaggeratedly high stroke.) So if you think this might be a problem for you, see if you can borrow or rent a number of doubles of varying lengths and give them all a good tryout. The Paddling.net Reviews can also help.
Most long double paddles today can be broken down into two pieces, with the join at or near the center, and though this joint is always a potential weak link, breakdown paddles have obvious advantages. After all, an eight-foot-long paddle is an awkward thing to store in a boat (or a closet). Furthermore, the joint usually makes it possible to vary the angle of the blades, and while most paddlers prefer feathered (aka "offset") blades to start with, some of us soon discover that we like unfeathered paddles better, at least under most circumstances. Many jointed paddles give you the choice. In the photo below, the unfeathered paddle is on top:
Why would anyone choose a feathered paddle? Well, offsetting the blades presents only a thin edge to the wind, rather than a broad flat. Or at least it does when the wind is hard in your face. (That's also true of tailwinds, of course, but has any canoeist ever had a tailwind for more than ten seconds at a time?) Theoretically, this makes for easier paddling in hard conditions. In practice, however, headwinds have a way of suddenly becoming beam winds, and then the feathered blade is caught broadside on. Moreover, feathered paddles require that you cock your wrist when immersing the offside blade, and this can lead to a debilitating variant of repetitive strain injury. Not so very long ago, a 90-degree offset was the norm. Now most feathered paddles are offset by only 60 degrees, many by even less. Still, some paddlers suffer nagging wrist pain after several strenuous days on the water. Unfeathered blades avoid this problem. They also eliminate the control-hand dilemma. Feathered blades, if not flat and identically shaped, are either right-handed (as in the lower example in the photo above) or left-handed. If right-handed, the fingers of the right hand remain clamped to the paddle shaft throughout the stroke, while the shaft rotates in the left hand as the right wrist is cocked up (vice versa for left-handed paddles). One-piece shafts with asymmetric blades are either one or the other, right-hand control or left-hand control. But jointed, asymmetric paddles can accommodate either preference—though not all do.
To offset or not to offset? That is the question. And the answer is up to you. Experience is the best teacher, but veteran paddlers may reach very different conclusions. Farwell still mourns the loss of his old fully-feathered paddle, with its 90-degree offset. I, on the other hand, regarded the same paddle as little more than an instrument of torture, and I welcome the simplicity and comfort of my present unfeathered blade. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Blade shape is another area where disagreement is rife. A few paddles have flat, identically-shaped blades. Most, however, are asymmetric, and many are spooned (concave). And that's just the start. Some paddles have big blades. Some have small. Some blades are long and narrow. Others are short and broad. The photo below shows two blades from three angles. The orange blade is relatively narrow, while the black blade is wider. Both are spooned and asymmetric.
It wasn't always like this. Inuit and Aleut hunters, who were probably the first people to use the double blade, wielded paddles whose construction and design were largely dictated by the available materials. The blades were only a little bit wider than the shafts, and they were never feathered, yet they worked just fine, thanks very much. Moreover, this ancient pattern is still a good choice for skilled, open-water paddlers who frequent storm-tossed seas. Boaters who favor more clement waters have more latitude, however, and canoeists arguably have the most latitude of all. When paddling in my pack canoe, I'm happy with a comparatively inexpensive jointed double, set up unfeathered. The blades are intermediate in size, asymmetric in profile, and modestly spooned. Such a paddle is a good choice if you're just starting out. It will drive your solo canoe over the water with relative ease, while giving you the opportunity to learn what blade angle works best for you—unfeathered or feathered (and if the latter, by how much). Where you go from there is up to you.
Of course, a bad paddle is almost worse than none at all. So how do you know…
A Good Paddle…
When you see one? Easy. Check the joint first. It should be snug, with no trace of play. None. There are plenty of times in life when it's helpful to have a little wiggle room, but this is not one of those. The joint that unites the two halves of a breakdown paddle must be rock solid. If not, the paddle belongs over the fireplace and nowhere else. Does yours pass the test? Then grip the shaft as if you were paddling. Your fingers should clasp it easily, without strain. If you have small hands, it may take a bit of searching to find a good fit. (Some shafts have an oval cross-section to facilitate proper blade orientation. You may like this. Or you may not.) Next, heft the paddle and try a few strokes in the air. Does the weight feel oppressive? This is not a good sign. If a paddle feels heavy in your living room, or in the shop, imagine how it will feel at the end of a long, hard day. You may have to pay a bit more for a lighter blade, but this will be money well spent.
Lastly, bring your new blade to the beach and throw it into the water. Does it float? Good. A paddle that sinks isn't worth much. Now pick it up and take a few more strokes in the air, just like you did in your living room. Can you hear water sloshing around in the shaft? Not good. Farwell once owned just such a leaky paddle. It never shipped enough water to sink out of sight, but the constant slosh-slosh-slosh as he paddled along drove him crazy—and he didn't welcome the extra weight, either. Water is heavy.
Has your new paddle passed all the tests? OK. You're ready to head out on the water. But don't leave your old single-blade behind. You'll want a spare paddle in your boat, after all, and as I've already noted, a single is ideal for those times when efficiency is less important than moving quietly. Besides, you don't want to forget all those strokes you learned in scout camp, do you? I thought not.
Why should kayakers have all the fun? Solo canoeists can double up, too. In fact, double-bladed paddles make a lot of sense in any single-seat boat. So, if you've just acquired a solo canoe and you're getting tired of going in circles, give yourself a break. Follow Nessmuk's lead and get a double blade. You won't be sorry. Sometimes double vision is a very good thing!
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