In the modern day of paddling, purchasing the right canoe paddle can be very confusing and overwhelming. Here I will dive into why we (Fishell Paddles) believe the wood Ottertail canoe paddle is the superior paddle of choice for recreational flat-water paddlers.
Let me start by saying that we don't arrogantly believe our product will work for everyone. We accept the fact that some paddlers like their bent shafts, breadboard and carbon fiber paddles... and we respect that.
So if you’re in the market for a paddle or just want to understand some more paddling theory, keep reading.
I grew up paddling at a summer camp in Ontario Canada and was taught a J-Stroke and Canadian Stroke from a very early age, and Style Paddling. The sought-after paddle during that time was a Ray Kettlewell "Ray Special", it had a 50% blade and 50% shaft in terms of length, a 5" wide blade and a universal grip that all paddlers could get used to and ended up loving. The most unique thing about these paddles was the point of flex, it was positioned right in the middle of the blade.
This flex point allowed the paddler to not worry about snapping their paddle when taking powerful strokes all while not sacrificing the efficiency of the stroke. It was the most efficient paddle of its time (circa 1970-2014).
After apprenticing under Ray Kettlewell and purchasing his business I have now learned there is a lot more that makes a Ray Special unique and efficient. It wasn't until I learned who my competitors are that I truly realized why Ray was making the best of the best canoe paddles.
Grip types, laminated vs. solid piece, flex point, balance point, transitions and contours, oval shafts vs. circle shafts, woods/materials and mass production vs. small batch built to order. These points of interest make a canoe paddle unique and a paddler should understand before buying. I'm going to focus mostly on our products and why we chose the direction we took but I will also touch on some terminology and options offered on the market.
Laminated canoe paddles are gluing pieces of wood together and then shaping the paddle. This is a great way for a manufacturer to save on lumber costs. We chose to stick with what Ray did since the beginning which was single-piece canoe paddles...always.
Both Ray and I agreed that laminated canoe paddles create weak points in the paddle. Yes, the wood glue is stronger than the wood itself BUT that’s never where paddles break. Laminated paddles typically end up cracking right next to the glue line and can eventually end up splitting the whole blade. No lamination helps avoid cracking and weak points in the paddle.
Grips (also known as the Butt of the paddle) can come in all shapes and sizes. From directional grips to T-grips and everything in between.
Directional Grips only make sense on a bent shaft paddle as they are meant to paddle on only the faces of the paddle, examples of this are grips that have a hard top curve on it where it would just feel wrong to paddle it the other way.
T-Grips are great for whitewater where you are in the thick of it, over-gripping your paddle, and sending it hard. They are also great for grabbing overboard swimmers’ life jackets when you need a little extra reach.
We have 2 grips that are very similar in design, one being the Traditional Ray grip (on our Modified Ottertail and Ottertail paddle) and the other being the Ray Special grip (on our Modified Special and Ray Special paddles). They both are considered "universal grips" meaning, designed for all hand sizes, and symmetrically shaped for use on both faces of the paddle. Any paddler who primarily J-strokes and Canadian Strokes needs a symmetrical grip to allow easy and comfortable rotation in the upper hand.
The last thing to note on grips is, DON’T OVER GRIP YOUR PADDLES! This brings me to my next subject.
In most breadboard paddles/bent shaft paddles the balance point of the paddle is well below where the paddler’s lower hand falls (~5"-8" below). Most of these manufacturers have gotten away with this by using super lightweight woods like cedar/poplar or even going as far as carbon fiber.
We believe the balance point of a paddle is far more important than the overall weight of the paddle. This all has to do with your out-of-water recovery and where the focal point lies on the paddle in relation to your lower hand.
I craft each paddle with a balance point ~2" below the pinky of the lower hand. We find that having an ever so slightly blade-heavy balance point allows the paddler to use the paddle with open fingers on the top hand and open palm in the lower hand.
Honestly, when you master the Canadian stroke and this becomes your sole style of paddling, weight doesn't matter much. Transition points and contours matter more.
Transitions and Contours:
If you were to look down the tip of the blade of our paddles you would see the shape of a canoe. Thick in the middle and nicely and evenly contoured to the edges of the blade. It's crucial to have seamless contours for those Canadian Strokes and Style Paddlers.
Oval Shafts vs. Circle Shafts:
Oval shafts are typically used in directional paddles and whitewater paddles to increase durability without sacrificing weight.
We opt for circle shafts for the ease of maneuverability in the lower hand when Canadian Stroking. Plus, the extra durability of an oval shaft isn't needed when the flex point of the paddle is in the middle of the blade rather than the throat.
I will write a blog post on this subject in the future with much more detail. Until then...the most common woods used amongst single-piece paddle manufacturers are Maple, Cherry, Ash, and Walnut. Occasionally you will see Beech in this category. All on the hardwood scale and not too dense that weight becomes an issue.
These same species mentioned above are also used amongst laminated paddle manufacturers in addition to Poplar, Bass Wood, Birch, and Butternut. Most of these species are on the softer scale, some still being on the hardwood scale just very lightweight. Laminated paddle manufacturers use these between hardwood pieces to reduce the weight of the paddle.
A more common modern feature some laminated paddle manufacturers have been adding is a resin tip glued to the blade of the paddle. Designed to reduce the damage done to the wood of the paddle when pushing off rocks. We aren't a big fan of these as I mentioned before, due to lamination and creating a weak point in the paddle. We would rather educate our customers on how to properly care for their wood paddles and revarnish/oil as needed. Instructions on this coming in the future to our YouTube channel and blog.
Lastly, carbon fiber has somewhat taken over the modern world, especially in the standup paddle board world. We have also seen this in the whitewater canoeing market and even the flatwater paddle market. Sure, it’s super light and strong, but does it flex? A little...but not enough for a recreational canoe paddler to maximize stroke efficiency. If you ever get the opportunity to use a bent shaft carbon fiber next to a wood Ottertail you will surely notice the difference.
Mass Production vs. Small Batch/Built to Order
I think this one is a bit self-explanatory. It's simple, mass production just simply isn't handcrafted, the attention to detail isn't there and cutting costs creates a product that won't last.
Small Batch/Built to Order is what we do best. Every paddle is crafted by one guy...me. This allows me to focus on the fine details and simply add any customizations the customer wants. Ultimately resulting in a product that becomes a family heirloom (I still have my dad’s Ray Special from 1981).