Call it bad luck, but in the last month I’ve had two students break my paddles when learning to do the standard paddle float self rescue. Prior to this, I never had a paddle break in 13 years of teaching this skill. In both cases, the paddles broke at the ferrule. Both paddles were Werner fiberglass paddles, but the damage to the paddles was not identical.
The first paddle to break was a Shuna that was about 4 or 5 years old. It had the ferrule style where the button sticks up above the surface of the shaft. As the student was trying to get up onto the back deck of the kayak, he inadvertently was pressing down on that release button causing the two halves of the paddle to separate. I was standing right next to the student in shallow water and noticed the two halves of the paddle coming apart. I stopped the student, pushed the two halves back together, and had him start again. On his next attempt, the two pieces of the paddle came apart so quickly that I wasn’t able to stop him before the shaft split lengthwise along the female end of the paddle. I sent the paddle back to Werner for repair, and while I consider the protruding button to be a design flaw, it wasn’t a defect in workmanship or materials and therefore was not covered under warranty.
The second paddle that broke is a Camano that I purchased last year. Being a newer model, this paddle had the release button which is flush with the surface of the shaft. I didn’t witness this break so I don’t know exactly how it happened, only that the ferrule broke apart while one of my beginning students was attempting to do a solo paddle float re-entry in waist-deep water. The paddle has not been sent back to Werner yet, but in talking to someone at the company when getting my RA (return authorization) number before mailing it back, it sounds like this might be a defect that will be covered by warranty.
Here are the two cautions/suggestions that I would like to make for kayakers who are just learning to do a standard paddle float re-entry:
1.) Use an old paddle while learning this skill. When doing the solo paddle float re-entry properly, you are not likely to be laying on top of the ferrule button and you shouldn’t be applying your body weight on the ferrule (center) portion of the paddle. However, as someone learning this skill, you may not always be using the best technique in the early stages of your learning curve. If you do happen to break a paddle in the process, you’ll feel better if the paddle is an older, cheaper model.
2.) Make sure that you are not putting your weight on the ferrule (center) of your 2-piece paddle. This caution applies no matter what skill you are working on. The ferrule is the weakest point of any 2-piece paddle and the most likely spot to break. Previous to this string of broken shafts, my mother broke two paddle shafts while using her paddle to stabilize the kayak during entry/exit. She placed her hand on the unsupported center of the shaft while lifting the weight of her body into and out of the kayak. I suspect that my student may have been concentrating his weight on the center of the paddle shaft as he tried to get up onto the back deck of the kayak instead of having his weight distributed on the two ends of the shaft near the blades.
Notice that the student in this photo has his hands on the kayak and his weight is mostly on the kayak as well. What can’t be seen in this photo is that while he does have his ankles on the paddle shaft, they are draped over the shaft next to the outboard blade with the paddle float. No part of his body is resting on the center of the paddle shaft. When your weight is distributed in this way on your paddle, it is very unlikely that you will break your paddle shaft.
While the standard paddle float re-entry may not be the best method for re-entering a kayak, I don’t like to teach the re-entry and roll until someone has taken a rolling class and is learning proper rolling technique. Using a paddle float to roll before developing good mechanics is likely to result in the paddler developing bad habits that will hinder his/her ability to learn a solid, reliable roll later.
The heel hook method of re-entering a kayak with a paddle float is also a good solo rescue option for many paddlers, but not all kayaks have the necessary rigging on the back deck to perform the heel hook method, so you still need to have a back-up paddle float option in your bag of tricks. Like the “cowboy” or “scramble” solo re-entry, it may not always be the best and most reliable method for all kayakers, but it is still beneficial to work on the skill as it develops a paddler’s body control, strength, and sense of balance, all of which will make you a better and more confident kayaker who will have less need for self-rescue skills.
As long as it’s brutally hot over most of the country this week, it’s a great time to get out on the water and practice your wet exits and rescues!