Wednesday, 30 August 2017

SUP Travel Paddle

Travel to paddle

As a taller paddler I have a bit of an issue with many adjustable paddles and particularly with travel paddles. Many state that they will extend to 220cm, about the right height for me, but to get to that height they sacrifice a lot of stiffness and in use they can feel like they are made of out of noodles. This is largely down to the reduced overlap between the shaft and the extension, the more overlap between the two sections the stiffer the paddle. Its not quite that simple of course, the length of the shaft is important, the longer that is the better, the quality of manufacture and materials used all play a part in giving the adjustable paddler the best experience possible on the water.

I stumbled into a Facebook conversation about adjustable paddles, someone was asking for a recommendation for a good adjustable paddle.  Several people had made good suggestions based on their own experience but no one had asked about the paddler who would be using it. I chipped in asking about their height and ultimately that lead to a conversation with Andrew McConky, head honcho at McConks paddle boards, about how to address the noodle issue for taller paddlers. A couple of months later I was a little surprised and very pleased to find myself with a prototype McConks 3 part paddle specifically for a trip to Sweden. Top marks to a small company willing to try something a little different!

McConks bag and three part carbon paddle

So, some stats;

Construction Carbon Fibre blade, shaft and extension
Length (max) 220 cm (would go longer but even I cannot test something that long!)
Length Shaft 154 cm
Length Extension 82 cm
Weight (total) 765 g
Weight Shaft 602 g
Weight Extension 163 g
Blade Size 39 x 19 cm (medium) 
Paddler Height 1.93m
Paddler Weight 98 kg
Paddler Experience Enthusiastic Intermediate
Paddler Construction Slightly overbuilt 

This compares well with the standard production model (details here) that has a stated weight of under 750 g and a maximum extension of 220 cm. As this is a prototype there was no ‘max’ length set on the extension and I was using the paddle with the overall length set to 220cm, the same as the standard paddle which I’ve not used. For reference a 2013 Red Paddle fixed length carbon paddle (220cm long) weighs in at 751g.

The three sections of the paddle have a high gloss finish, each section was well made with no sharp edges or burrs and when assembled everything was snug, each part butting up neatly with it’s neighbour. 

The blade section locks in place with a button fixing and the clasp at the top of the shaft has a nice smooth cam-lock, secured with two bolts. The cam feels very positive in use and is far more positive than the simple lever used on some other paddles. 

With every paddle the proof is in the paddling and, always keen to use shiny new kit I snuck a quick session in that evening, McConks meeting my 12’6” Allstar at my local, flatwater, try-kit-for-the-first-time spot.

First paddles with new kit are are always short, a chance to see what something is like before venturing out for a longer paddle, a couple of km out and back. On the water the McConks felt fine, just like a paddle with no hint of any noodle-ness at all. Which given my experience of things adjustable was a surprise. It felt so fine that my short paddle extended to 4.5km only stopped by sunset.

Strava leaderboard for a favourite 1km segment, McCconks at the top.

I was surprised when I got home and uploaded my GPS trace for the evening… I use a Garmin Vivosmart HR on the water and I like an app called Strava, if you don’t know it then it’s a great free tool for GPS tracking and you can read a bit more about it here. One of Strava’s best features is the ability to set up segments on any trace and compare data for each time you use the paddle the same bit of that course. That evening I’d set a personal best for a 1km segment that I’ve paddled over 40 times before, on this paddle maintaining an average speed of 9.4km/h. To put that in context every other time in the top 20 has been set with a light(ish) carbon fixed length paddle on the same board with the same fin in variety of conditions, the only change being the paddle.

The blade on this paddle is fractionally bigger than ones I’ve been using for a while now, it’s also shorter and wider. This shape seems to suit my medium cadence paddling of 40 - 42 strokes per minute and progress was swift without putting any extra strain on me. 

The next morning I hit the water on another local favourite spot, less sheltered than the night before and with more ‘interesting’ water conditions across the front of Plymouth Hoe. Again the paddle felt just like a paddle, the release at the end of the stroke feels slightly different to my Kialoa and Starboard (High Aspect) paddles but that’s to be expected as they are all different shapes. The catch and pull feel solid with no flutter in the water. Yet again I was surprised to set a PB on another Strava segment in conditions that I felt were not quite ideal, this time averaging 8.5 km/h over 2km. 

McConks and my old Red on Lake Vanern, Sweden
Travel paddles are to be travelled with so that’s what I did next. With the paddle in it’s bag rolled inside an inflatable SUP I headed to Sweden for some exploring. In the course of a week I paddled several times along the coast, in fjords and on some of the thousands of lakes on offer. Throughout the paddle was faultless, resisting clumsy handling and rocky outcrops without a scratch and stiffly handling paddling into headwinds with aplomb. Worth noting that on my inflatable I had to set the paddle slightly longer than on my race board and it was still great to use. 

McConking on a Swedish Island

When back in the UK I put the paddle to my ultimate test, a 9.5km out and back, usually with a headwind for half to it. This is a route I try to do on ‘good’ days and if I’m honest this didn’t feel that good, the wind was a bit stiffer than I’d anticipated and I was feeling a bit grumpy which never bodes well. Sure enough the headwind at the fist bend blew my enthusiasm away but as I was about to send the paddle back to McConks I figured I should plug away with it and see what data I could get back. Until remembering a very obvious and simple face, adjustable paddles should be adjusted to suit the conditions. With that stroke of genius I set it a little shorter and knuckled down, forget the view (always stunning) and get to the bridge. Not fun but satisfying. At the turn I set the paddle back to the length I prefer to paddle with and made the most of the tail wind on the way back, although it never feels as helpful as the headwind was a hinderance! 

This isn’t a route I split into segments, there’s no point as I’d never hit the way marks on it but I do take a note of the time. Including a 4 minute (and 7 seconds…) photo stop at the turn back  I was fractionally outside my best time recording 1 hour 18 minutes and 54 seconds topping out at 9.4km/h as usual on my 12’6” Allstar.

All in, this prototype paddle has a longer usable length than any other 3 part travel paddle that I have used, the extra length is primarily in the extension when compared with my daughters 3 parter from a well known brand. This leads to a greater overlap between the top and the shaft and that leads to a better feel when used at it’s longest setting. That is a a great thing for a taller paddler. There is a little weight penalty for this stiffness but that’s a price worth paying in order to have a paddle that you can travel with and that performs nearly as well as a fixed length paddle. I was impressed with Andrew’s confidence in his bag, he dispatched the paddle with no extra packaging, just the bag. That’s a step ahead of the trend to reduce waste as it’s hard to improve on no packaging.  

I’ve only had the McConks for five weeks so cannot comment on longevity, the upper clamp is a simple one and replaceable so I’d have no worries on that while the fixings for the  blade section have changed for 2018 with Andrew using a second clamp and offering an extension section for us tall folk to use. If you need to travel with a paddle or simply need to be able to get your paddle into a small space to transport it then it’s well worth visiting the McConks site and checking out their 2018 range of paddles. 

Most kit reviews end with the reviewer saying that the product is a great, giving it a rating out of 5 or 10 and then sending it back and never using it again. This blog review is a little different as instead of declaring that the McConks is the best travel paddle I’ve ever used before heading to the post office I contacted McConks and paid for it. Guess that’s 5 stars out of 5 then …

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