Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lettman Black Light Greenland paddle, long-term touring test and review.

Ocean Paddler magazine issue 49 was published this week. Unfortunately a number of gremlins got into the publishing schedule of this issue. In it I wrote a review of the Lettman Blacklight Greenland paddle. Unfortunately a draft version of the test was published instead of the final version which was written after using the paddle for a further 4 months during which I covered almost 500 more kilometres with the paddle. This is the review that should have been published.

Amongst recreational touring paddlers, the Greenland paddle (GP) can be one of the most divisive subjects in sea kayaking. Some view it as a semi mystic object of reverence and pay homage to its centuries of history and will paddle with nothing else. Some GP users delight in perfecting the many different Greenland rolls and but hardly ever tour thereafter. In the other camp, Euro and Wing paddlers view the Greenland paddle as a historical object in much the same way that a smartphone user might view a telephone box on a street corner. The distribution of recreational sea kayakers tends to be polarised into those that use GPs and those who do not with each camp being convinced that their choice is "right". I have kept an open mind about paddle choice and have used a variety of paddle types, Euro, wing and GP over the last 13 years. My main interest is recreational sea kayak touring and I only do two different rolls. So this test of a GP is written from the perspective of a recreational touring kayaker, it is not really intended for those who are already converts (though this has proved to be a most desirable GP.) Rather, it is intended to open the eyes of those who have not considered or tried a GP and those who are unaware of the recent technological advances that have been made in their manufacture and performance.

I have used GPs for about a 15% of my paddling over the last 13 years and about 60% over the last year. I started with a beautiful second-hand, professionally made, laminated one piece wood paddle. This was really too long for me so I made two wooden ones myself. The first from whitewood was just for practice then the second was made from western red cedar. I then bought a Superior Kayaks two piece carbon fibre GP and have also had access to a three piece Northern Light carbon fibre GP. Although I have enjoyed them all, I have never used any of them as my main touring paddle.

Some common conceptions about GPs.
There are some common conceptions about GPs that may or not be true. In no particular order, here are some common beliefs about GPs' advantages or disadvantages. The first is that they are easier on your joints than a Euro paddle. This may well be true of Euros with a high feather angle but since I started paddling I have reduced my Euro and wing paddle feather angles to zero and I cannot truthfully say I notice any difference. However, I am in my seventh decade and like many older people I have torn the rotator cuff in one of my shoulders. This causes a painful arc in the range of movement in the shoulder. When using the canted stroke with a GP I found the GP more painful when touring long distances than when using a wing paddle. Since then I have only used GPs for short trips of less than 15km per day. I then tore the long head of biceps muscle off the shoulder (lifting a polyethylene kayak off my roof rack solo). While fixing this, the surgeon also fixed my rotator cuff and I have been delighted to increase my use of the GP again.

The second is that GPs should be sized using the anthropometric measurements of an arm span and a cubit. This might work for some people in some kayaks but takes no account of back length (which is not directly proportion to arm length), seat height, your weight and kayak volume and whether you are paddling loaded or unloaded. The loom length (between the blade roots just as important as overall length. With a GP you want to be able to sink the blade completely before it reaches your hips, since your pinky will be wrapped round the root of the blade the loom should be long enough that your pinky just gets wet. I suggest taking advice from a good dealer or manufacturer but only make a purchasing decision after you have demoed a variety of sizes of paddles in your own boat.

The third is that GPs are less tiring than other paddles because your hands are closer together on the loom. This means you don't need to lift your arms so high, especially with a high angle stroke. Well on three GP's, two wings and three Euros (cranked and straight) which I have been using recently, my thumbs are the same 50 cm apart on all of them!

The fourth is that GPs flutter more than other paddles and that newcomers need to learn the canted stroke to minimise flutter. To an extent this probably is true though all types of paddle can flutter. In the GP I think it is caused by unstable water flow which flows across the blade one way then the other. My home made GP was the worst GP for flutter I have tried. By canting the paddle forward (the upper edge further away from the body) you can encourage water to flow one way towards the upper edge which then becomes the trailing edge. On a poor GP (like my home made one) you need to use so much cant to reduce flutter that the paddle wants to dive (especially if you use a low angle paddling style) and newcomers can get a feeling of instability. However, you do not need to start off Greenland paddling with a canted stroke. Indeed if you hold the GP correctly with the thumb and fore finger round the loom and the palm and other three fingers round the root of the blade this will automatically create enough cant for the better GPs.

The fifth is that GP's are more buoyant than other paddles and this helps with things like bracing especially static bracing. This might be true of my home made GP with its voluminous blades and thick edges but comparing three carbon fibre GPs with three foam or air core carbon fibre, non GP paddles I have at the moment, two of the conventional paddles are more buoyant than all three GP's!

The sixth is that GPs are slower than Euros or wings for touring. This is nonsense. Unlike racing, when you are touring you seldom maintain your kayak's maximum hull speed for more than a few minutes. In practice, a group of like minded paddlers in a variety of kayaks and with a variety of paddles will usually all be moving at pretty much the same speed.

After considering these conceptions I was left with the feeling that GPs, wings and Euros are actually more similar than they are different and that you get good and bad examples of each. Perhaps we just need to think more of whether a blade is high aspect, low aspect or somewhere in between.

Some things you may not (or want to) know about GPs
One of my "Euro paddle only friends" said "Of course you can't use it with a paddle float." GP only users are probably rolling about in laughter at this. Many traditional GPs had enough volume to use as a stabiliser without a float and were slotted at right angles to the kayak into a Qoorutit on deck. However, due to the extreme thinness of its edges and tip, the Black Light GP has significantly less volume than most GPs and will provide less static support. There is also a serious side to my friend's comment. I developed a new respect for the paddle float from Murty Campbell of Stornoway Canoe Club (he is also cox of the Stornoway RNLI lifeboat). In the late 1980's, he pioneered return solo kayak crossings to many of the outlying islands and rocks to the west and north of the Outer Hebrides. At that time even teams were not risking these exposed crossings. When I first paddled with him. I noticed a paddle float on his boat and asked him about it. He said "By the time you have been paddling for a while, if conditions are extreme enough to knock you in, you cannot guarantee your roll, it's not a competition, out there it's survival. If you are solo, you have to have several re-entry options and these include paddle float re-entry." I do a lot of solo paddling and since talking to Murty, I have always carried and practiced with a paddle float. I can tell my friend that although the paddle float strap will not secure a GP blade, the float will stay on a GP by friction if you blow it up hard enough. You can then use the additional support to do a quick thigh hook entry directly into the cockpit.

Another Euro friend said "But they don't have drip rings!" This may be a statement of the obvious but it does lead to one thing they don't tell you about GPs. Your hands get wetter with a GP, whatever the sea conditions. This may not bother some but in the better weather I like to get my DSLR camera out and using a GP I need to be able to dry my hands first. Also, during a Scottish winter my hands get colder with a GP because they are wetter.

The Lettmann Black Light paddle
My interest in the Black Light paddle was sparked after meeting Roland Woolven with his Black Light GP in the Grey Dogs tide race south of Oban. I knew he had used it for part of his circumnavigation of Britain. So when I had the chance to test one I jumped at it. The Black Light GP was originally an ultra-lightweight, one piece designed by Sara Wegner of Escape Outdoors in Gothenburg. Its development and manufacture in carbon fibre was by Erik Kullgren of Elitecomposit AB. A two piece was developed with the help of Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg in 2011. In late 2012 Klaus Lettman of Lettman GmbH took over the manufacture, distribution and marketing of Black Light paddles and full production models were available from mid 2014.

Specifications, design and construction
The paddle is available in one cm increments from 217cm to 223cm. The test paddle was 222cm with a loom length of 53cm. The loom cross section is ovalised at 36mmx32mm. The smallest one piece weighs 620g, the two piece 222cm paddle as tested weighs 715g. The blade is 85mm wide at the tip and 45mm at the shoulder. The price has recently dropped in the UK and is currently £410 inc VAT (I paid £460 in July!) for either the one piece or the two piece. The paddle is constructed from prepreg carbon fibre and the paddle is hollow. A longitudinal internal spine at right angles to the paddle face divides each blade into two chambers and gives the paddle its incredible stiffness. The paddle tips are rounded and both tips and edges are reinforced with aramid fibres. There would be little point in having a super stiff paddle if the joint was loose. Fortunately the joint is totally rigid but very unobtrusive. On the test paddle an ovalised spigot slides into a plastic liner on the inside of the other loom. (Please see footnote below, the current production paddles use a larger diameter carbon spigot without the plastic liner.) The join is locked by a stainless steel button on the spigot which pops through a tight fitting hole on the female side of the loom. Once assembled your hands hardly notice the join which is important in a GP as your hands will frequently slide the length of the paddle. The two joints on the three piece Northern Light GP feel decidedly loose in comparison, especially after the paddle has seen a season's use. With cold hands it is quite difficult to depress the Black Light button enough to get the two halves apart. I find the point of a key helps push it in.

When you pick this paddle up the lightness is almost shocking, even if you already own carbon fibre paddles. The next thing that will be surprising, even to those that are very familiar with GPs, is the dramatic thinness of the last 15 cm of the blade and of the edges, which get progressively thinner from the blade shoulder to the tip. The oval loom and more rounded edges at the blade shoulders make this paddle extremely comfortable to hold though some more used to traditional paddles might find gripping the ends of the blade during bracing and rolling less comfortable than with a thicker wooden GP.

This test concentrated on the Black Light paddle's use for touring as that is where the designer and manufacturer have emphasised its particular features of light weight, stiffness and thin edges give it advantages over other GPs.

On the water
The test took place over a period of 9 months and just over 1,000km in Scotland, both north and south of Ardnamurchan Point and in the Clyde and Solway Firths. Wind conditions varied up to F4-5 on exposed water and F5-6 on water with a more limited fetch of 15km. It has been used in tide races of up to 5 knots in the Solway and up to 8 Knots round Jura. It has been used in a Delphin 155, Aries 155, Cetus MV and Scorpio MV (both unloaded and fully loaded for camping), a Nordkapp LV and a Taran 16. I am 174cm in height and weighed 90kg at the beginning of the test and 85kg at the end of the test.

I have already mentioned the comfortable grip on the Black Light paddle This gives a great feeling of control, which is assisted by the hands holding the blade roots (which is one of the features I like about GP's in general). Indeed I now prefer my Euro paddles to be either indexed on both sides or cranked so that my hands have a better idea of the orientation of the blade.
The most striking things about the first few strokes were how light it was and how silently and cleanly it enters and leaves the water. There is absolutely no flutter with this paddle no matter how hard you pull. Maybe because I regularly change paddles and paddle non GPs with zero feather, I found I was able to switch from a wing to the Black Light GP and back almost seamlessly. However, I think there is more to it than just familiarity, it definitely takes me longer to adjust to my other GPs if I have not used them for a while. They have more flutter and I find they need a greater angle of cant than the Black Light GP. My Superior Kayaks GP is also light, stiff and made of CF but is a thicker paddle, especially at the edges. I think the very thin edges of the Black Light GP lead to a greater feel for the water flowing over the blades. This is particularly important when blending steering and power strokes or sculling and, in this respect, the Black Light is probably the best paddle of any type I have ever used.

I found it just as much fun to use in all the kayaks I tested it with. It particularly suits the Delphin and the Aries as they are so manoeuvrable when edging that you do not need to depend on those turning strokes that might be better with a Euro paddle. I was also surprised by how well it suited the Taran 16, which is about as far away from a traditional Greenland kayak as you can get. Although my maximum sprint speed with the Black Light GP in the Taran 16 was about 5% less than when using a small wing, I found it just as easy to maintain a fast (for me) touring speed of 8km/hr with either paddle. Even in a force 6 headwind and a F5 cross wind I did not find it as affected by wind as my usual touring small blade wing with zero feather.

Touring and expedition use
Until now my favoured touring paddle has been a wing with a small blade. My first camping trip with the Black Light GP involved the waters round Oban, Kerrera, Seil, the Sound of Luing, the Sound of Jura, the west Coast of Jura, the Sound of Islay, Islay and return by the Sound of Jura. We set off with food and water for 5 days and nights. We encountered tides of up to 8 knots and winds from F0 to F5. We encountered significant wind over tide at the north end of the Sound of Luing. We were all paddling Cetus kayaks, my friends were both using cranked CF Werner Cyprus Euro paddles while I used the Black Light. I adjusted to the GP straight away and found it superb even in the confused tidal waters of the Sound of Luing. The feedback from the stiffness and the narrow edges gives a great feeling for how the water is flowing over the blade and with it comes a great sense of security. Like other GPs, you can use the Black Light GP for high or low angle paddling. I also find myself using a stroke akin to a wing stroke with a GP and again the Black Light GP excels at this. At first I expected the ultra stiff Black Light GP to be tiring (especially when paddling loaded into a wind or tide). I find my own CF Werner Cyprus paddles are too stiff and with them I need to pace my paddling if I want to avoid aching arms. As darkness was approaching on our crossing to Jura we were really pushing on. Using the Black Light GP for the first time with a load I expected to suffer after this but didn't and as a result I began to really appreciate the Black Light GP's touring ability. 
One of my paddling companions is nearly two decades younger than me and normally I get a bit tired keeping up if we are pushing on. The Black Light GP is the first GP I have used and not felt at a disadvantage when trying to keep up with a fitter, younger paddler who is in a hurry with a Euro paddle! 

This is also the best GP paddle I have used for really pulling hard during acceleration or against an adverse current. On the coast of Jura we spent a pleasant hour at peak flow on a spring tide, which was running at 8 knots. There was no wind so the water was flat except at the eddy lines. We fought our way upstream, eddy hopping and ferry gliding from one side of the channel to the other until we could go no further. Then we broke out into the main flow and ran back down to the next eddy and repeated, crossing each eddy line until exhausted. In the past I would not have chosen one of my GP's for this type of paddling but I can honestly say that I felt in no way restricted by the performance of the Black Light GP. At the end of our trip I decided that, for me, the Black Light GP was the best touring paddle of any type that I had ever used. It carries a price premium over other CF paddles which I have used but I think its outstanding touring performance is worth it.
To counter balance the above, another of my younger friends who uses a Werner Cyprus tried the Black Light on a camping trip. After about an hour he developed tendinitis at the elbow. This just demonstrates that our bodies are different and it would be amazing if one paddle was "the best" and suited everybody.

In the surf
Even though the great majority of my surf paddling has been with Euro paddles, I have broken two GPs but only 1 Euro paddle in the surf. So given the expense of the Black Light, I approached the surf with some caution. The spring tidal range in the Solway is nearly 10 metres and the tide goes out for many kilometres leaving a great expanse of gently sloping sands. The ebb tide runs against the prevailing southerly winds and combined with swell coming up the Irish sea, the shoaling water creates breaking waves as far as the eye can see. These are locally known as "the white steeds of the Solway".

My favoured paddle for these conditions is a large bladed VE Explorer Aircore paddle set at zero feather and indexed on both sides of the shaft. However, the Black Light performed perfectly well, though it did not have the acceleration of the VE and I was not catching quite so many waves with it. The Black Light was less effective than the VE at stern steering strokes but it was more effective than my wing. Some argue that GP's offer better bracing than Euros but in the rough and tumble of broken, aerated water, I found the VE paddles better. However, once your body is in the water, the GP's other advantages come to the fore and I particularly liked the feel of the Black Light as I alternated strokes when sculling. I think the sharp edges contribute to this paddle's sculling performance. However, on balance, I prefer the feel of a CF large bladed Euro in the surf.

As mentioned above this is not a test of this paddle's rolling ability through the range of Greenland rolls. By chance, my one roll (two if you count left and right versions!) is the standard Greenland roll. As someone who started as a white water river paddler, my main roll was a "powerful" C to C but I developed dislocating knees and lost my rolling ability with that roll. Fortunately this coincided with a visit by Turner and Cheri of Kayak Ways to the Scottish Sea Kayak Symposium in Skye and I learned the standard Greenland roll with a small wing blade and no strain on my knees! Some people may not like the feel of the sharp edges of the end of the Black Light GP blade in the hand during the roll but it did not bother me in the slightest. Just as in sculling I loved how this paddle felt during the transition to the forward sweep during the last stage of the roll compared with my other GPs. However, the difference in feel during rolling alone probably does not justify the extra cost of the Black Light GP over other cheaper CF or wood GP paddles. As mentioned above the Black Light has significantly less flotation than wooden GPs for static braces, though as a tourer (with surfer's nodules in my ears) I cannot pretend to spend much time in the static brace position.

Rock hopping
GP's are not ideal for rock hopping due to the fragility of their edges and the depth their blades need to be immersed for full grip. I find they are not so good in aerated water or for forward steering strokes. Although I would still choose to take a Euro for a specific rock hopping trip, I found I was not keeping away from the rocks with the Black Light GP. The clatter of carbon on rock has often brought a grimace to my face but it has just bounced of the blades. Due to the sharp edges, the Black Light is actually quite good for bow rudders when compared with my other GPs.

Paddle sailing
This is probably not something that many traditional Greenland paddlers would think of doing with a GP. However, recreational paddling, as inspired by MacGregor in the mid 19th century,

started out as paddle sailing. It is still very popular in Australia and New Zealand and interest in the UK and Europe is reawakening. 

The Inuit also used sails as this 1927 photo from the book "Inuit Kayaks in Canada: A Review of Historical Records and Construction" 1995 by EY Arima clearly shows.

One of the real joys of paddle sailing is that it allows you to catch faster waves that are found in deeper water. You still need to paddle very hard to do this. Although many people paddle sail with a GP, the majority use wings or Euros to maximise acceleration when catching waves. Until now I have hardly used my own GP's for paddle sailing as I just did not enjoy trying to accelerate with them as much as with a wing.

However, the Black Light GP is the best accelerating GP I have tried and I have been using it increasingly for paddle sailing, especially when touring with a load.

Wear and tear.
The demo Black Light paddle is nearly two years old and has been used for two symposiums and been on frequent loans. There is not a single chip on any of its edges. The joint is still totally rigid. Apart from a few minor scuffs on the surface, it still looks as new. No water has entered its cavities.

extreme lightness and stiffness
very narrow edges for flutter free grip in the water
ideally suited to long distance touring especially when fully loaded
remarkably robust given its lightness
totally solid two piece joint

Very expensive
Not as customisable as a wooden paddle.

The Lettmann Black Light Greenland paddle is the best recreational touring paddle (GP, wing or Euro) I have ever used. I have bought one at full price from Kari-Tek. Despite the high cost I think it is worth every penny.

Foot note
My own 222 cm Black Light paddle arrived during this review. It was beautifully finished but I was not able to paddle it. The two halves would not fit together. The design of the joint has changed. The spigot has been increased in diameter and now fits directly into the other half, which is no longer lined with a plastic sleeve. Carbon fibre to carbon fibre joins can have a lot of friction but this would not fit and so had to be returned to Kari-Tek the UK distributor. You should check the fit before leaving the shop. Kari-Tek supplied an alternative new 220cm Black Light which I have used for the last two months and not noticed the missing 2cm! It still has a very tight fit and I need to wiggle it back and forward for about 40 seconds to get the two halves together or apart. One advantage of the tight fit is that little water makes its way into the paddle. Due to the volume of air in these hollow blades the halves are not sealed because if the black paddle was lying in the hot sun it would explode if sealed. I spent 3 hours in the water while rolling one afternoon and despite frequent immersions the paddle was bone dry when I pulled it apart. It is unlikely that you will use an expensive paddle such as this as spare splits on deck but if you do it will fill with water.

For expert advice on Greenland paddles and paddling:
Also look out for online and print articles by Greg Stamer (herehere  and here) and Christopher Crowhurst.


  1. An education for me who until I read this just thought a paddle was what came with the craft on purchase and never thought of changing it if I could travel at a reasonable speed through the water.

    1. Hi Bob, some paddles cost more than some kayaks! They do however make a great difference especially if you are paddling a long way. :)

  2. The difficulty is in getting a chance to use different paddles to on trial. I have a carbon shaft glass/foam core blade euro blade because someone gave me it. It works but I want to try other paddles.

    1. sorry for the delay in replying Margaret, I have been ill. Yes there was no way I was going to buy it without a decent test. Fortunately my local dealer Karitek are really good and they lent me one for some considerable time! It was then easy to buy one.

  3. Welcome to the "dark" side :-)
    I am glad that your old injuries are now sorted and you can enjoy paddling with the stick, mind you not just any stick...
    One thing that I find great with a GP in the surf is the diminished "lift" that I get when broached and high braced: I feel that the waves is not trying to rip my arm high as much as with a Euro paddle. I think it's a safer paddle for me with less chance of a dislocated shoulder.

    1. Greetings Gnarly, sorry for delay in replying, I have been ill. I have actually been using GPs since 2004 and have even made two myself. Until my shoulder operation in 2013 I have never used GPs for any serious distance. Since getting the shoulder fixed I have found using a GP much easier for longer trips. I very much agree about liking the GP in surf. :o)