Catastrophic failure of a button hole paddle

September 22, 2006

The saga continues (see the two affected trip reports here and here).

I took my broken paddle back to mont-bell in Sendai on Monday with the bamboo still splinted against it so they could see the issue. The manager was called straight away and they were very apologetic, I left my wife to talk to him in Japanese while I went off to find the paddle I wanted as a replacement and other bits of shopping (bungee cord to make a paddle leash and a book called “55 sea kayak routes in Japan” which I will post about next week).

When I got back my wife and the manager were finishing up their discussion but, rather than me being presented with the money back or a new paddle, I was being told that they were sending the paddle to the factory for testing. Within a week they would decide what to do viz a viz refund or exchange. (I wasn’t happy about this – I wanted an immediate refund but this is Japan and this is typical in my experience; consumers have little right of reply compared to ‘the West’). So no paddling for at least a week!

I wondered what tests they would actually do. In my job as an architect I have worked with materials where we were required to do structural, fire and chemical tests all of which were highly technical and highly specified. I imagined the tests here would be some factory guy looking at it.

It is fairly clear to me that the paddle has a design fault – the 3 buttons punched out of the aluminium shaft that allow the paddle’s feather to be adjusted (30 degree left feather / no feather / 30 degree right feather) weakens the paddle shaft to an unacceptable extent. While I can understand why it would not be easy to produce three different types of paddle – one for each feather position – this would definitely make the paddle stronger. I think adjustable feather paddles should not be made with this button design.

To summarise what happened to my paddle. The paddle bent and developed a stress fracture across the button holes (you can see a picture at the bottom of this post). I think this was caused by rolling (possibly an unintentional roll in surf) but I did not notice exactly when it happened. A further three hours of paddling with the damaged paddle led to a total failure of the metal, right across the joint and around the circumference of the shaft. This second failure was a material failure – too much stress on the soft aluminium.

The risks associated with such a failure are difficult to exaggerate. My shaft tore in two while I was underwater practicing eskimo rolls on a warm(ish) day, in warm water, near shore. Had it happened while I was underwater in cold water, during an unintended capsize in bad weather the situation could have been very dangerous. Even if I had had a back up paddle (which I didn’t) it is highly likely that the surprise and disorientation of such an equipment failure would mean a wet exit. (Perhaps those who practice with a

Greenland storm paddle [see this beautiful website] as their back up rolling paddle could stay in the boat). A wet exit into cold water and stormy seas would be very dangerous. In this case one would assemble the back up paddle then self rescue but have to deal with an unbalanced kayak with a lot of water in the cockpit in the same conditions which caused the capsize.

Many people who paddle in groups often have only one back up paddle between 3 or 4 paddlers. I think this is a dangerous practice and highlights the ‘false sense of security’ that paddling in groups can bring. (In his book John Dowd points out that many of the assisted rescues depended on by groups do not work in poor weather, when everyone is struggling to stay together and to stay right-side-up).

The situation developed when mont-bell called yesterday and left a message on the answer phone (quicker than promised – one of the great things about Japan is the quality of service). Apparently there was not a fault with the paddle! Really? But it’s broken in two pieces, how can there not be a fault? And how did they decide that – they didn’t explain. They went on to say that very few of these paddle designs have had any reported problems but because I had bought the paddle so recently (May 2006) they would, “just this once”, offer a replacement. (This phrase “just this once” has been quoted to me several times, like when my Braun electric shaver didn’t work at all. I find it outrageous that companies can treat their customers like this. I hate this “we are doing you a favour” tone. How is that? By upholding my basic statutory rights?) Anyway this being Japan we didn’t make a fuss but called back to request a different paddle design; one without the buttons. It costs an additional 5,000 yen (£25) and has a clamp system to connect the halves.

When I get back to Scotland next year I am going to get a one piece paddle from Scottish manufacturer Lendal – which are the best paddles (actually shafts) in the world according to Shibata-san at Algaforest.

I also now understand why everyone who paddles alone should have a back up paddle. I also think everyone who paddles in groups in expeditions or in rough water should have their own back up paddle. Lastly the ideal back up paddle is a Greenland storm paddle – a short one piece paddle that can be strapped on the rear deck and be ready for immediate use (rather than a broken down two piece which needs assembly). I’m going to make one based on these instructions (scroll down to the paddles section).

So to summarise; a one piece paddle is best, but if you want a two piece (like me) get one with just one hole. If you want adjustable feather then don’t use the hole punch design I’d say.

Edit: the replacement paddle arrived on Sunday – ahead of schedule. Here is the clamp meachanism



4 Responses to “Catastrophic failure of a button hole paddle”

  1. komi Says:

    before you introducing a paddle leash, you should consider it has a risk of tangled up to parts of your body when capsized. I know some people would not like that risk and not recommend the use of it.

    for Greenland type paddle, you may wanna talk to a guy in Chiba who runs a kayak club called Greenlanders. He handles a good English and is an expart of Greenland type paddle and kayak building. His web site is

  2. Dear Komi-san

    Thanks for your comment.

    I know about the tangle risk with paddle leashes but I think it’s better to have a paddle tangled around your throat when underwater than to not have a paddle at all. I know its a hard choice – in English you say “Caught between the devil and a hard place”. I would only use the leash in high winds and only when I have a knife to hand.

    Thanks also for the link. I e-mailed in July to the Greenlanders club (is it Eiichi Ito?) I tried to apply to go to G-style 2006 and to make a G-style paddle. But I didn’t get a reply. I thought it was my English? Maybe not… I’ll email him again. thank you.

    I also looked at your blog. Beautiful images!! And what a beautiful kayak you made – I am very jealous! I want to make a qajaq.

    I saw your broken paddle たいへん! How did that happen? Do you mind if I write a short post about that?

    Best wishes

  3. Noriyuki Hoshi Says:

    I have just sent email to your office and said that you should have had your paddle replaced but it was wrong. I did not really know about your aluminium shaft paddle, especially “the three buttons”
    Anyway I would like to talk to you about materials of shaft and blade, just merit and and demerit.
    I am not in hassle and sending email later.

  4. […] the other broken paddle story […]

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