Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sanborn Paddle Review -- Custom Built Borealis

Back in the beginning of June Paul and I tried out two canoes at Alberni Outpost's Demo Days. Due to the sheer numbers of people at such events, the paddles included for trying are bullet proof. Literally. See them there below in the boats? The ones we used could have stopped bullets because they were made of metal!



We tried out the Escape and the Cascade. Both good solid canoes, and I was, as always, impressed with the build and finish of Clipper boats. I especially liked the Escape. I think it would be a great addition to my "fleet" if I had the room. A great recreation boat for taking people out who want a feeling of safety and stability, but also some fun.

The paddles were, well lets just say it, an abomination. They weighed a ton, felt cheap and uncomfortable and did not do the boats justice. Moral of the story, next year I will bring my own paddle.

But this got me thinking about paddles again. I think about paddles a lot. In a sense the paddle is like the bow to the violin. Overlooked by the casual observer, but every bit as important to the musician as the violin itself.
Playing with a Paddle on Harewood Lake
 I wrote an extensive piece about paddles back in 2009 in which I summarize the theoretical advantages of a long thin paddle over a short fat one. I also summarize my own experience with paddles at that time. Since then I have been experimenting with bent shaft carbon paddles after watching Paul use one expertly over the years. I have now partly changed my mind on the matter.

"What I have decided is that the relationship between a paddler's comfortable and natural pull force should be matched to a blade that will transfer that force to the water with the least slippage. For most moderately fit individual, a blade like that of the classic Zaveral will probably work best."

When a strong paddler pulls hard on a thin blade it creates cavitation behind the blade, and energy is lost as the turbulence increases. It takes much more force to do this with a wide blade.

So why the prevalence of otter and beaver tail paddles in the world? I like Doug Ingram's answer, that trial and error over time has arrived at this universal design, but that doesn't really tell WHY it is so.

Part of the answer is that otter and beaver tail paddles are more forgiving on a long paddle and more versatile than a racing blade when doing advanced paddling strokes such as the Indian, Canadian (Omering) or Northwoods Stroke.

Here is a video of me using a variety of the three as I negotiate between stumps on Westwood lake.

Also important to keep in mind is the goal of the paddler and the type of paddling being done. If the goal is to get somewhere fast, a large bent shaft racing paddle in the hands of a burly paddler, will win every time. If, however, you want to feel the grace and calming tranquility of the Indian stroke for miles along a remote shore, a thin long blade is required. The depth of water and the various aspects of the canoe being paddled (especially length) are also important.

So I took an hour or so on Harewood Lake at the end of June to decide on the new paddle I wanted to use while I re-finish my beloved Bower Blade.

My Beloved Bower Blade

I wondered if a combination of the best qualities of the Bowers Blade (long paddle with most of the blade at the tip) combined with the advantages of the classic bent shaft (larger blade) would work. I looked around at the various paddle manufacturers and sent inquiries to a few. Todd at Sanborn Canoe Company was able to provide what I was looking for. The paddle I ordered has a total length of 145 cm, a straight shaft, and the blade of their Borealis.

I ordered the paddle on June 30th and it arrived on August 1st. Pretty good for a custom order during the busy season.

Here are some photos of the paddle:

As you can see this is a lovely paddle to look at and it feels good in the hand. It is light, balanced, and carefully finished, with enough minor imperfections to show it is hand made. The durability is particularly evident and the comfort of the oiled grip was anticipated, but also nice to confirm in my own hand. I wondered if there was any way to extend that feel to both hands. My waterside hand slipped a number of times on the new varnish. Is it possible to oil the whole shat instead? I'm not sure this is possible as the glass fabric protecting the blade extends up the shaft a fair way. I may use the old tip a veteran paddler told me about -- a very gentle rub with an old pot scrubber, just enough to take that shiny gloss off. The transition from glass (on the blade) to no-glass (on the shaft) is very smooth and beautifully done.

So how did it perform? Well I brought along my two favorites to compare, the Bowers Blade and the Bent Shaft from Grey Owl.

I loved several things about the Sanborn paddle.
  1. The length is about right. The Bowers blade is longer and therefore allows for a prolonged up-pull at the end of the Indian stroke, but that advantage is offset by it being a bit unwieldy.
  2. The grip is about the right size to allow for good control and to prevent hand cramping. The Bowers Blade has a smaller bobble-style grip and after going back and forth between them, I confirmed that I do prefer the Sanborn style. Paul pointed out that this style of grip provides more control because of the added leverage.
  3. The blade size is about right. When switching between the Grey Owl and the Sanborn there was only a slightly more sustantial purchase with the larger blade, and that large blade is a big sail in the wind, and also just generally flaps around if you move it quickly. The balance and rigidity of the Sanborn felt sure, fast, and efficient.
  4. The durability is impressive in an environment like Westwood lake where colliding with underwater obstacles in inevitable!

I didn't like one aspect of the paddle. And that is the profile.

Like most hybrid "high production/hand made" paddles the transition between the shaft and the blade is more abrupt and the shaft in general is unrefined. This means that underwater recovery and the Indian stroke are not practical or quiet.

Here is a comparison of the Bowers and Sanborn profile.
You can see the long slow taper of the Bowers and the shorter transition of the Sanborn. This means that when you bring the blade forward underwater close to the boat the shaft puts up quite a spray. I found if I extended my arch on the return so that just the blade was slicing, it was not too bad. But it was also not as comfortable.


All and all I'm impressed with Sanborn. I got a beautiful, durable, efficient and unique paddle and would recommend the company for their service, quality, and price.

Imagine if every demo day paddler had one of these to try out a canoe with? Maybe more canoes would be sold? I'm just sayin. This is a very VERY durable paddle, but also a joy to use.


  1. Richard,
    Great article! Your bowers paddle is really beautiful. Is ther more information available on it?
    Thank you,

  2. Hi Raf,

    I discuss the paddle produced by Larry Bowers here:

    and I've recently read a description of the "Western" Cree paddle that confirms what Larry said -- that he thought it was a Cree design. Here is a link to the page from the book I found it in:

    1. Another great article! I'm enjoying reading your blog. I'm doing a slight restoration of a canoe I just bought. It's a 25 yr old Swift Algonquin 16. I've also been doing some paddle research so that's how I stumbled upon your blog.

  3. Raf, thanks! the Algonquin is a great boat. One of those understated but classy canoes that manage to bridge the gap between older heritage designs and newer science-based designs. It is a David Yost design, as are both of my canoes. Good choice!!! Enjoy the restoration process, I find doing repairs and maintenance to be a real opportunity to appreciate the hull and workmanship and experience it as a respect for all that an object like a canoe represents. Can be a very mindful experience. Especially if it comes out looking good!

    Thanks for reading and commenting, good luck with your paddle research. Mine is ongoing and I suppose never ending!


  4. Escape and Cascade, seems like two nice touring canoes, next time yeah take our own paddles than those cheap metal ones for sure.

    1. Hi Maria, Yes the Escape and Cascade are great canoes and deserve to be paddles with equally good paddles! Like a violin and a bow, they need to be matched well for best results.

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  6. Great review! I'm looking for new paddles for my boat, thanks for sharing!

  7. I sent a link to your blog to my husband, who is a kayaker/nature lover, and as we're interested in a possible move to the PNW. I love this blog, tho if I can't get it via email I'm not sure I'll see it. However, love your other blog on wabi sabi too!

  8. Thanks Valorie, I appreciate the comment from a fellow writer and nature enthusiast. Is something changing with the feeds that you won't be able to get the blog by e-mail? The online world is ever changing isn't it!

  9. Thanks Valorie, I appreciate the comment from a fellow writer and nature enthusiast. Is something changing with the feeds that you won't be able to get the blog by e-mail? The online world is ever changing isn't it!

  10. Sanborn paddle are really beautiful

  11. Timothy W. Pothier21 November 2016 at 02:47

    Nice review of Sanborn paddle. What type of material has been used to make that paddle, also please can you let me know what's the price of Sanborn paddle? I'm looking forward to buy a best fish finder and new paddles for my kayaks.

  12. Hi Timothy, my paddle is a laminate of woods, primarily cedar, ask, and cherry I believe. It is essentially the Borealis without the bend and with a longer shaft. I don't remember what I paid, but it was slightly more than the price of the Borealis. At today's pricing I would guess it would be around $200 US.

  13. lovely blog post, beautiful photos and great review!
    David recently posted...GUIDE TO KAYAK DUCK HUNTING

  14. awesome article,thanks for sharing.

    Lija recently posted...FLOWER GARDENING TIPS

  15. After a long time, I came across a good post on Custom Built Borealis again. I really owe you thanks! I believe you can help more by expanding the topic further. At least, I can benefit from it greatly, and so can the regular readers of our sweet spot fisherreel.