Austin Kalama's Paddle Power
You say hand, he says paddle
Austin Kalama's Paddle Power
Late December saw Peahi break twice. The swells were a week apart - arriving on the 17th and the 24th - both swells were mid-range for Peahi standards, and both broke under relatively light winds.
Great warm up swells, in other words. Ideal for testing new boards and equipment, which is exactly how Austin Kalama approached the December swells. "It was a great size for testing things out," Austin says when I finally reach him via a scratchy international phone line.
I'd been very keen to chat to Austin since viewing footage of those swells. You see, it wasn't just a new board design Austin was trialling, but a whole new technique for getting into waves. During both swells, he paddled out with a set of Kalama Performance hand paddles. During the first session he wore a black set that were inconspicuous, at least for those watching on video, but then switched to a white set that made clear just what he was up to.
It was Webs 2.0 but in 20 foot waves.
The hand paddles weren't strictly made for big waves but arrived in the lineup via a roundabout way. About two years ago, both Austin and his old boy, Peahi pioneer Dave Kalama, were experimenting with downwind foiling. At the time they were using a SUP paddle to generate enough speed to catch ocean waves, however once the foil kicked in the paddle was redundant; a useless tool they were forced to carry on long downwind runs.
So they did away with the SUP paddle and tried to catch waves from a prone position, occasionally having luck though more often the waves would pass them by as they couldn't paddle fast enough.
A great thing about the alt-surf movement - a term I've used to cover crafts such as SUP, foil, wing, and all the hybrids in between - is that it's so new no-one feels hidebound by tradition. There's a willingness to experiment with shapes, materials, and even with how things are done. In that vein, Austin and Dave figured they could get the assistance they need by using hand paddles.
The kind of hand paddles they use are not disimilar to what swimmers might use for resistance training in the pool. The face of the paddle has approximately double the surface area of a flat hand, and it attaches to the person with elastic at the wrist and middle finger (though that can change).
Subsequently, the Kalama boys had success using them on their downwind ventures, after which the SUP paddle stayed in the garage and they were free to glide unencumbered.
Austin couldn't quite pin down when the idea came to him to push the idea further, yet he began testing the paddles in a surfing - that is, tradititional surfing - environment. "I tried them out a few times at some outer reefs near home," says Austin, "and they worked for surfing."
Unlike webbed gloves of the 1980s, the paddles are hard plastic. For the sake of paddling efficiency they don't allow any movement. Now, have a think about how many times you grab your board in the course of a session, and how you might go when your hands - replete with opposable thumbs - are replaced by two picnic plates.
"At first, I found simply manovering around the lineup a bit tricky," says Austin, "but I can get in and out of them in a half-second, so I've gotten better at that." By this stage, he and Dave had begun producing them for the family company - Kalama Performance.
The big question, of course, is taking off. Will a flat plastic surface hold against the fibreglass? "I've found I've had to sort of stagger where I put my hands when getting up," explains Austin, and if you watch this video clip you'll see what he means - his left hand goes forward, right slightly back. "It feels less risky getting up that way."
As for performance, Austin's finding they work the same as when downwind foiling. "Oh yeah," he says excitedly, "I'm getting into waves earlier."
"I've been looking for those slightly smaller ones that go under the pack," says Austin, "What I've found is I can catch those waves with just four or fives strokes, rather than seven or eight strokes."
The difference may only be a small number of paddling strokes, but in the water it means not having to sit as far inside, which is a dangerous game at Peahi.
"I've seen what they can do on small days," says Austin about the hand paddles, "my goal now is to get a bomb set from out the back."
Rather than the subtle shifts in board design that take a keen eye to spot, Austin's new adventure is all on show. "I've had a few people in the lineup come up to me and ask about them," admits Austin, "though I don't know if they'll take off."
"Perhaps we'll see after I get a set with them."