The Black Pearl II Story: Three Decades in the Making
We at Bending Branches created our elite, all-carbon canoe paddle, the Black Pearl II, based on more than three decades of paddle-making ingenuity.
When Dale Kicker founded Bending Branches in the 1980s, canoe paddle blades were massive. That was the norm. But by the early 90’s paddle surface areas had come down somewhat.
In 1996 Branches developed the Starlight. It was a smaller bladed version of our teardrop-shaped Performer. We hoped to bring a similar look and feel to the Performer in a size women would prefer.
As the trend toward smaller blades continued, we used the Starlight blade on more and more models—used by both men and women—including our all-time most successful performance paddle, the Espresso.
Fast forward to 2011. We decided to offer a carbon touring paddle suited for canoe trip enthusiasts with loaded canoes. So far the only carbon paddles in the industry were the small racing blades popularized by Barton and others.
Our new design copied the Starlight blade. We called it the Black Pearl. It received great acceptance and sold well. But it suffered from a high scrap rate due to the mold design and core alignment issues. This led to its discontinuation shortly after launch.
Because the market for carbon canoe paddles was limited, we decided to put the development of a new design on hold while we applied our resources to the standup paddleboard market.
Even so, each year at Canoecopia consumers asked us, “When is the Black Pearl coming back?”
In October of 2016 we started work on a new version of our carbon canoe paddle, with the initial focus on tweaking our Malta composite standup blade to make it suitable for canoeing.
Dale (Founder, Director of Research of Development) and I took the prototypes out on the St. Croix River the last day before the winter freeze-up. Jason (Operations Manager) took notes from shore in a winter coat as we tried different blade shapes and surface areas.
On all the versions, the combination of a short canoe paddle shaft and Malta’s blade dihedral caused the corner of the blade to tug on the water at the end of each stroke. No good. Back on my desk, I created more graph paper sketches to incorporate the needed changes.
By December, we had new prototypes waiting for open water. But it wasn’t until the end of January that my brother, Jack, and I traveled to Alabama to join Branches’ sales representatives Cliff and Bahen for a top-to-bottom tour through the Mobile-Tensaw Delta—a 300,000-acre wilderness swamp.
There’s nothing like a multi-day trip with significant mileage to get a real feel for a paddle! We compared three different prototypes to the original Black Pearl. We finished this trip with absolute clarity on what we wanted in the blade profile and surface area. Now Dale and his CAD designer could finalize the design.
As long as we had been making composite kayak paddles, we’d molded the blades here at our factory in Osceola, Wisconsin. When we developed the Malta standup paddle in 2015, we decided to outsource the carbon grip to a small, family-run shop.
Our success there led Steve (Purchasing Manager) to ask them if they could make carbon canoe blades for us. They were up for the challenge, so Steve sent them the CAD files and fiber layup. Just in the nick of time for catalog photography, the pre-production samples arrived at Branches.
On July 13, 2017, Travis (Production Supervisor), Mac and Emmitt (Engineers) and I hit the nearby Apple River to test the new design.
The day’s high was 65 F, so it was cool enough for long sleeves. Bugs were nowhere to be seen. The air held a certain wonderful smell that can't be described, but those who run rivers up here know it the second it hits their nose. Best of all, the low clouds and gray sky emphasized the water clarity, and the sight of the cobbled bottom flying by was amazing.
Because this was a group of good paddlers, Travis mapped a course twice that of a typical after-work trip. At the put-in, I served venison summer sausage and soda crackers, then we paddled for a full three hours.
We knew we had gotten it right!
The Black Pearl II’s shaft was pleasingly smooth. The surface area of the blade was just right, and the blade edge held up well to the occasional bump from cobblestones and ledge rock (we neither favored nor abused it). The entry and exit were quiet and dry.
It’s not a whitewater paddle, but we used it right through everything and pushed it as hard as we could. There was no flex or cracking. We knew we didn’t have to worry about its strength.
The only change we made was purely cosmetic—we made the shaft wall slightly thinner than the step in the blade peg to make the joint absolutely smooth. The grip would need to be a little larger to perfectly fit my own hand, but I’m sure it’ll be right for the center of the market.
We celebrated over some excellent burgers and fried cheese curds at Friendly’s in Star Prairie that night. After we left I had a deep longing for my tent, bag and stove as I headed home. It would’ve been a perfect night to head downstream for a couple days.
But I arrived home to clean sheets and a sleeping wife…and was very happy, indeed!
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