A “Paddle Packed” Interview with Andrew Stern, Marketing Supervisor for Branches
Bill Schultz, Jackson Kayak, Bending Branches/Aqua-Bound National Pro Staffer, had a chance to discuss several interesting questions with Andrew Stern, Marketing Supervisor, Branches LLC, parent company for Bending Branches and Aqua-Bound Paddles. I have known Andrew for seven years and have been impressed with his overall knowledge of not only his niche of watersport paddles, but, how those paddles match with the craft they are designed to propel. I hope you enjoy his insights into kayak paddles and industry leader, Branches LLC.
Give us a Brief History of Bending Branches
We have been around since 1982. The company literally started in the garage of Dale Kicker, who was an active canoeist that spent a lot of time on the water. He figured out a way to protect paddles and make them last 6 times longer, so he quit his job at Eastern Mountain Sports and started manufacturing paddles from his garage. Sales picked up and by 1986 the company had grown so much that it moved to a new building. It kept growing, prompting another move in 1994 to its current headquarters in Osceola, Wisconsin. Bending Branches also used to be a well-known brand for hockey sticks, but discontinued the manufacturing of hockey sticks to solely focus on paddles in 2001. New, emerging sports such as kayaking, kayak fishing and stand-up paddling took off. We started manufacturing paddles specifically aimed at kayak anglers based on very enthusiastic feedback.
Tell me about Aqua-Bound and when they joined Branches, LLC
First, they were for sale and were our biggest competitor. By acquiring them, we doubled in size and market share. Very importantly, nobody in the paddlesports industry was better at injection molding blades than Aqua-Bound. We wanted their technology, knowledge, and blade weight, shape and strength.
What was the original inspiration for Bending Branches to do kayak paddles?
A growing market, sales opportunity, and passion from internal team members. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the sport of recreational kayaking took off. People started kayaking more and more. Whether down their local rivers, at the cabin, or large bodies of water, kayaking had become a hobby for many outdoor enthusiasts. Wood and composite paddles were commonplace back then, but the biggest change came with the acceptance of plastic bladed kayak paddles. We saw the sales opportunity, had the internal competency and paddlers excited for better gear. We jumped full-force in the early 2000s and have been innovating kayak paddles every year since.
Tell me about your kayak paddle innovations?
In the last two decades, our focus has been lighter paddles, higher performing components and construction, sourcing smarter materials, adding the right features for consumers, and being passionate about the sports we play in. An example of this would be the Navigator Plus kayak paddle. It is a beautiful wood kayak paddle that combines a high-tech shaft, made from aviation-grade carbon, with the natural beauty of roasted basswood and red alder. This makes the paddle lightweight, easy to handle and buoyant through water unlike anything else. This is my personal favorite paddle.
Can you tell me about the design process from A to Z?
We internally design and manufacture every single paddle we sell. We have our own internal team of designers and engineers and we are also constantly in contact with pro anglers who give their input on what is needed to improve specific paddles.
Every paddle starts with a consumer based need, which gets designed by a product engineer on the computer. After tweaks and revisions, and the team is happy, we us our on-site 3D printer to print a prototype. This gets tested and altered until we reach a final design, which is then made in-house and tested. It goes through vigorous tests to ensure that it is very durable and our pro athletes take it out on the water for field tests to make sure there are no mistakes in design. Once everyone is happy that the paddle meets our quality standards, it will be put in full production and be distributed through our retail channels. We don’t sell directly to the public, but work mainly with retailers who specialize in water sports, to ensure that our consumers get the best advice and guidance when purchasing our products. From concept design to production, it takes us about a year to develop a new paddle.
Will we see more products for Anglers?
Absolutely. Kayak fishing continues to be one of our fastest growing and most promising categories. We love being a part of this industry and plan to continue offering the highest performing paddles for anglers.
What are your most popular paddles?
The Angler Pro is our most popular paddle by far and the most used by professional anglers. This paddle has a fully-carbon, ovalized shaft and delivers unbeatable lightweight comfort, which reduces paddling fatigue. This paddle has been voted Paddle of the Year by YakAngler’s community for four consecutive years. The Angler Classic is our best-selling kayak fishing paddle and is a great paddle for the novice user. It is an American-made product that comes at a very competitive price and still delivers great quality and comfort.
Why is it important to try a paddle before buying?
It’s so important to try before buying to guarantee you get the right size paddle and the right paddle for your paddling needs. The last thing we want to see is someone with too short of a paddle and they hit their hands on the gunwale of the kayak. Too long and they zig-zag in the water, wasting energy and adding unnecessary weight. Or they buy a paddle with too large of blades, or a wobbly fit, or a blistering shaft. The paddle is the engine of the kayak, so get one you trust and love to hold. You’re going to be stroking the paddle through the water on average one thousand times per hour, and so you better like how it feels.
Why is wood still being used?
People continue to love the natural look, feel, and comfort of wood. Wood is warm on the hands and buoyant, so it provides an easy paddling stroke. Wood has also been the fabric of Bending Branches from our inception in 1982.
We often hear that you should buy the most expensive lightest paddle you can afford. Why is this the case?
The more expensive the paddle, typically, the lighter and stronger it is. Lighter paddles are less fatiguing, meaning you can enjoy your time on the water longer and feel less sore at the end of the day. Also, more expensive paddles have stronger components and last longer. The formula is 1 ounce savings in a kayak paddle equates 100 lbs. per hour you don’t have to pull around. So, a 3-ounce lighter paddle saves you 300 pounds per hour. 300 pounds’ times 5 hours is 1500 pounds. What could you do with an extra 1500 lbs. of energy?
I get asked often, "what is the right length paddle for me". How do you make the proper recommendation for length of paddle?
Your kayak paddle length is based on your height and the width of the kayak. Use this chart to determine your appropriate size. The kayak width can easily be found on the manufacturers’ website under “specs”.
In general, shorter kayaks will be wider where you sit and require a longer paddle. Longer kayaks, on the other hand, will be narrower in the middle and require a shorter paddle.
Most beginning kayakers, or recreational kayakers as we call them, will be in a kayak 8 to 12 feet long and will require a 230 or 240cm paddle, depending on their height. Most touring kayakers, in kayaks averaging 12 to 15 feet, will use a 220 or 230cm paddle. Finally, most sea kayakers in boats 14 to 18 feet long will use a 210 or 220cm paddle.
Some additional factors to consider are whether you’re a high-angle or low-angle paddler. High angle kayaking is when the blades are more vertical and the blade enters the water closer to your boat. This is often called “athletic” or “high cadence” paddling and usually means you need to size down. For example, a 240cm paddle to a 230. Low-angle kayaking is when the blades are more horizontal and further out in the water. This stroke is often called a “relaxed” or “less fatiguing” paddling stroke and usually means you need to size up to the next longest length.
Fishing kayaks are often long and wide, and newer models have high-low seating. Most anglers use a 240 to 260cm kayak paddle depending on their kayak and need to size up 10cm when in the high-seat position. Again, make sure you’re sizing based on your height and the width of the kayak.
I see both straight shaft paddles and bent-shaft (ergo) shaped shafts. Personally, I don't feel a difference, but, can you explain the reasoning?
People like crank shaft kayak paddles for their more natural wrist alignment while paddling. This is great for people with wrist or elbow issues, as it can be a more natural hold. The issue with crank shafts is that they’re significantly more expensive (usually $100- 150 more than their straight shafted pair), your hands are fixed in one location, and they add additional weight.
Can you tell me about the PLUS telescoping ferule?
The PLUS telescoping ferrule was introduced in the mid 2000s as the solution to fixed length, standard ferrules. It’s designed to offer additional lengths up to 15cm and infinitely adjustable feathering angles. It’s an all-in-one system for the ever-changing kayaker and kayak angler. For anglers, if you have the high-low seat in your kayak, stand-up often, have multiple people using the paddle, or have multiple boats, you’ll love the feature.
Everyone has a different personality when it comes to taking care of a paddle. I happen to be one of the careful people, but, give me some pointers of what you think someone should avoid doing with their kayak paddle?
Our paddles are designed and built rigidly, but no paddle is indestructible. Most dinks and dents in the paddle come from banging the paddle against the shoreline and kayak wall, and in transportation and storage. Always store your paddles disassembled (in two pieces), inside the garage or house, and put a paddle bag or cloth over the paddle. Don’t leave it in your vehicle or kayak.
I hear a lot of people who have heavier/cheaper paddles say they just wanted to try it first and bought a cheapy. Why should they consider a decent paddle from day one?
The nice paddle will be higher quality and lighter weight, so it will last longer and your time on the water will be substantially more enjoyable.
What sets Branches LLC apart from the rest?
We are an All-American manufacturer and, in a very competitive market, we produce products that are unique and sought after worldwide. Our staff members are great people with no egos and we realize we are 100% reliant on the people who enjoy paddles sports. We genuinely care about paddling. All of us enjoy paddling and want to make the sport enjoyable for others. And, our paddles are designed and tested to deliver the highest levels of performance on the market.