How did an industrial designer in Taiwan discover a passion for an age-old style of paddling developed by Inuit hunters? Chung-Shih Sun, lead designer behind Gearlab paddles — the first modern carbon fiber Greenland-style paddle — took to Taiwan’s rivers to paddle, studied old how-to books, listened to the aches in his shoulder, and drew on his bike design background to create a cutting-edge kayak paddle.
Chung-Shih’s first foray into watersports involved windsurfing and kitesurfing. After experimenting with stand-up paddleboarding, he found his passion when he joined the Taiwan Kayaking Association, a group that paddles together in the rivers and seas around Taiwan.
”I fell in love with this activity because it’s not just about power and skill,” says Chung- Shih. “It’s about a lot of things you can learn, like knowing the weather, navigation, sea conditions, and so on.” After a few years of paddling, Chung-Shih found that the Euro paddle started to hurt his shoulder.
That’s when a friend he met from the U.S. at the rolling nights brought him a Greenland-style paddle to test out in a local swimming pool. It was Chung-Shih’s first time seeing a non-European style paddle. “The unique paddle attracted everyone’s attention. “After trying it out, I was drawn to the paddling stroke and longer extension of the Greenland paddle.”
“It felt light and easy and I was hooked pretty quickly. My rolling skill was quite primitive at the time, and I often found myself not producing enough lift to complete the roll. With a Greenland paddle, lift power increased dramatically and rolling became a lot easier,” he explained. Intrigued, Chung-Shih and his design team took a deep dive into researching Greenland paddles. For their first design, they followed instructions from books on crafting Greenland style paddles the traditional way, from wood. But from the very first prototype, Chung-Shih aimed to modernize the design with lighter and stronger materials.
“I used to design bicycles, so I was very familiar with carbon fiber,” Chung-Shih explains. “In making a Greenland paddle, I needed to solve the issues of weight and length. I wanted to split it in two pieces, which would be better for paddling, travel and storage.” That first prototype eventually became the Kuroshio, a paddle that was a hit in the team’s native Taiwan. Local success gave them confidence and in 2009 they started to sell the Kuroshio on the Internet under the brand name Gearlab. Six months later, Chung-Shih developed a shoulderless paddle called the Oyashio, extending the width to accommodate a wider range of paddlers. (Kuroshio and Oyashio are two Pacific Ocean currents that bring vital marine resources to Taiwan.)
After two years of testing and market feedback, further refinements followed. The team developed a T-joint design that enabled the two pieces to fit together smoothly, without gaps, and also come apart easily for storage and transport. The next challenge was to create paddle tips that could take a beating when hitting rocks and sand close to shore. Once again, Chung-Shih found inspiration in Inuit tradition. “The Inuit use harder wood and animal bones to make their paddle tips,” explains Chung- Shih. “This inspired us to use a more resilient material to improve the longevity of the tips. We were amazed by the result.”
Gearlab modified the design to allow for tips that can be changed when they wear out. This new design became the second-generation paddle, the Akiak (meaning “valor” in Inuit). “We are able to make the edges of the plastic tips much sharper than those on wooden paddles. The resilient plastic material means we don’t need to worry about chipping or cracking,” says Chung-Shih. In 2015, the team developed the Nukilik (meaning “strong” in Inuit), a shouldered version with a slightly larger surface for more power. With valuable feedback from its global team of 30 ambassadors, Gearlab continues to innovate with the goal of developing better paddling solutions. “Because we are paddlers, our bodies tell us what works and what doesn’t. Even today, we still count on the feedback of the paddle in the water and how we feel when we paddle it for an hour, two hours, a day, a week,” Chung-Shih says.
Gearlab paddles have gained a core of loyal customers due to their durability and effectiveness at helping kayakers travel farther with less fatigue. “I’m very happy to know people love our paddles,” he says. “Our customers have opinions and suggestions—and these challenges push us to continue to perfect our design.”