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Oak Bay man invents quieter pickleball paddle

The OWL paddle is certified by USA Pickleball in the association’s quiet category and proven to reduce noise by 50 per cent.

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VICTORIA — For a man who once thought pickleball was a “goofy game,” Howard Haugom might seem a surprising candidate to ­revolutionize the sport.

Haugom, who lives in Oak Bay, has designed a quiet pickleball paddle to address noise complaints about the sport. Launched in November, the OWL paddle is certified by USA Pickleball in the association’s quiet category and proven to reduce noise by 50 per cent.

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While standard paddles deliver a sharp thwacking sound at 1,100 to 1,200 hertz and more than 85 decibels when striking a ball, the OWL is the first on the market that registers below 600 hertz and under 80 decibels, the American governing body for the sport said in its announcement endorsing the paddle late last year.

Haugom’s path to designing the paddle began with a dire warning from a doctor. Facing health issues, Haugom and his wife, Fiona, headed down to Mexico for treatment.

“He said, ‘If your body senses that you’re being unproductive, it’s obliged to kill you,’ ” Haugom recalled from his Oak Bay home.

Haugom, who owns QE Home, a chain of linen stores with about 70 locations across Canada, had been mostly retired since 2015.

After their stint in Tijuana, the couple moved from West Vancouver to Victoria, where Haugom started to mull what productivity meant to him. He settled on “doing a little bit of good” every day.

His first instinct was to write, which led to four self-published novels that he hopes to turn into movies some day.

An avid tennis player before his health declined, Haugom didn’t think he had the stamina to return to the sport. So he set his sights on pickleball, a more accessible game.

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He installed a pickleball court in his yard, took lessons and, noticing a lack of playing space in Oak Bay, started to invite other players to join him on his court. It began to feel like a mini-community centre, Haugom said.

It didn’t take long before neighbours started to complain about the noise.

The signature thwacking when paddle meets ball has caused friction on community pickleball courts, with ­neighbours complaining about the loud sound every time a player hits the ball.

In Oak Bay, the municipality responded to neighbour complaints by moving pickleball courts into an enclosed lacrosse box and adding sound ­barriers on fencing surrounding the courts.

In North Saanich, it has become a municipal matter, with councillors looking to mandate the use of soft balls to reduce noise, something players say will change the game beyond recognition.

“I felt bad for the neighbours because my new ideology was to do good and not harm people. But at the same time, I was also providing joy for those guys that were here,” Haugom said.

Even though he added sound barriers around his court to mitigate the noise, complaints continued. So Haugom, a self‑described “ideas guy,” looked for another way to reduce the sound.

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He added soft ­acoustic tile, cut with a bread knife, to both sides of a standard paddle.

Haugom played with his prototype for awhile.

“It played so great. I kept winning,” he said.

But the paddle was heavy, and the material started to fray with use.

So Haugom hired ­mechanical designer Jordan Mikkers in ­Victoria to develop a ­proprietary fabric infused with nano­technology. The water-resistant and shock-absorbing material covers a carbon honeycomb core, common to standard paddles, Haugom said.

Mikkers, who owns Maximum Prototyping, wasn’t sure ­initially if it was possible to bring ­Haugom’s vision to life.

“I thought for sure we would have had to sacrifice something, as far as playability or weight,” Mikkers said.

But after crunching some numbers and figuring out what polymers to experiment with, Mikkers quickly changed his mind, eventually creating a prototype with the right bounce, weight, acoustic properties and durability.

Haugom toyed with calling his product the peace paddle, because he hopes it brings peace to the war between pickleball players and residents plagued by the sound of the game. Instead, he chose to name the paddles after owls, because they’re known to fly inaudibly.

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Haugom is also designing a quieter ball with the goal of creating a pairing of the OWL paddle and ball that is no louder than a game of tennis.

The quiet paddles hit the market in mid-November and are being sold online at owlpaddle.com and in select stores. They’re also sold at the reception of the Oak Bay Recreation and Henderson Recreation centres.

Simon Vickers, tennis and pickleball program supervisor at Recreation Oak Bay, said he was skeptical when he first tried an OWL paddle.

But after a few games, the avid pickleball player was hooked. As someone who responds to noise complaints about pickleball, Vickers thinks the paddle is part of the solution.

“I think it’s going to be huge,” he said.

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