Different Strokes for Different Folks: Choosing a Kayak Paddle
In a movie scene in a long-ago movie, Robin Williams plays a Soviet defector who goes to an American grocery story and stands baffled at the entire aisle with 20 different types of toilet paper. He eventually passes out in confusion. The kayaker can feel the same way trying to pick a paddle. There’s a dizzying array of options of shapes, sizes, and materials. Here are the things to think about:
For every mile, you’ll take about 1,000 paddle strokes. That means in an average day of kayaking, I’m taking somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 strokes. In a year, that could easily be a million strokes. Taking all those strokes with a heavy, poorly designed, or badly fitted paddle is a recipe for misery at best, and more likely, an injury.
Steps for Choosing the Right Paddle
Step 1: Where Are You Paddling?
First and foremost, are you using the paddle for whitewater or touring? While you can use a whitewater blade for touring, it’s a prescription for fatigue. They’re built for durability and therefore weigh a lot more. For this reason, some sea kayakers use whitewater paddles when they go to play in ocean surf or rock gardens. Whitewater paddles also tend to be shorter to allow for a faster stroke rate. The flip side isn’t a whole lot better: if you try to use a touring paddle in whitewater, the likely result will be a broken paddle. Touring paddles aren’t made to stand up to as many occasional whacks on rocks that happen in whitewater. Whitewater paddles are also one-piece, to stand up to the pounding: most touring paddles are break-apart and fit more easily in your car or on the deck of your boat as a spare.
Step 2: Overall Length
Second to the type of paddle, the next consideration is length. When in doubt, shorter is better. A paddle is a long lever with a big blade on the end. The longer the lever, the more force on the soft tissues of the body. Every time I’ve bought a paddle, I’ve gone to a slightly shorter one. (I’m 5’11” and currently use a 203cm paddle for sea kayaking and 196 cm for whitewater.) The shorter the paddle, the faster your stroke rate and the less likely you make the most common error in your forward stroke—pulling the blade too far back behind your hip. Finding the right length takes some doing. It varies with your paddling style, your height, the width of your kayak, and the shape of the blade.
Step 3: The Blade
If you look at kayak paddles, you’ll notice two very different blade shapes: thin wispy blades and stubby fat ones. They may have the same surface area, but the shape and aspect ratio are different. All the whitewater blades are stubby and fat.
The two designs are for low-angle and high-angle paddling. The slender blade is for a relaxed-angle stroke, where the top hand rarely gets above the shoulder. It puts less stress on the shoulders, but the paddle goes further out from the boat, which causes the boat to wander more from side to side instead of just straight ahead. The short wide blades on shorter shafts are for high-angle paddling, which is aimed at efficiency, where the top hand is at cheek or eye level. This style delivers better performance, but requires good technique. High-angle paddles are shorter because they move closer to the boat than a low angle paddle stroke, so the distance to the water is shorter.
Blade shapes also have many variations. Blades with rounded corners will tend a moderate entry into to the water. Sharper edges and more distinct tips provide more quick grab and acceleration, but can also add uncertainty in the water or add body strain if you have poor technique. Thin blades find stable green water quickly and thicker foamcore blades have more buoyancy and are great for bracing, sculling, and other maneuvering strokes.
Step 4: The Shaft
You’ll also have to make a choice between a straight shaft and a bent shaft. A straight shaft is straightforward—it’s a straight line. A bent shaft includes curves where you put your hands, designed to put the wrist in a more neutral position and prevent overuse injuries. It also has the advantage of making it easy to grab the paddle and properly orient your grip by feel alone. Bent shafts add a little to the cost, and different manufacturers put the bends in different positions on the blade, so try before you buy. Shafts also come in different diameter: it should be big enough to “fill up the hand” without gripping it too tightly, which can result in elbow tendonitis over long days and miles.
Step 5: The Feather
Another aspect is feather. If you look at one-piece whitewater paddles, you’ll notice the blades are offset, usually 30 degrees. This is referred to as “feathering”. The feather allows the rotation of the torso and the angle of the stroke to deliver power smoothly, rather than by windmilling the arms. Different paddlers—and different blade angles—prefer different feather angles, mostly in the 30-45 degree range. Two-piece paddles are made with adjustable feather angles, but if you’re buying a one-piece, you’ll need to know your preferred angle.
Step 6: The Materials
Next comes a choice of materials. Wood has a great warm feel and uses natural materials. Fiberglass and carbon laminate are stiff, strong, and impact-resistant. Carbon foam-core blades are light and buoyant, but can’t take the impact that fiberglass or carbon laminate blades can, and they cost a fair bit. Combinations also exist: Saltwood Paddles combines reinforced wood shafts with carbon or fiberglass blades, for instance.
Step 7: Try Before You Buy
Whatever your paddling style is, you’ll get what you pay for. Like performance gear in any sport, kayak paddles can get expensive quickly. So try before you buy—determine how a paddle feels in your hands, in the water, and how well it fits your paddling style. Remember, you’ll likely be taking something like a million strokes with it every year.
Then there are some oddballs, designed for specific purposes.
Wing paddles are racing paddles that originated in Olympic spring and open ocean surf ski races. They’re designed to power forward forcefully. They’re not as good for maneuvering, bracing, and anything else—but they’ll transfer all your energy into forward motion. They require good technique to use well.
Greenland Paddles are long sticks that look like they’re missing a blade. Their heritage goes back to the traditional sea kayaks of the arctic native peoples. They excel at low-angle, steady paddling over long miles in a way that’s easier on the body, but they pack less power for accelerating and maneuvering. They require a different technique to use efficiently, and they provide a link to kayaking’s ancient heritage. Skilled woodworkers can carve a Greenland paddle easily with some guidance and instruction.
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