Choosing a Paddle

How to Select the Right Paddle

Your paddle is your motor. It will be an intimate friend. Choosing the perfect paddle comes with time. To reap the maximum efficiency from a paddle it must be matched both in composition and design to your techniques and needs. A paddle preference is a personal choice based on who you are physically, your attitude, the kayak you own, the conditions you prefer to paddle, the style of paddling you feel the most comfortable with and your budget. You will make the paddle you choose work for you. Some paddles will work better for you than others. The purpose of this Eco-Tip is to give you a basic foundation of information to assist with the choice of an appropriate paddle.

With all this in mind let’s look into the world of the paddle…

Paddle Parts

The blade of the paddle can be made of many different materials and have a dizzying array of shapes and cross sections. The blade is attached to the shaft at the throat. Many blades extend into the shaft by a few inches. This is where the adhesive takes hold. Some manufacturers will also reinforce this connection with a pretty covering.

The shaft can be made in one or two parts. One piece paddles are always feathered. Feathering is the ability of the blades to be at different angles to each other. This is a good practice if you do not suffer from any wrist injuries. Other paddlers will only feather if they are paddling into the wind, as the blade that is above the water will slice into the wind. If you choose to alternate, you must be aware of your reaction brace position. You will know by feel whether you are right or left feather.

Two part paddles will have a series of holes where they join. The inner sleeve that strengthens the join is called the ferrule .

Drip rings are rubber or plastic rings that encircle the shaft. These promote the water draining off your blades to drip before reaching your hands. Therefor they need to be positioned an inch or two to the outside of where your hands go.

Shaft indexing is a slight ovalling in the shaft, usually on the right side. Some indexing is barely noticeable while others are enhanced with a piece of extruded plastic. The purpose on indexing is to let you feel the proper position of your hands. When aligned, your knuckles will follow the edge of the blade. This is useful if you are trying to roll. Indexing also facilitates feathering because the indexed hand does the twisting while the other one slips. This is why indexing will only be on one side. Ovalling in the shaft is the most common are of breakage.

Paddle Composition

Paddles can be made from wood, plastic, fiberglass, carbon graphite and aluminum. Combinations of these materials are often used to achieve the design characteristics chosen for the particular model, price and use.

Wood paddles have the virtue of being traditional. They command a feel unavailable with any other material. Wood is warm in the winter. It has an even flex along the entire paddle. The joy of a finely handcrafted wood paddle speaks aloud, especially if it is of your own crafting. Wood does tend to float, which dictates a style that puts the pressure to get the blade into the water with the reward what it buoys up at the end of the stroke. Wood paddles are generally heavier that other types, although lighter woods such as cedar and spruce can be used, they may be weaker. Most paddles are laminated from different woods to provide strength and abrasion resistance (on the blade and shaft edges). Wood is one of the most durable materials available in paddles, especially is the tip is reinforced with resin. With a simple varnish every few years, a wood paddle will provide a lifetime of service.

Plastic blades are seen on most economy paddles. They can be made from a wide range of plastics that very greatly in their stiffness, durability, UV resistance, weight, colour and general good looks. Generally plastic blades are heavier, more flexible, more durable and the least expensive of all blade varieties.

Fiberglass blades offer one of the lightest and stiffest materials available. They have the advantage of being thinner and with a smooth feel as they release the water. Fiberglass suffers badly in the durability department though. Pushing off from rocks and using the blade aggressively can cause breakage. Fiberglass shafts are pretty common as the strength, weight, and cost formula works out well in a paddler’s favor.

Carbon graphite blades and shafts are the most expensive. Most paddlers prefer the lightness and stiffness combination carbon offers. These attributes come with a cost not just in dollars but also in fragility. Being so stiff a carbon paddle will break easily when exerted beyond their design threshold. You can usually identify a carbon paddle by its black colour. When you spend this much on a paddle you want others to know.

Aluminum is most commonly used for shafts. Its lower cost and durability make it the perfect material for economy paddles. Aluminum is cold in the winter, can be bent under hard use and gets loose at the ferrule from the day you bought it. Advances have been made to give aluminum better performance. The addition of plastic ferrule extends the life enormously. Coated tubing provides some insulation. Aluminum is sometimes used to reinforce blade tips.

Blade design

There are many theories about paddle design. All paddles work. Even sticks work as paddles. There is a different feel to each design of paddle. Advanced hydrodynamics can offer a plausible explanation. There’s some hearsay about blade design.

Blades come in long skinny shapes, medium shapes, large squat shapes, and everything in between. Long skinny blades were used by most traditional paddlers. These guys (as they mostly were) had to either paddle great distances or sprint to hunt. These two contrasting uses still spawned the same styles in paddles. The traditional paddle is basically a stick with flattened ends. Hunters did not want to attract the distant attention of the seals they were pursuing. Their style developed the idea that if you keep your blades low then you can be more stealth like. Inuit paddlers had a style of sliding their hands along the paddle with each stroke. The thin blade also allowed then to fit the end into their palm thereby providing a powerful sweep stroke necessary for quick recoveries and maneuvering. Most of us are lazier now and prefer a paddle blade with a bit of bite. Although we cannot forget that a narrow blade will allow us to paddle greater distances with less effort in a fully loaded boat.

Larger blades will pull more water. How much water you need to pull once you are moving is an ongoing debate. We know that acceleration and bracing are better (easier) with short squat blades. Once your craft is moving you will not be reaping any benefit with a bigger blade as the kayak will only go so fast. Therefore larger blades work well on day trips with empty boats or when rapid acceleration and bracing are required.

As a paddle blade moves through the water it wither wows or flutters. Wowing is the up and down movement of the blade as you pull it towards you. Flutter is the subtle spinning action the blade is trying to do. Whether a blade has more wow or flutter has a lot to do with now the blade entered the water, how it is being pulled and how the blade design is responding to these actions.

Wow is partially a function of the cross section of the paddle. If the blade has a pronounced ridge down the spring it may have what is called a dihedral shape. When water molecules hit the blade they are forced one way or the other. With a flatter blade the water molecules may be confused as to where to go, thereby causing the paddle to wow up and down.

Flutter can be a function of the plan shape. An asymmetrical shape will flutter less. As the paddle enters the water it will begin to twist backwards. As more of the blade enters, the upper half must compensate for this backwards action. If the blade is not balanced correctly there will be in balance occurring, causing the blade to flutter throughout the stroke. Over the long run this will be felt in your wrist as you will either grip the paddle tighter or over flex to correct the flutter.

A well balanced blade shape is noticeable with experience. Remember that all paddles work, some work better than others. As you put miles under you kayak and dip your paddle in stroke after stroke you will become enlightened as to the most important blade design. Ultimately you will and up with a quiver of paddles: a skinny touring blade, a medium touring blade, a large day tripper blade and an aerobic workout blade. You should always carry an alternate paddle with you. In some countries this is a legal requirement.

Let’s go on a trip. You start out with a fully loaded kayak, you are out of shape, you are needing to cover the distance to get away from the crowds, you use your narrow blade. You reach your destination, unpack the boat and embark on daytrips with your medium sized blade. They day you choose to leave, it is blowing, but not hard enough that you feel unsafe, so you use your medium blade to give you acceleration and bracing. Someone in your group is having wrist problems; you loan them your narrow blade. When you carry a narrow and a medium blade you have these options.

Many new paddlers hear about the spare paddle requirement and try to find the cheapest stick the is. They get half way through their only two week trip of the season and their main paddle breaks or is lost. They reach back for their budget paddle and moan for the rest of the trip, lamenting about their broken friend under the straps on their back deck.

The moral is to invest in two paddles at the beginning and alternate depending upon the use. Over time you will discover the paddle that you prefer and works with your style and needs.

Paddle Length

The length that you choose for paddle will become readily apparent whether it is correct or not. length decisions depend upon: your personality, paddling style, kayak width, height above the waist, arm length, what kind of paddling you like to do plus much more. Putting your hand up to the paddle blade is only an accurate measure of how high your hand is above the ground. Length is defined as the overall length of the blades and shaft together.

Shorter paddle lengths (200 to 225 cm) are appropriate for smaller (waist to head) paddlers, narrow boats, faster (type A personality) cadence, shorter arms, higher hand positioning (whitwater/sprinting styles) and more macho paddling. This is because you stroke will be shorter necessitating more strokes. This works well in situations requiring quick acceleration or turning. Shorter length gives more power but will be tiring in the long haul.

Paddle lengths from 225 to 235 are the most common for long touring and daytripping. These lengths provide enough power and a more manageable cadence for most paddlers.

Paddles from 235 to 245 are best suited for taller paddlers in wider boats. As we get into a longer paddle the stroke ark gets wider. This slows down the cadence (helping us to relax) but also requires more strength. Narrower blades are best suited with longer lengths as you will need to put more paddle into the water to get some power from the blade. Blade shapes that are short and squat generally come in shorter lengths.

Double kayaks, being generally wider, will need longer paddles. Both paddlers should have the same length so they can maintain uniform cadence.

Choose the correct length through consulting an experienced paddle dealer and trying out varying sizes with your own kayak.

Specialty Paddles

Winged paddles were developed for flat water racing. Using the same theory of lift with an airplane wing, the idea is that when the paddle is in the water is provides a bit of extra lift forward. Used properly they can improve flat water racing performance measurably. Uses for touring are limited due to the fact that it is difficult to brace or use them for turning strokes. They look really cool though.

Bent shaft paddles afford the advantage of being ergonomically correct. When you hold your hand in the paddling position the natural line of the knuckles is angles. With a straight shaft your outer muscles are slightly stretched. The bent shaft will ease this stain. A well the placement of a couple of inches extra reach in your paddle stroke. The most power comes in the first third of the stroke, therefore a bent shaft will be more efficient. Bent shafts work well if the hand placement is comfortable and your style of paddling never necessitates moving your hands on the shaft. Bent shafts are great for aerobic paddling.

Four part paddles are a necessity for folding kayakers. By having the blades removable from the shaft you can neatly tuck the complete paddles in the carry bag with the kayak. By introducing two additional ferrules there are now more wear points, so extra care must be taken with four part paddles.

Care for your Paddle

The main wear point in a paddle in the ferrule. Never use a lubricant on the ferrule as this will attract grit. wash your paddle off in water before joining it together. Store it apart in a paddle bag. Chipped edges of fiberglass blades can be repaired with fiberglass resin. Chips in plastic blades may be sanded smooth. Chips will cause cavitation (the drawing of air onto the blade as it moves through the water).

Your paddle is your engine and your best friend on a long trip. Pick it our with care and it will serve you well for many years.