Choosing a Kayak Paddle

by Sherri ~ March 17th, 2016. Filed under: Forward Stroke, Kayaking Equipment, Paddles.

Your paddle is arguably the most important piece of gear when it comes to the performance of your kayak, your endurance, your speed, and the enjoyment that you get out of paddling.  If you think of your body as the engine for your kayak, then the paddle is the propeller blade.  Serious power boaters can tell you how important it is to have the right “prop” on your engine.  With that in mind, let’s cover some basics.

When talking about paddle weight, lighter is better than heavier.  Imagine having to hold a paddle out in front of you with your arms outstretched.  Now imagine having a contest between you and another paddler to see who can hold their paddle out at arms length the longest without resting your arms.  More than likely, the person holding the lightest paddle is going to win this contest.  You are essentially holding your paddle out at arms length when you are kayaking and just moving it from one side of your kayak to the other.  A heavier paddle will tire out your arms and shoulders faster so that you will not be able to paddle as far or as comfortably as if you were using a lighter weight paddle.IMGP0138

One tip to keep in mind when comparing the weights of two paddles is that total weight is not the only consideration.  Two paddles may have the same overall weight, but if one paddle has more weight concentrated in the blades, it will feel heavier when in use than a paddle that has more of the weight centered in the shaft.  When paddling, you lift the blades higher than the shaft, so a heavier blade requires you to do more work.  This is sometimes referred to as the “swing weight” of the paddle.  Blade weight is rarely quantified in product specs, but you can compare two paddles by holding a paddle in each hand.  Hold both paddles horizontal with your hand at the center of the paddle shaft so that the paddle balances on two or three fingers of your hand.  A paddle with heavier blades will feel heavier in your hand in this position than one with lighter blades and more weight in the shaft.  Lighter paddles do tend to cost more, but they are worth every penny.  Ask anyone who has paddled with a nice lightweight fiberglass or carbon paddle and ask them if they would be willing to go back to a heavier paddle.

Comparing paddle weight

Be aware that you may see the material, “carbon”, advertised in less expensive paddles.  This is because carbon is very often just one of several materials that have been blended in the construction of the paddle.  The addition of carbon makes most paddle materials stiffer and lighter.  Carbon can be added to nylon blades to make them lighter and stiffer than typical plastic blades, but they still will not be as light or as stiff as a carbon fiber blade.  The carbon/nylon mix paddle may cost nearly $200, while the all-carbon-fiber paddle would be over $300.

Cheaper paddles are typically made with aluminum shafts and plastic blades.  While aluminum shafts can be lightweight, they often lack the strength needed for a kayak paddle, especially at the ferrule which is the joint where a 2-piece paddle is joined.  I have several examples of aluminum shaft paddles that have broken in the area where the holes are drilled into the shaft to allow the blade angle to be adjusted.  Drilling 2-3 holes around the circumference of the shaft weakens it dramatically.  Over time, the aluminum shaft begins to buckle between the holes.  Next, cracks appear between the holes and finally, the aluminum shaft breaks completely rendering the paddle useless.

Aluminum joint damage An aluminum shaft cannot be repaired.  Whatever money you spent to buy that paddle is wasted once it breaks.  One of the nice aspects of fiberglass as a paddle material is that there really isn’t much that can happen to a fiberglass paddle that can’t be repaired.  I’ve accidentally driven over my paddles in the garage.  Thankfully, some fiberglass cloth and epoxy was all it took to put the paddles back together again.  One other knock on aluminum paddle shafts is that the material tends to make your hands feel colder when paddling on a cool day and the metal can become quite hot on a warm, sunny day.  Aluminum also tends to be slippery when wet because of its smooth surface when compared with fiberglass that often has a slight texture to it.

plastic paddle ridges

Ridges down center of plastic paddle blade.

If aluminum is light, then why are cheaper paddles so heavy?  The heavier weight of cheaper paddles is usually found in the plastic blades.  Plastic is not a good material for paddle blades.  In order to make plastic paddle blades lightweight, they are often thin, flimsy, and flexible.  A blade that flexes in the water whenever you apply power will cause the paddler to waste energy and take more strokes to cover a given distance.  It is inefficient.  In order to stiffen a plastic blade, the manufacturer either has to make the plastic thicker (and heavier), or the material will need to have additional bends and ridges added to the design to stiffen the blade.  These ridges create added turbulence when the blade is pulled through the water causing the blades to flutter.  Fiberglass and carbon are better materials for paddle construction as they can be used to make paddle blades that are very stiff while remaining thin and lightweight.

Some paddle manufacturers tout the benefit of foam core blades or blades made of buoyant materials like wood.  The advantage to these types of paddle blades is that when the paddler submerges the blade, there is a natural tendency for the paddle blade to seek the surface again, meaning that the paddler does not need to lift the paddle blade back to the surface of the water.  The paddler will only need to lift the blade from the surface up into the air.  The buoyancy is so minimal, that it isn’t any harder to submerge these blades than non-buoyant blades, so there is a net advantage.  The bigger advantage to these buoyant blades is that the back-face of the blade is usually smooth.  This makes it easier to perform slicing motions through the water as is the case when doing draw strokes, sculling, and rolling.  You will generally find the option of foam core blades in carbon paddles which means they are quite expensive, but when you factor in the benefit of being able to paddle longer with less fatigue, the added cost is well worth it.  You may be able to find this benefit in wood paddles for a less extreme price tag.

The next thing to consider is the surface area or size of the paddle blade.  Many paddlers could benefit from using smaller blades, especially women who may not have as much strength in the shoulders and upper body.  A forward stroke is usually more efficient and effective in terms of speed if you maintain a higher cadence of strokes per minute.  Taking a paddle stroke causes your kayak to speed up slightly while you are actively applying force to the blade.  Between strokes, the kayak is slowing down slightly due to the effects of friction or drag on the boat.  If you use a faster stroke cadence, the recovery portion of your stroke is shorter and the kayak has less time to slow down between each stroke.  Thus, you are better able to maintain the momentum that is produced by the power portion of each stroke.  The problem with using a paddle blade that has too much surface area is that the resistance on the blade may prevent you from being able to maintain that higher cadence for any length of time.  Smaller blades make it easier to maintain a high paddling cadence.  Once you get your kayak moving, it is not necessary to have as large a blade to keep the momentum.blade size comparison

However, whitewater kayakers or sea kayakers who spend a great deal of time in the surf may need paddle blades with a larger surface area.  Aerated water (water that appears white and frothy) has less resistance due to the large amount of air that is mixed in with the water molecules.  Paddlers in these conditions need more surface area on their paddles in order to get the same “purchase” on the aerated water as a paddler who is paddling in undisturbed “blue” water.  Whitewater kayakers and surf kayakers are less concerned with the tiring effect of larger blades because they spend less of their time using their paddles for forward propulsion.  The paddle is used more for support, bracing, rolling, and maneuvering which means that the larger blade will not tire them out the same as it does for someone who is spending most of their time using the forward stroke to cover distance over the water.Bent vs. Straight shaft comparison

When shopping for paddles, you may be faced with the option of a “bent shaft”.  You will pay extra for this option, and in most cases it is not necessary.  For some beginning paddlers, the bent shaft may actually create more problems than it solves.  The bent shaft is designed to help the paddler maintain a more ergonomic position of the wrists when paddling to help reduce the possibility of tendinitis.  However, if you don’t place your hands correctly on the bend, you may be creating a less ergonomic position for your wrists than if you were using a straight-shaft paddle.  You can reduce stress on your wrists no matter what paddle you are using, by relaxing your grip on the paddle.  “Death-gripping” your paddle creates a kink in your wrist that can lead to repetitive motion injuries over time.

Wrist bends with tight grip on paddle

Wrist bends with tight grip on paddle

Wrist and forearm in alignment

Wrist and forearm in alignment

Relaxing the grip allows the wrist and forearm to remain in a neutral alignment throughout the paddle stroke.  This is also another good argument for buying a lighter-weight paddle as it is easier to relax your grip on a light-weight paddle.  Heavier paddles feel like they are falling out of the paddler’s hands, so there is a tendency to grip a heavier paddle more tightly bringing on fatigue and possible tendinitis of the wrists.  Many whitewater paddlers, however, do favor the bent-shaft option on their paddles as it makes it easier to feel the correct hand position on the shaft when a paddler capsizes and is preparing to roll up.  Whitewater kayakers also need to hold their paddles a bit more tightly than recreational and sea kayakers to make sure they don’t lose their paddle.  I once almost lost my paddle in a rapid when the blade went into a crack between two rocks.  If I hadn’t had a firm grip on the paddle, it would have been yanked from my hands.  As it was, I just barely had time to pull it back out of the crack as the current carried my kayak downstream.

My recommendation to sea and recreational kayakers is typically to choose the lightest weight paddle.  Adding a bent-shaft actually makes a paddle slightly heavier since the shaft will be a little longer with all the bends.   Therefore if you have the choice between buying a fiberglass bent-shaft paddle for about the same money as a carbon straight-shaft paddle, I would take the carbon straight-shaft, even if you have wrist problems that might make you a candidate for a bent-shaft paddle.  As I said earlier, a lighter weight paddle and a relaxed grip will do more to reduce stress on your wrists than getting a bent-shaft.  If you are “shooting the wad” and going for the very top-of-the-line paddle, go ahead and get the bent-shaft carbon paddle with the foam-core blades.  (That happens to be what I personally use for sea kayaking.)  If you are a whitewater kayaker, you may want to stick with the slightly heavier and slightly more durable fiberglass, bent-shaft paddle if you are paddling in the shallow, rocky whitewater rivers of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.  If you paddle in large-volume, deeper rivers, the carbon whitewater paddles are a great choice.

"High Angle" (top) "Low Angle" (bottom)

“High Angle” (top)
“Low Angle” (bottom)

When paddle shopping, you may also see or hear references to “high angle” and “low angle” paddle blades.  This refers to the angle of the shaft as you are performing your forward stroke.  Whitewater paddlers with good technique are always “high angle” paddlers because using a low angle causes whitewater kayaks to spin.  Recreational kayakers are pretty much “low angle” paddlers by definition because recreational kayaks are so wide that it makes it difficult to perform a “high angle” forward stroke without leaning your body out to the side of the kayak.  Sea kayakers have the option of being either a low-angle or a high-angle paddler.  Among some camps, there is a strong push to make all sea kayakers into high-angle paddlers.  Personally, I think there is room for both styles of forward stroke, and either paddle design can be used to perform both a low-angle and high-angle stroke.  It may be helpful to have someone take some video of your natural forward stroke as you paddle straight at the camera.  The more vertical your stroke tends to be in relation to the water (60 degree or greater), the more you will benefit from a high-angle design.  The lower your shaft angle (50 degrees or less), the more likely you will prefer a low-angle paddle.

Low Angle Forward Stroke

Low Angle Forward Stroke

High Angle Forward Stroke

High Angle Forward Stroke

When I first learned to kayak back in the late 1980’s, I learned a forward stroke, what we now call low-angle, and a power forward stroke, what is now termed high-angle.  The high-angle stroke was used for covering distance quickly and is more like the stroke that racers use, but was thought to be more tiring.  The low-angle stroke was thought to be easier to maintain over longer distances.  While most racers tend to use a high-angle stroke which is why many kayakers argue that a high-angle stroke is more efficient, some open-water surf-ski racers like Oscar Chalupsky favor a lower angle stroke in big waves as it creates an outrigger effect that increases stability.  Ultimately, the blade style you choose is a matter of personal preference, so you may need to take some time to try different blade styles, or you may want to get one of each since sea kayakers should carry a spare paddle for safety anyway.

The last thing that you are going to need to decide on is the length of the paddle that you want, but his can be a really complicated decision.  For recreational and sea kayakers, the basic concept is that the wider your kayak the longer your paddle needs to be.  Recreational kayaks are typically fairly wide requiring the paddler to use a low angle stroke.  As a result, recreational paddlers need longer paddles.  A pretty typical paddle length for kayaks wider than 28″ is 230cm.  Sea kayaks are almost always narrower than 25″, so sea kayakers use shorter paddles.  If you buy a low-angle paddle, you will likely be choosing a paddle in the range of 215-220cm.  Your height will have very little impact on your choice of length unless you are really short or really tall.  On the other hand, if you prefer a high-angle paddle, your choice of length will more likely be somewhere between 205-215cm, and your choice will be strongly influenced by your height and the width of your kayak.  Whether high-angle or low-angle, the shaft length should be about the same.  The difference in the length of your paddle is primarily a feature of the different blade shapes.  High-angle blades are shorter than low-angle blades, so the overall length of a high-angle paddle is shorter than the overall length of a low-angle paddle.

Whitewater kayakers favor very short paddles, anywhere from 180-205cm, most often between 190-197cm.  The paddle length for whitewater paddlers is typically dictated by the type of whitewater paddling you will be doing and the height of the paddler.  Some manufacturers like Werner Paddles have charts to help paddlers decide on an appropriate length.  These can be very helpful, but keep in mind that paddle length is also a matter of personal preference.  If this is your first paddle purchase, you likely don’t have the experience to know whether you will be happy with the generally accepted suggestions for length, or if you would prefer something that deviates from typical recommendations.  When in doubt, I suggest that recreational and sea kayakers consider getting a paddle that is 5cm shorter than the recommended length.  My reason for this suggestion is that in the 25+ years that I have been kayaking, paddle lengths have gradually become shorter.  My current sea kayak paddle is at least 15-20cm shorter than the paddle I used in 1988.  It is better to err on the side of having a shorter paddler as it is easier to paddle with a paddle that is a bit too short than it is to paddle with something that is too long.  Beginning whitewater paddlers should probably stick with the currently accepted recommendations for length.small vs. standard shaft

One last consideration in choosing a kayak is the diameter of the shaft.  Very few paddle manufacturers have the option of getting the same paddle in different shaft diameters.  Werner Paddles is the only company I know of who offers that option.  However, there are slight variations in the shaft diameters of different manufacturers which may partially account for why some paddles just feel better in your hand than others.  Shaft diameter is primarily a matter of personal preference.  The idea is that people with smaller hands will prefer a smaller diameter shaft.  While this is true, it can also be true that someone with larger hands may still prefer a smaller shaft diameter.  Based on hand size alone, Werner would recommend that I purchase a standard diameter paddle, and for many years that is what I paddled with.  However, since I have started experiencing arthritis in the joint at the base of my thumb in the last few years, I find that a smaller diameter shaft puts less stress on this area of my hand and is more comfortable for me.  The shaft on the top of the photo is the smaller shaft.  It can be hard to “see” the difference.  It is much more apparent when you “feel” the two shafts.  If you have a choice, try paddling with both and decide which one you prefer.  If you don’t get a choice, don’t worry about it too much.  Kayakers have been using standard diameter shafts for many years with no problems and no one was really complaining about it before the smaller shafts became available.

carbon & fiberglass paddlesThis is probably a lot of information overload to the average beginner looking to purchase a first paddle.  You may be feeling like you are more confused than ever.  So what is the take-away?  My personal recommendation for most beginners is to skip the aluminum/plastic paddles and get a decent fiberglass paddle.  You shouldn’t be paying less than $100 for your paddle and I would strongly encourage you to spend more like $200-300.  Unless you are paddling in whitewater or surf, get a smaller surface area for your blade.  Skip the extra cost of a bent-shaft.  If you’re itching to spend some extra money, put it towards getting a lighter carbon paddle or foam-core blades.  If you are a recreational kayaker, get a 225-230cm paddle.  If you plan to paddle a sea kayak, consider a low-angle paddle of 215-220cm in length.  This is the “mainstream” option.  Once you have more experience and have the opportunity to try using different paddles, you can purchase a second high-angle paddle, if you want.    Choosing the appropriate length on a high-angle paddle is much more difficult as there are so many variables affecting your choice.   Going for the more conventional paddle choice may or may not turn out to be your ultimate favorite paddle, but it will work well while you are learning and developing your skills.  It will also make a good choice for a spare paddle in the future if you do decide to get a different paddle.  Sea kayakers should be carrying a spare paddle for safety.   Having both a low-angle and a high-angle paddle allows you to switch back and forth between the two designs when conditions and your mood dictate, and the more conventional low-angle paddle will work for just about anyone who might need to borrow your spare on the water.  Whitewater paddlers will want to consult with someone who is well-versed in the type of paddling they want to do (i.e. creeking, downriver, slalom, playboating, crossover) as each whitewater style will affect the length slightly along with the paddler’s height.

As you will no doubt discover, good paddles are an expensive accessory, but don’t be tempted to skimp on this item.  You are better served to spend the extra money on the paddle and look for a way to save on your kayak than to buy a nice kayak and then buy a cheap paddle to go along with it.  You won’t end up enjoying the kayak that you spent all your money on.  With a nice, lightweight paddle, you will enjoy paddling whatever boat you end up with.

Happy paddling!

Sherri

 

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