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Choosing a Sea Kayak Paddle       by Ray Wirth

--The paddle is your most immediate connection to the water. It is as important to you as the paintbrush is to the artist. And, even more so. Someday your life may depend upon it.

Some paddlers I know have gone out and purchased their paddle several weeks or even months before purchasing their first boat. This is a great idea if it means more time, consideration, and financial resources are devoted to this extremely important piece of your kayaking "kit." The point is that your paddle should not be purchased as an afterthought, when you are suffering buyer's remorse, or after your budget has already been busted. And while some outfitters will give a good deal on a paddle when / after you purchase a kayak, you might want to at least research paddle options beforehand -- and have one picked out by the time you purchase your boat.

A common recommendation is that you buy the lightest paddle you can afford -- you will not regret it. A lighter, more efficient paddle will immeasurably enhance your kayaking experience. If you have to skimp somewhere, skimp a little on the boat rather than out of the paddle. (Most $240.00 paddles are dramatically better than most $140.00 paddles. The average $2400.00 boat is only marginally better than the average $2300.00 boat). You lift your paddle thousands of times each hour and its the source of your most immediate contact with the water. Kayaking with a good paddle versus a clunker is like the difference between jogging in lightweight running shoes and hiking boots. Over the long term, if I had to choose, I would rather paddle a heavy plastic boat with a good paddle than a sleek glass boat with a clunker paddle.

A recommendation I often make is to buy your backup paddle first and your primary paddle later. If you plan to take trips of more than an hour and venture more than a few minutes from shore, you should plan to include a spare paddle as part of your gear. And if you're open to purchasing a second paddle within 12 months, it often makes sense to purchase a less expensive paddle that will later become your spare paddle first. This will give you additional time to develop your technique, research your options, and determine and refine your preferences.

Paddles, from left, All paddles pictured are aymmetical in overall shape: (1) flat plastic blade with centerline rib, fiberglass shaft; (2) plastic spoon blade, fiberglass shaft; (3) fiberglass blade, fiberglass shaft; (4) graphite blade, fiberglass shaft; (5) carbon blade with dihedral face, carbon shaft; (6) carbon wing blade, carbon shaft.

When purchasing a paddle, whether it is to be a primary paddle or a spare, these are the decisions you should consider, in order of importance.

(1) 1-Piece vs. 2-Piece:

Two-piece paddles have a joint in the middle of the shaft and thus can be taken apart for transportation or storage. If you are purchasing a paddle to be used as a spare, this is the way to go. If you are not yet sure whether you prefer to paddle feathered or unfeathered or are concerned that some feather angles may be hard on your wrists, a 2-piece paddle may be the way to go. Otherwise, you should strongly consider a 1-piece paddle because the absence of the joint results in the following advantages:

  • 1-piece paddles are slightly lighter and slightly stronger
  • 1-piece paddles never develop a loose joint
  • 1-piece paddles do not need to be rinsed after use in salt water and are less likely to need maintenance
  • 1-piece paddles have a more consistent flex along the length of the shaft

One-piece paddles are not adjustable in terms of feather angle, but if you are just learning, it is as easy to learn to paddle feathered as it is to paddle unfeathered. Choose a 60 degree feather angle and go with it. (See article on feathering for more information.) One-piece paddles may be a bit more difficult to transport on or in your vehicle, but chances are if you can transport and store a kayak, you can transport and store a one-piece paddle. If you will be taking your paddle on airlines, backpacking with your paddle, or competing in adventure races, you might consider a 3, 4, or 5-piece paddle, which are now available from several manufacturers.

(2) Materials:

The most common materials for paddles (in order of increasing cost and decreasing weight) are aluminum, plastic, fiberglass, and carbon (also called graphite). Low end paddles are often plastic blades with aluminum shafts. Top end paddles have carbon fiber blades and carbon fiber shafts. Mid-range paddles usually have plastic of fiberglass blades and fiberglass shafts.

Aluminum shafts are strong and stiff but comparatively heavy. Aluminum also conducts cold, which is a major consideration if you paddle where the air or water temperatures are below 60 degrees. Fiberglass shafts are reasonably stiff, strong, and light -- and are the most common. Carbon shafts are extremely stiff and light, resulting in more efficient stroke, and for this reason are preferred by those who race or paddle long distances. The stiffness of carbon shafts makes them less durable, however -- carbon shafts can break if put under too much pressure.

Plastic blades are relatively thick and have thicker edges. Many plastic blades have relatively more flex. These factors result in a less crisp and efficient stroke. Use of fiberglass and carbon allows construction of blades that are stiffer and thinner, although less durable. Carbon blades, especially, are can develop nicks or chips around the edges if whacked off too many rocks. For many paddlers, a fiberglass blade represents a good compromise of strength, stiffness, durability, weight, and price.

Note: companies such as Aquabound sell paddles with "carbon" blades that are actually plastic blades with some carbon content. In thickness and weight, these blades more resemble a plastic blade than a carbon one. A true carbon blade is made of carbon cloth that has been saturated in resin -- no plastic.

Wood paddles are an option some might want to consider. Most wood paddles are have both wood shaft and blades. Wood paddles are generally somewhat heavier than midrange synthetic paddles; however they provide the nice feel and flex of wood. Personally I haven't found a Euro-style paddle made of wood that is light enough for me to want to put it to daily use. (Greenland style paddles are shorter and lighter -- and will be the subject of a future article).

(3) Length:

Paddle length can be very complicated or very simple. Let's start with the simple. Most people can happily and efficiently paddle most touring kayaks with a 220 cm paddle.

Not so long ago, it was common to recommend 230 cm paddles -- which are about 4 inches longer than I an recommending. If you are paddling a tandem kayak, recreational kayak or other kayak wider than 24 inches you may want to go with a 225 or 230 cm paddle. The same applies if you are taller than 6'4" or so. (240 cm paddles are beasts. Avoid them if possible!) If you are a smaller person, if you paddle a boat narrower than 22 inches, or if you prefer a more vertical stroke, you may want to go with a 215 cm paddle.

Many old school adherents are still recommending paddles longer than the guidelines I've provided above. However, the thinking on paddle length has changed in the last 5 to 10 years -- and it makes a lot of sense when you consider the following:

  • when you are seated in your kayak, you can put your hands out and touch the water, no matter how tall you are. Being taller doesn't necessarily mean you need a longer paddle -- and may even allow you to use a shorter one.
  • the width of your kayak is the biggest determinant of paddle length. If your kayak is between 21 and 24 inches in width with a reasonably sloped deck, you will likely be happy with a paddle in 220 cm range. For a wider boat, you may want to go with a paddle that is 5 to 10 cm longer.
  • Paddling style is the second most important factor to consider. A shorter paddle encourages a more vertical paddling style (shaft at 45 degree angle while blade is in the water). This high angle style is more efficient because the paddle stroke is closer to the boat, where more of the energy is transferred into propelling the boat forward rather than pushing the bow from side to side.

A shorter paddle also results in a more efficient stroke because it creates a shorter lever arm. (A longer lever arm requires more force for each stroke). Most people find they prefer using a shorter paddle once they try one. Personally, I am 5'11" (with fairly long arms) and use a 215 cm paddle to paddle boats with beams ranging from 21 inches to 24 inches. Still not convinced? See an article on paddle length for more information.

(4) Weight

Paddle weight is key and would be listed earlier except that to a great extent it is influenced by the factors above. . Personally I would not choose to paddle more than a few minutes with a paddle weighing over 38 ounces. (Somehow manufacturers find buyers for paddles that far exceed this weight.) 32 ounces is a good target weight for a primary paddle. I've used carbon paddles as light as 16 ounces -- and yes there is a tremendous difference. You lift your paddle with each stroke and so the difference of a couple of ounces is multiplied thousands of times over the course of a paddling day. A paddle that falls at or under the 32 ounce target usually means carbon or fiberglass -- and a length of 220 cm or shorter. The joint adds one or two ounces and so this is another reason to go with a one piece paddle.

(5) Blade shape

Choices in blade shape include symmetrical versus asymmetrical (describes overall shape) and flat, dihedral, spooned, and wing (describes cross section shape).

Most good touring blades are asymmetrical for the simple reason that the blade is placed in the water at an angle -- and the additional surface area at the outer tip and above the blade's midrib compensates for the fact that some of the surface area above the midrib and on the inside edge of the blade is usually not buried in the water. Asymmetry creates balance in this case!

Spoon and wing blades make for a powerful forward stroke but are not as versatile for the variety of strokes, braces, and rolls that kayak touring requires. Therefore, I recommend most beginning paddlers start with a flat or dihedral blade, each of which has distinct advantages. A good "flat" blade is curved lengthwise but is relatively flat from top edge to bottom edge. This creates a versatile paddle with good power for forward stroke as well as high and low braces. A dihedral blade is divided lengthwise into 2 planes, with a crease along the horizontal midline of blade. The dihedral shape provides good control and reduces any chance of fluttering. However, the dihedral results in a loss of power for the forward stroke and for bracing, since the angled planes of the dihedral help the water slip off the blade. More details and diagrams in Hank Hayes' article on blade shape.

(6) Blade size

A touring blade suited for a low-angle touring stroke is typically 20 inches long and 6 inches wide. For a higher angle stroke, you might want to choose a slightly shorter blade (18 or 19 inches) that is also wider (7 inches). A bigger blade with more surface area is good for quick acceleration and bursts of speed. A smaller blade with less surface area is good for all day touring. In general, a bigger person with more upper body strength would choose a larger blade. However, the weight and width of the boat should also be factored in -- a big strong person paddling a fully loaded tandem kayak might prefer a smaller blade than the same paddler in an unloaded single kayak. It all depends how much resistance you are encountering. Stepping down in blade size is like gearing down on a bicycle -- it allows you to maintain a faster cadence and thus stay at nearly the same speed while experiencing less fatigue.

(7) Other considerations:

If your hands are significantly smaller than average, you might want to consider a paddle with a smaller diameter shaft. Drip rings are a plus if you paddle in cold water and or relatively calm conditions -- as they help keep your hands and spray skirt dry. If you paddle in warm conditions or in rough water, drip rings are probably not that much of a benefit.

Happy paddling!

Articles:
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