What to look for in a kayak paddle
In the process of writing an article on some paddles we will be reviewing. I wanted to post these thoughts on how I would perceive certain qualities of paddles so as not to bog down the review itself with a long treatise on paddles.
First though, I think it might be helpful to offer some insight into the key criteria, (considerations) I would evaluate. When I think of high-quality paddles, I have some specific criteria I’d like to consider. While this first part of the article may seem basic to the more advanced paddler, I wanted to provide some context on paddle choice for newer paddler. Beginning kayakers usually spend a ton of time looking at boats, and then in a moment of panic and haste spend less than 10 minutes considering a paddle in the shop to just get it over with. The paddle often has a huge impact on your performance and therefore your fun while paddling.
- use of the paddle – The use of the paddle is very important when evaluating selection. Is it touring, long expedition, racing, sea kayak surfing, surf kayaking, white water, playboating, rock gardening ? Each of these has some different criteria.
- fitness of the paddler - The overall fitness of the paddler can determine a lot. Length of shaft, size of blade, materials. Stronger paddlers may care less about weight than more casual recreational paddlers. Though we often see the reverse.
- type of craft - the type of craft used can help choose a paddle. A narrow sea kayak with a low foredeck can shorten the overall shaft length, where as a wide double could necessitate a much longer shaft.
Shaft – the long pole shaped part of the paddle.
- length of shaft overall – the length of the shaft overall is really important as it plays a part in your stroke mechanics. A paddle that is too short causes you to have a very serious high angle stroke and in some cases will make you knock the foredeck on every stroke. Where as a shaft that is too long may cause you to use a lower angle stroke than you need and loose power. Every person is different, and the paddle, the boat and the paddler must all be sized properly. The usage for the paddle plays an important part as well. A paddle used for touring are typically a little longer than one used for white water or surfing. There is no shortcut or magic equation to optimize length of shaft.
- circumference of shaft - the overall circumference of the shaft is very important for a paddle. Your hand will be gripping this all day, so if it is too big, your hand and forearm will fatigue quickly. If it is too small, you feel underpowered and will feel less connected to the paddle in critical situations such as bracing, linked strokes or rolling. Best way to test this is to demo. Most modern shafts are actually a bit small in my opinion. Traditional paddling enthusiasts will tell you that the loom circumference anthroprometrically measured gives the best results.
- shape of shaft/indexing – the shape of a paddle shaft is often the most critically bungled feature of a paddle. The shape of the shaft provides the overall feel of the paddle in your hands. The shape determines whether or not the paddle feels like an extension of your body, or a piece of carbon fiber/wood etc that you stick in the water. A paddle shaft should be shaped so that you can intuit how the blade is facing without having to think about it. And our bodies can intuit a lot, but they need cues. An oval or teardrop shaped loom gives your brain something to connect with how the blade is oriented, and as a result will allow you to index your blade to climb when sweeped, or be presented flat to the surface while you are upside down. A round loom while it may be easier on some hands will not present this subconcious connectivity to the water while upside down.
- Bent or straight shaft - straight shafts are just that, straight, ergonomics are pretty straightforward. There are some schools of thought that eschew bent shafts, like this theory, or this guy in favor of the straight. Bent shafts propose to put your wrist into a more neutral position to allow for better ergonomics on repetitive stress exercise. I don’t actually have a strong opinion either way about the ergonomics as I used a traditional paddle exclusively for 5 years (straight shaft) and received no injuries. And I have now been paddling with a crank shaft and still have no injuries from repetitive stress. But the general idea in a crank shaft is that your hand should typically line up with the blade while in the bendy part of the crank. Having your hand well past the blade while in the bendy part would be kinda weird. So this is known as neutral crank.
Blade (the business end)
- Blade overall profile shape - here are some basics. Asymmetric blade shapes are the most common paddle shapes these days. This means that there is more blade beneath the shaft when the blade is held upright and reaching for the water than above. These blades often have a tip or point, though granted not a very sharp one. This makes a more upright stroke less important than other blades. It can be presented at a lower angle and still have lots of blade in the water. Squared paddles, or leaf bladed paddles while not as popular, also present interesting choices for more upright style paddle strokes. Aled Williams of Tiderace kayaks used one to great effect in this is the sea. And Nigel Law designed a leaf shaped paddle for kayak surfing with Saltwood.
- Powerface shape -the powerface is the spooned shaped of the blade that grabs water and is rotated towards your body. This shape and its contours dictate how the paddle will move the boat through the water. This shape also indicates how water will spill off and how it will feel in the water. There is a tendency towards dihedral design to allow for hydrodynamic spill-off of water, rather than cavitation. Though some spoon bladed shapes without dihedral design seem to do just fine. Power application plays a big part in how the blade performs as well. i.e. most beginner traditional students complain of flutter in Greenland paddles, (even manufactured ones) but these complaints typically die down after extended use. Wing paddles offer a great opportunity to learn a ton about forward stroke mechanics and speed. The wing shape of the blade enforces good upright stroke technique and punishes poor technique with wobbly off-kilter strokes.
- Reverse powerface shape – The back of the blade. This part of the blade is important as it determines how the blade acts as it spills water on a forward stroke, and how it will behave on draws, rudders, and other linked strokes. Most paddles have some sort of bulge, or rib on the back of the blade that serves as structural core to where the shaft meets the blade. A few of the newer blades have developed smooth, or “ribless” backs. This does provide a very seamless feel in the water when drawing, sculling, or performing other linked strokes.
- Size of blade face - the overall surface area of the blade indicates how much power you can generate in a short amount of time. More surface area tends to generate more power in a shorter amount of time. But there is such a thing as too much surface area for the size of person doing the work. It isn’t necessarily advisable to have everyone with a 700 sq cm blade. There is also an argument that can be made that stroke rate is also very important. Hence the argument for traditional paddles. No one combination is ideal, but here we are talking primarily about Euro blades.
Overall Paddle Considerations
- Weight - swing weight on a touring blade can make a big difference. A heavy paddle on a very long trip might not be much fun, where a light paddle though when used in steep creeking, or rock gardening, could be a broken paddle.
- Materials – wood, carbon fiber, fiberglass, plastic are the main ones. Though I would have a hard time defending a fiberglass or plastic paddle at this stage, I would like to see one that works really well.
- Cost $$ - I would like hear that cost is no option, but suffice it to say that the average paddle that is manufactured and not made at home costs around $350-$450 dollars. I don’t want to frighten a casual paddler, or sound snobbish, but I have yet to see a paddle that costs less than $350 that I would want to be stuck with for any amount of time.
- Is this paddle sold with drip rings – believe it or not, this tells you a lot about somebody. Drip rings are a waste of money and effort, they serve no purpose. You should always cast a wary glance at a paddle sold with drip rings.
These are just a few of the overall considerations for paddles. And this article does focus almost exclusively on euro paddles. A whole separate article on traditional paddles is probably in order.