Paddles make the kayak go (obvious, right?), but more than that, the correct paddle will match the paddler’s style, physique and boat to not only move the kayak efficiently and help protect against undue physical stress, but make the entire experience more enjoyable.
Picking a paddle is a four step process:
1. Determine if you’re mostly a low angle or high angle paddler (nobody is only one)
2. Select the paddle type that matches your paddling style
3. Choose the right length for you and your boat
4. Select a specific paddle based on material, weight, stiffness, durability, ferrule type and cost.
Low v. High Angle Paddler: When talking kayak paddling, low and high refer to the angle the paddle is held across the paddler’s chest during a normal forward stroke.
• Low angle strokes are just that - the shaft forms a low angle with the top or high hand at or below the shoulder. In general, low angle forward strokes require less energy and place less strain on joints. They are great for multi-hour paddles, cruising and touring, and for folks in wider recreational boats.
• High angle are stokes with the high hand above the shoulder - and are best epitomized by the vertical forward stoke. In general, they are higher energy and tend to put more stress on the body. High angle paddles are the choice for fast travel, whitewater, rock and surf play, racing and other activities where quick and powerful are important. They are most effective in narrower transitional and touring kayaks.
• No one does just high angle or just low angle strokes. Pick a paddle that fits what you do most of the time…or get one of each and carry one as a spare so you can swop as needed.
Select Paddle Type: Low and high angle paddles are distinguished by length and blade shape. This section talks about the paddle blades.
• Low angle paddles have blades that are longer and thinner than the blade on a high angle paddle with the same blade area. Spreading the area along the shaft makes it easier to get the entire length of the blade in the water when paddling with that lower angle.
• High angle paddle blades are shorter and wider, putting more blade area closer to the end of the paddle. Like with low angle paddles, the goal is to get all of the blade in the water, but the more vertical stroke lets that happen with a shorter blade.
• With both types, the more surface area in the water, the more water resistance, so the more leverage. It takes more energy and stress to take full advantage of that added leverage so the largest possible blade is not always the best choice.
Determine Paddle Length: Paddle length for new paddlers is estimated by looking at the combination of paddle type, boat width, and paddler size. More experienced paddlers add their personal preferences based on their time in the water into the mix.
• In general, low angle paddles have a longer shaft - the lower angle and longer blade require a longer shaft to fully immerse the blade.
• High angle blades function better on a shorter shaft. A shorter shaft means when you’re using the more vertical stroke your top hand isn’t forced above your head. You want that top hand to stay between your chin and forehead as a good working positioning.
• Wider boats generally require longer shafts to ensure good contact with the water. The longer shaft means you don’t have to reach or lean to the side to bury the blade. This is why high angle paddles are really not the best match for wide recreational kayaks.
• Taller paddlers generally like longer paddles.
• If you’re a new paddler, don’t panic…manufacturers have recommendations based on paddler height and boat width that are a good starting point. Here’s an example for low angle paddles from Aquabound:
Select a specific paddle: Once you’ve determined the paddle type and length you need, begin looking for a specific paddle. Consider material, weight, stiffness, durability and cost. On a multi-piece paddle, you’ll also want to look closely at the ferrule (joint) technology.
• Weight: In general, lighter is better, particularly if you’re doing all day or multi-day trips
• Stiffness: Stiffer paddles transfer more power, but are harder on joints
• Durability: With today’s technology all paddles are durable enough for regular paddles. If you play in rock gardens or paddle in areas where you’re pushing off rocks or other hard stuff, you’ll want to look for reinforced tips and edges.
• Cost: Budget for a good paddle - it’s the thing you’ll have in your hands all day and a key part of a good paddling experience.
Ferrules and Feathering
• Ferrules are the pieces that join the parts of a split paddle together. The majority of moderate to high cost paddles have multi-position ferrules.
• Feathering a paddle means the blades are not lined up. You can buy single shaft paddles with the blades offset at a fixed angle, or a take apart paddle where the ferrule lets you lock the two parts together with different amounts of blade angle.
• Feathering serves two purposes: It helps the high blade cut through the wind by reducing the amount of surface pushing directly into the wind. It also helps reduce the stress on your wrist by reducing the amount you have to twist it to get the blade cleanly in the water.
• Wing paddles are a specific evolution of “go fast” high angle paddles, designed for kayak racing - both short sprint and long distance ocean downwind competitions. The “scoop” shape formed as the blade edges curve back forming a lip on the backside creates an aerodynamic lift-like effect. This gives them a strong bite on the water, which increases efficiency and stress.
Crank shaft (bent shaft):
• Crank shaft paddles have a set of bends in the shaft designed to reduce wrist flex when using the forward stroke. While there was a lot of interest several years ago, they are more rare currently. Correct stroke technique with a straight shaft paddle can achieve similar results, and retains the flexibility of the straight shaft for all other strokes, which can be compromised when using a bent shaft.
• A traditional Greenland paddle is the ultimate in low angle paddling. Maximum blade widths are on the order of 3 inches tapering down to 1.5 inches at the grip - think skinny, tapered, airfoil shaped 2x4. The Greenland stroke runs from below the shoulder to deck level
• These “skinny sticks” evolved for open ocean kayaking in the extreme North Atlantic, hunting seal and towing several hundred pounds back home in all sorts of weather. They are honed to require the least amount of energy possible for any maneuver while retaining excellent long distance cruising speeds. They are pretty easy to make with simple tools, which means they can be sized to the individual paddler. They are also available in light weight modern materials.