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Choosing a Sea Kayak Paddle
--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
(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
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.
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
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
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 --
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).
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
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.
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.