Paddles. All they do is push you through the water, right? Why is it that every time you get on the water with someone new, they have a paddle you’ve never seen before? And why, when you borrow someone else’s paddle which they so fiercely defend as “the best paddle they’ve ever used,” do you hate it?
Simply put, a paddle is an extension of your arms; it’s the step up from sitting in your boat and swimming your way through the water.
Similar to how your boat needs to fit you perfectly for you to get the most out of it, your paddle needs to sit right in your hands or complement your body movement. The paddle chooses the paddler.
This all sounds very spiritualistic and nonsensical. Of course, it’s possible to paddle with someone else’s paddles, much like how you can jump in someone else’s boat. It might even be the case that you realise you prefer their paddles and change your allegiance altogether. But how much difference and science can there really be in a stick with two flaps on the end? And what is it that makes them so different from one another?
What a Paddle Does
To understand the difference in paddles, we first need to know exactly what a paddle does. Paddles are designed to grip the water and stay in place. As you twist your core and push through the stroke with your top hand, a levering motion takes place as the blade pushes against the water; this drives the boat forwards.
Of course, there will be some ‘slippage’ of the paddle blade in the water. This is considered wasted energy as the transfer of power isn’t directly driving the boat, and it’s this ‘slippage’ which paddle manufacturers work so hard to minimise.
The paddle is an extension of your arms; your primary means of transferring power from your body to the water and propelling the kayak. But what is it that makes it so personal? And why are there different paddles for each discipline?
What Paddle Length Do I Need?
Maybe the easiest place to start is how long your paddle needs to be. For recreational kayakers, this is a straightforward decision involving your height and the width of your boat. The chart below gives a rough guide for recreational and touring kayaking. This can also be applied to disciplines such as kayak fishing.
Touring (Low Angle) Paddle Sizing Chart
|Paddler Height||Kayak Width|
|up to 23″||23″ to 28″||28″ to 32″||over 32″|
|Less than 5′||210 cm||220 cm||230 cm||240 cm|
|5′ to 5’6″||215 cm||220 cm||230 cm||240 cm|
|5’6″ to 6′||220 cm||220 cm||230 cm||250 cm|
|6′ and taller||220 cm||230 cm||240 cm||250 cm|
Low Angle Paddling
Low angle paddling is considered to be when the top hand stays roughly level with your shoulders throughout the stroke. This is a more relaxed approach to kayaking which relies less on technique and allows you to cruise all day as a beginner, without exhausting yourself. The downside is that because of the wider angle, your paddle is liable to arc away from the boat throughout the stroke and you may find yourself spending more time correcting your path. Low angle paddling is often suited to recreational kayakers in calm environments.
High Angle Paddling
High angle paddling relies on good form and effective paddling technique, using the core muscles rather than relying solely on your arms. Here, your top hand is likely to be level with your eye line rather than your shoulders, and your paddle will follow a straighter line down the side of your boat so that all of your efforts go into propulsion, rather than turning the boat. High angle paddling is more suited to experienced paddlers and challenging environments. Without proper paddle technique, this can be exhausting and you will quickly revert to low angle paddling.
When you start to look at paddles for more technical environments, such as white water kayaking or sea kayaking in rock gardens or rough conditions, there are other factors which determine your paddle length. One of the major influencers here is cadence or stroke rate.
Longer paddles spend more time in the water and accordingly more time out of the water as you set up for the next stroke. A shorter paddle equates to a shorter paddle stroke and faster recovery, therefore a much faster paddling rate. For cruising and recreational paddlers, this is not beneficial, you expend more energy even if you have perfect paddle form. However, in choppy sea conditions, rock gardens or white water, balancing propulsion and cadence is essential for success.
In choppy sea conditions, rock gardens or white water, balancing propulsion and cadence is essential for success.
Sea kayaking in choppy conditions requires a paddle long enough to propel you effectively, but short enough to accelerate quickly and spend less time without the paddle engaged in the water. Meanwhile, sea kayaking in rocky outcrops and playing around in the surf requires a paddle you can use to accelerate quickly and recover from the water quickly to change your angle and position on the water. This means you’re likely to want a shorter paddle for both of these specific situations, especially playing around in the rocks; you’re looking at dropping about 5 – 10 centimetres on the above chart.
White water kayakers use the shortest paddles of all, looking to maximise stroke rate and put the power down in short, sharp bursts of speed. This is especially prevalent in playboating, where lateral movements and power bursts are timed with body movement and slight changes in the wave and paddles tend to be even shorter for this. River runners are likely to be dropping around 15- 20 centimetres from the above chart, while playboaters would be looking around the 20 – 25 centimetre range.
White water river running kayaking size chart, taken from Werner paddles. <https://www.wernerpaddles.com/fit-guide/>
Blade Shapes: Symmetric or Asymmetric Blades?
As well as the overall length of the paddle, the length and shape of the blade play an important part in how a paddle interacts with the water. Most kayak paddles now have asymmetric blades, as opposed to the traditional blades which are symmetrical above and below the shaft. Kayak blades also tend to be curved, with a concave power face gripping the water more effectively than a flat blade.
Top blade, asymmetric. Bottom blade, symmetric. Image is taken from Boat-ed. <https://www.boat-ed.com/paddlesports/paddlesports/studyGuide/Kayak-Paddles-Symmetrical-vs.-Asymmetrical-Blades/11109901_52045/>
Symmetric paddles can allow you to put down a lot of power, but there’s nothing smooth about paddling with them. The asymmetry allows you to plant the blade effectively and maximise the power face of the paddle all the way through your stroke. Different blade shapes, therefore, are suited to high and low angle paddlers as this will impact on how your paddle enters the water and flows through your stroke.
Once you get into the particular disciplines, this asymmetry will allow you to propel the boat differently. Longer blades work similar to longer paddles and can give you a more efficient cruising stroke, while shorter blades increase your potential cadence and manoeuvrability in tight settings.
In even more nuanced situations, paddles generate power in slightly different ways and the shape of the blade will decide whether you have a smoother transition through linked paddle strokes, an ability to quickly plant and generate power and even how that power transitions through your boat in certain situations, such a boof strokes in white water.
Paddle Materials: Plastic, Fiberglass, or Carbon?
The shape of the blade and the length of your paddle contribute to how it puts down power, but this is also affected by what it’s made from.
The three most common materials for kayak paddles are plastic, fiberglass and carbon fiber. Each of these has their individual benefits and drawbacks.
Plastic paddles are very robust and will probably outlast your kayaking career unless you do something drastic, making them perfect for playing around rocks and sharp coastlines. Besides that, plastic paddles are also much cheaper than alternatives, making them perfect for the beginner or recreational paddlers who don’t need the specific advantages of a fiberglass or carbon paddle.
The downside to plastic paddles is their flex, which you will often notice once you get into more progressive strokes or into high powered, high angle paddling. When you’re in a situation where every bit of effort matters, a flexible paddle isn’t particularly desirable. For this reason, experienced paddlers rarely use them.
In the middle of the road and probably the most common among sea kayakers and white water kayakers are fiberglass blades. These are much stiffer and lighter than their plastic counterparts and also tend to ‘slice’ through the water more effectively which makes them very capable of performing linked strokes.
Fiberglass is prone to chipping and slowly wearing down over time and it’s not uncommon when comparing a heavily used white water blade against a brand new one to see a completely different blade shape and size.
If power transfer is key and you can’t afford to lose anything to flex, carbon is your friend. By far the lightest, stiffest and most expensive of the three, carbon is often considered to be unnecessary to all but those who need to maximise effort; slalom kayakers or sea kayakers on long multi-day trips.
Carbon is even more susceptible to breaking than fiberglass and often splinters if you bounce it off too many rocks. In particularly rocky creeks you can watch your money falling away in front of your eyes!
Carbon blades also open up the possibility of having a core to the blade, usually either foam or air. This core not only makes the paddle lighter but means that when it comes to rolling in high-pressure environments, your paddle naturally wants to be on the surface of the water making the action easier and quicker.
Holding the two blades together is the shaft. Surely that bit’s easy right? It’s just a tube.
Not quite. The shaft is your direct feedback link to the water. Couple this with the fact that you wrap your hands around it for hours at a time, you want it to be comfortable.
Straight and Cranked Shafts
Most recreational kayak shafts are straight, but you may have seen people on the water with bent shafts, otherwise known as cranked paddles. The idea of these bent shafts is to put your wrists in a more ergonomic position and reduce strain through your wrists, reducing the risk of tendonitis. Bent shaft paddles are especially popular among sea kayakers who are most at risk of repetitive strain injuries from overuse, but have found their way into all disciplines.
The idea of bent shafts is to put your wrists in a more ergonomic position and reduce strain through your wrists, reducing the risk of tendonitis.
The only way to fully decide whether they’re for you is to try them and see for yourself, but it can take a while to get used to a cranked paddle.
Shafts also come in different widths, generally small shaft and regular shaft. Smaller framed paddlers benefit from the lower weight and easier grip they gain from the smaller shaft.
Left-handed and Right-handed Paddles
Some companies also add a slight teardrop shape to the paddle where your hands will be positioned. Sometimes this is done for both hands, sometimes just for your primary hand. If you didn’t know that paddles come in left and right-handed, see the next section; ‘Feather’.
Materials differ, too, and you can often choose between fiberglass and carbon shaft. Asides from the obvious price and weight difference, these alter how much flex you will get from the paddle. A full carbon, non cranked paddle, for example, is extremely stiff and this can put you at risk of repetitive strain injuries in certain situations. By changing the shaft for fiberglass you can add just enough flexibility to reduce your likelihood of getting injured.
Have you ever looked at a kayak paddle and wondered why the blades are off at different angles and thought it would be a lot easier to paddle if they were both the same? You’re not alone. Most beginners wish their paddle wasn’t feathered, but soon the movement becomes fluid and the reasons become apparent.
While one of your blades is engaged in the water, the other is moving through the air, ready to be planted again for the next stroke. Without feather, this top blade would be fully open, as it is in the water, and wind resistance would mean you had to work harder for each recovery; more wasted effort. This may seem menial on short paddles, but over long days and in windy conditions it becomes incredibly important.
Initially, this was overcome by putting the blades at a 90° angle so that the top blade cut through the wind perfectly. This design survived for hundreds of years before recent design showed that this was putting kayakers at much greater risk of injury. Modern paddles vary between 15° and 45°.
Some of this decision comes down to preference, but it’s often situational. White water and sheltered environments are less wind affected and a lower degree of feather is often adequate. Sea kayaking and open water touring often use a higher degree of feather as they have to recover their paddle strokes through rough winds and choppy conditions.
As we said before, paddles are either left-handed or right-handed. This primary hand is the one which performs the ‘twist’ to position the blade, ready for the stroke, while the other acts as a guide. It’s important to know whether you’re left-handed or right-handed as it’s important to get your feather round the right way.
Paddles are available with variable feather, so you can alter your paddle as conditions change. This can also allow you to change between left and right-handed paddling.
Some white water kayakers, especially playboaters, have made the transition to 0° feather, or flat paddles. This means that no time or effort is wasted twisting the paddle and you can maximise paddle cadence and, in terms of playboating, direct power through some moves.
One-Piece vs Split Paddles
As well as one-piece paddles, you can get split paddles. These come in two, three or four pieces, depending on your needs. These paddles are much easier to fit in your car, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Split sea kayaking paddles usually have adjustable feather as we previously mentioned, but they also have adjustable length, too. Two-piece splits are often carried on the top deck of a sea kayak as a quick-to-deploy spare paddle.
Split paddles for white water are becoming more adjustable and usually at least have the option of left or right-handed. These are usually only carried as an emergency spare, rather than a primary paddle. Even with modern split paddle design, it goes without saying that the more connections you put into a paddle, the more potential it has to break, but these are an essential piece of kit on more challenging rivers and multi-day trips.
This is a lot of information, how do I pick my paddle?
That’s a hard decision, unfortunately. All of these elements and nuances need to be taken into consideration when you’re picking your first or your fiftieth paddle, but there’s still that element we can’t account for; personal choice. Nothing quite beats trying a paddle out on the water, but this isn’t always an option.
Now that you have read this guide and have an understanding of the different elements that make up a paddle, as well as the technology and design which go into them, you can look at a range of paddles more objectively and make a better decision about what might suit you and your paddling style.