Before you start practicing paddling strokes, it is essential that you have the right size, and type of paddle. You don’t want to be banging your hands on the gunwale while trying to paddle with a short rowing implement. Nor do you want to be slapping the water or over-reaching with paddles that are too long. These make noise and waste energy that you will need if you want to make any speed or cover some distance.
Paddle size is based on 3 things:
- your style of paddling
- your height
- the width of your boat.
Different Kayaking Purposes, Different Paddles
Your style of paddling may be for fishing, recreational use, touring, or whitewater. You might even go bowfishing on your kayak. More docile styles can get away with longer paddles, as most strokes will be with a low hold, with the shaft parallel to the water. More aggressive styles like racing and whitewater use more high hold strokes for speed, power, and acute maneuvering, with the shaft at more extreme angles, meaning you can get away with a shorter paddle.
Too short of a paddle will make you waste energy banging the side of the boat. It will also compromise you on strokes that require reaching. Too long makes paddling more difficult, and will make it difficult to accomplish strokes that require close reaches.
Ideally, you want to be able to hold the paddle at around chest-height, with the proper grip. and smoothly dip the blades into the water somewhere near the stern of the kayak, and easily draw it back to the bow, with the blade being at least ¾ submerged through the entire stroke. You need to be able to do the same thing in reverse. But the world is seldom an ideal place.
Your Choice of Blade Shapes: Symmetrical vs Asymmetrical
You have a choice of blade shapes. One is not necessarily better than the other, but just a matter of personal preference. Your blade shape can be either symmetrical (oval), meaning both sides are of equal length, or asymmetrical, meaning one sig\de of the blade is longer than the other, and you paddle with the short-side down. This helps you to track straight as you pull through the stroke. Symmetrical blades supply slightly more thrust but take a little more care for straight tracking.
Shaft Styles: Straight or Bent
You also have a choice of shaft styles, straight or bent. A straight shaft is just what the name implies, the shaft runs straight as a plumb-bob from one blade to the other. Straight shafts are the least expensive of the two types, and are lighter, yet stronger than bent shafts. Bent shafts have a bend on each side that allows the shaft to attack the water with the most efficient angle during the Power Stroke.
They are more expensive, not quite as strong as a straight shaft, and a little heavier, but they provide a significant increase in power and performance while causing much less fatigue.
Paddle units are offered in 1, 2 or 4 pieces, not including the blades. 1 piece shafts are the strongest and are the go-to paddle for attacking whitewater. 2 piece paddles are the most common, and are great for touring, fishing and recreation paddling. 4-piece paddles are great for inflatables, which may be back-packed into Wilderness areas, or in situations where convenience and storage space are major concerns. Many people carry an extra 4 piece paddle as a backup, in case their main paddle gets lost or broken.
Feathering: What angles to go for
Feathering is the angle of the blades compared to each other. Common orientations are 0⁰, 30⁰, 45⁰, or 90⁰. Most paddles have adjustable ferrules allowing you to change the feathering as you see fit. 0⁰ means the edges of the blades are parallel to each other. 45⁰ means the edges are 45⁰ offset to each other, and 90⁰ means the edges are perpendicular to each other.
I personally prefer 45⁰ because it puts the blade straight into the water at the most efficient angle on both left and right strokes, following the natural twist of my hands as I pull through the stroke, requiring no repositioning of each hand as it engages the water.
90⁰ allows you to put the full potential power to the down blade, and the least amount of drag to the forward-moving opposite blade as it moves forward through the air, giving you maximum power and speed. 0% is the easiest orientation for beginners, or people with wrist problems like arthritis, as it allows you to concentrate on getting the strokes down correctly without worrying about orientation, or having to change your wrist position throughout the stroke, and is less pressure on the wrists.
Prices Differences & Last Recommendations
There is quite a price spread on paddles, mostly dictated by the materials they are made from. Plastic paddles are relatively inexpensive, but you will probably go through several of them due to breakage, or performance dissatisfaction, upgrades, etc… Aluminum paddles are also very inexpensive and do a little better than plastic. Carbon fiber is the top-performing material, but also the most expensive.
While aluminum and plastic paddles can be had for as little as $20.00 (US) or less, a good recreational paddle can run over $100.00, and a top-of-the-line touring paddle can set you back a whopping $400.00 or more. Like most other things, you get what you pay for.
It may take a few paddles for you to find the right paddle for your desires, but the search is a big part of the fun. You can always trade paddles with others and then everyone wins. Just a thought…