AMC Outdoors, March 2005
Recently, I bought a used 15-foot sea kayak. This was my first real kayak, and I wanted the perfect paddle to go with it. So before venturing into the paddling shop, I decided to ask two avid kayaking buddies for advice. Well, these guys started out bickering about ferrules, then debated wings, and finished with an all-out brawl over something called a dihedral. Apparently the phrase “layman’s terms” means something different to hard-core boaters than it does to most human beings. Here then is a short translation guide to help you purchase the right paddle for your own aquatic adventures.
Weighing the options
As with backpacking and mountain climbing, the first thing for paddlers to consider is weight versus cost. Remember, whatever you buy must be held in front of you, at an uncomfortable angle, for hours on end—by the end of the day, every ounce starts to count. The best way to trim weight is with lighter material, but as is so often true with outdoor equipment, you’ll pay a lot more to get less.
Those with thick muscles and thin wallets can opt for the same aluminum-nylon paddle that has been used for decades by families, sixth-grade campers, and river rats on a budget. They are inexpensive ($20-80), and will readily withstand the abuse of being dropped on cement or forgotten behind the shed for a Northeast winter.
On the downside, these paddles are heavy (40 ounces or more) and generally come in only one basic design. If you’re reasonably serious about boating, consider investing in a fiberglass paddle ($200-300), which can be 25 percent lighter than a comparable aluminum-nylon model.
For the truly dedicated, a carbon-fiber paddle will shave off even more weight (down to as little as 22 ounces), but will also lighten your wallet ($400 and up). If you are a kayaker, decide if you want a paddle that separates into pieces. In addition to being more portable, these paddles allow you to adjust the angle of the blade to match your stroke style.
Two-piece paddles come apart at the center, while four-piece versions also separate at the base of the blades. Ferrules, or connection points, add anywhere from $15 to $150 to the price. While each ferrule requires added maintenance, these paddles can be just as durable as a standard one-piece. Regardless of which you choose, stowing a two-piece emergency paddle in your back hatch is always a good idea.
Flatwater and sea kayaking
Unlike in whitewater, flatwater paddlers provide their own forward power. To do so, most utilize a low-angle stroke style in which the blade touches the water well away from the sides of the boat. Paddle blades designed for this use are longer, thinner (approximately 15 x 50cm), and come with a lengthier shaft (typically 210–240cm depending on boat width).
All of these features help make paddling less work once you reach cruising speed, like fourth or fifth gear in your car. Narrower blades have less surface area, provide less bite in the water, and often feel less stable, but are lighter weight and generally easier to use. Mid-sized blades provide increased stability, but require more effort to move through the water.
Over the past few years, the spoon-shaped wing blade has risen on the scene (it looks something like a cupped hand, thumb on top). A wing feels less stable at first, and slightly alters your stroke, but can provide blistering speed. It’s popular with racers who will pay big bucks for a competitive edge ($300 and up).
If you prefer ripping down class 4 rapids and dodging boulders the size of Winnebagos, you’ll need a different type of paddle. Your stroke style is high angle, with the paddle swinging hard and fast right along the sides of your boat and the shaft positioned nearly perpendicular to the water. This technique provides short, powerful bursts of speed, like the low gear of your car. To pull the water comfortably, whitewater kayakers need a short paddle with large blades. Some models incorporate foam cores into the blades, which helps pop the paddle out of the water and accelerate your strokes.
Other styles feature a bent shaft, which zig-zags like a weight room curl bar. This design helps you achieve maximum power without lifting your hand off the paddle, and with less twisting of your upper body. It’s popular among those with shoulder injuries.
As with kayaking, canoe paddle blades can be long and thin for distance, short and fat for whitewater, or spooned for power. Graphite paddles are lighter, but devotees of wood paddles will tell you that they are less comfortable in your hand and aesthetically dull when compared to the grained beauty of ash, cherry, maple, or walnut. Some canoe paddles feature a bent shaft, which increases efficiency by lengthening your reach, providing more initial power, and eliminating wasteful upward movement.
They are less beneficial to the distance paddler, however, and preclude using a J-stroke. The next time you’re up a creek, remember that the right paddle can help get you home safely—shop wisely.
—Erik Vance leads kayaking trips in the San Francisco Bay Area.