What Paddle is for me???

An often written about topic in the paddling world is picking the right kayak to suit your needs, what however is seldom written about is the thing you use to push that same craft around in the water – the humble paddle.

This is without a doubt a topic that could fill many pages, however in this article I’ll just discuss the most important considerations for next time you are faced with choosing a new paddle for your pride and joy.

Before getting started its worth going over the main parts of a kayak paddle and what their purpose is.

Firstly, the business end of a paddle is called a blade.  It’s the bit you put in to the water and use to pull you forward on your kayak.  It’s an often-misunderstood concept with paddling that the blade is actually designed to lock in the water so that you can pull the kayak past it!  Picture that in your mind next time you paddle.  On most paddles the blades are not parallel with each other and will be offset by an angle, usually 65 degrees, to reduce the wind effect on the blade that is out of the water.

Next is the shaft, the bit you hang on to that keeps the 2 blades apart.  How long that shaft is and how much flex it has are very important to paddle design.  But more on that later.

On most good paddles the area on the shaft under your right hand should be an oval shape or have an insert called a locater attached to the back of the shaft.  This oval section is to allow the paddler to locate the right blade of their paddle at right angles to the water and to rotate the shaft to align the left blade when it strikes the water.

The last items you will commonly see on good paddles are drip rings.  These small rubber rings are positioned close to where the blade and shaft meet and are designed to keep water from running off your blade and into your lap.  Because let’s face it, nobody wants a wet lap!

Length of the Paddle

The length of your paddle is determined by 3 factors; the physical size of the paddler, the width of the kayak and his or her paddling style.  It goes without saying if you are a burly 6’ 3” bloke and paddling a large fishing sit on kayak around in the bay, you are probably going to use a much longer paddler than a 5’2” lady paddling her racing kayak on the river.

The average paddle length is usually around 218 cm long from tip of blade to tip of blade, adjustments for height (or more importantly arm span) of the paddler and width of the craft they are paddling will add or subtract from this.  Typically, the range is from 205cm up to 225cm for 90% of the population.  Whilst 20cm doesn’t seem a lot, it can make a lot of difference if you are paddling your kayak all day.

The other factor which comes into play is paddling style.  Here paddlers will talk about high angle and low angle paddling styles.  In simple terms they are describing how high they hold their top hand whilst paddling and what angle the paddle is in relation to the surface of the water.  A high angle style is a more aggressive and powerful stroke used in racing or faster, shorter duration paddling, a low angle style is a more relaxed and passive stroke used for recreational or longer duration paddling.  Paddlers using a high angle style will typically have a paddle length 5 cm shorter than a low angle style paddler.

Blade Shape

The business end of the paddle is obviously very important when choosing a paddle and as with length is largely dependent on the paddling style used.

One thing that is common with both is the benefit of having an asymmetric shaped blade.  In simple terms this means that the shape of the paddle blade is different above and below the longitudinal centre line of the paddle.  If you refer to the diagram of a paddle in the water you will notice that the area above and below the centreline of the blade is roughly equal.  This is done so that there is little or no twisting of the shaft in a paddlers hand as the blade moves in the water.

Both high angle and low angle style paddles will incorporate this asymmetric design in their blades, although the shape will vary slightly to accommodate the angle at which the paddle is designed to enter the water.  High angle paddles will tend to have a shorter and wider paddle blade as the paddle is being held at an angle closer to vertical.  The blade does not need to be as long to achieve an effective depth in the water.  Low angle paddles will be longer and narrower as the blade needs extra length to ensure the centre of effort is deep enough in the water to be effective.  Both styles of paddle will have a similar surface area, just presented to the water in a slightly different way.

For recreational paddlers I advise using a low angle paddle unless you are paddling a large kayak that needs strong steering strokes or are a paddler that likes to go everywhere fast!

Material of Construction

The old adage you get what you pay for is generally true when it comes to paddle construction.  What you are paying for with paddles is lightness and stiffness.  The lighter and stiffer a paddle blade is, the easier it is to swing it all day and the more efficient it is at propelling your craft through the water.

Shaft material is usually a choice between fibreglass and aluminium.  Fibreglass whilst being a more expensive choice has the advantage of being lighter and more flexible.  Flex in a paddle shaft is seen as beneficial as it can prevent strain injuries and provides ‘feel’ of the blade in the water.

Blade material is typically a choice between plastic and fibreglass, although carbon fibre is fast becoming a viable third alternative.  As with shaft material, increasing price relates to decreasing weight.

A plastic blade whilst being cheap and relatively robust will be heavier and flex more than a comparable fibreglass blade.  Fibreglass as the middle ground offers lighter weight, improved stiffness, good strength but with a penalty on cost.  Finally, carbon fibre offers significant improvement in stiffness and reduction in weight but comes with a heavy cost penalty.

Most recreational paddlers would start out with a paddle that has plastic blades and an aluminium shaft.  As their paddling journey continues and the length of time they spend on the water increases, this will usually mean they gravitate towards a fibreglass shaft with either a more refined plastic blade or a one made from fibreglass.  My advice to new paddlers is to consider that length of time they spend on the water and select an appropriate paddle material to suit.  Generally speaking this is a fibreglass shaft with reasonable quality plastic asymmetric blades.

As with any purchase, you can’t beat face to face advise.  If you are buying a paddle for the first time or looking for a serious upgrade to your current blade, you should head to your nearest paddling shop and chat to the staff there for advice.  Natureline Australia operate a Showroom at Murarrie and would be delighted to help match a paddle to your individual style.  Call us on 07 33904106 or check out our website at www.natureline.com.au.

Happy paddling