Let’s get moving, paddles and propulsion
Part Five: Selecting your paddle
Selecting your paddle
This is one in a series of
staff writer Graham Jaehnig’s
personal experiences as a beginner kayaker.
After you have selected your kayak and your life preserver, the next item which may cause confusion is a kayak paddle. Conducting an online search to help in learning which is the “best paddle for me” can only add to that confusion.
The simple fact is that for recreational kayaking, expensive, high-end paddles are usually far more than the average paddler needs. Prices range between $30 to several hundred dollars for a paddle, but most recreational kayakers will be fine with the lower priced items.
Prices vary depending on the materials used in making the paddle, but in the end, all paddles perform the same basic function: they enable the kayaker to propel the boat through the water.
Understanding the basic parts of a paddle can make choosing what is best for you a bit easier, so we will first look at the individual components that comprise a paddle.
There are the paddle blades, drip guards and the shaft, as shown in the diagram above. First, we will look at the blade.
Paddle blades are almost always shaped roughly like a spoon. The face of the blade is most often the side of the blade that will display the manufacturer’s name or logo. That side is referred to as the Power Face.
When paddling, make sure that the manufacturer name or logo is at the top side of the paddle and facing you. The curvature of the blades is designed to increase the amount and force of your stroke so that the blade catches and pushes more water, which propels the kayak forward with less work to the paddler.
The very outside edge of the blade is the tip; the opposite end, at the point at which the paddle narrows to the point it attaches to the shaft, is called the throat. On the back side of the blade, the non-power face, is a raised line through the center, called the paddle spine. Near the blade’s throat is what is called a drip ring. The drip ring is there to catch any water that will run off the blade and down the throat, preventing it from running down the shaft and onto your hands and down your arms.
The paddle is actually two pieces that can be joined and taken apart in the middle of the shaft. At the point they join is the option to adjust the shaft so that one paddle is set at a different angle from the other for a paddling technique called feathering. Adjusting the opposing paddles so that one is in the power stroke and pushing water toward the stern of the kayak, the other paddle is adjusted to slice through the air, reducing wind resistance. Feathering requires a constant twisting of the paddle from the wrists and takes a while to get used to. I have experimented with feathering myself and found that personally, it did not improve the performance of the paddles and I don’t paddle fast enough to worry whether the face of the upward paddle is meeting wind resistance.
The wide price range of kayak paddles, as stated, is mainly due to the materials. As REI.com points out, while lightweight materials improve the performance of the paddle, they add to the paddle’s price. Lower-priced paddles consist of a plastic blade and an aluminum shaft. Higher-priced paddles can be made with fiberglass blades and a fiberglass shaft, or a nylon blade with a carbon shaft.
REI Co-op points out that “because you raise your blade higher than your shaft, lightweight materials there pay off in greater fatigue reduction. Different blade materials also differ in how well they transfer energy to your stroke.”
There are paddles for high-angle paddling and for low-angle paddling. Low-angle paddles, like that in the illustration, have longer, narrower blades and are shorter on one side than the other. Wider blades allow the paddler to accelerate more quickly. There are notches in the shorter side of the blades, near the throat of one set of paddles that I use. The notches are designed to help anglers to retrieve snagged fishing lures and fishing lines.
In the end, for most kayaks, especially people new to kayaking, the plastic and aluminum paddles in the low price range are fine and work just as well as $300 paddles. When shopping for paddles, no matter the materials or price, two things to keep in mind are your height and the width of your kayak. Nearly all online sites agree on the following for low-angle paddles:
• For people five feet to five feet, six inches tall, with a kayak 28-32 inches wide, look for a paddle that is 220 centimeters (7. 21 feet) long.
• For people who are 5′ 6″ to 6′ tall, with a 28-32 inch-wide kayak, the paddle length increases to 230 cm.
• For people over 6′ with a 28-32-in wide kayak, the paddle length increases another 10 cm to 240.
REI recommends that people who fall between two sizes should opt for a shorter paddle.
“Either size would probably work,” says the website, “but you’ll save a few ounces with a shorter paddle. If you’re proportioned with a shorter torso, though, then the added reach will come in handy and you should go with the longer paddle.”
• For more detailed information on different paddles, types, materials, strokes and lengths, the illustrated REI Co-op webpage on the topic is:
• The United States Coast Guard has partnered with Paddling.com to produce short videos that illustrate proper gear, equipment, strokes, trip planning, recovering from a capsize and how to
call for help. The videos can be found and viewed at: