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Choosing the Perfect Touring Kayak Paddle

Forrest Wells // January 21, 2015

Your Kayak paddle is one of the most important pieces of equipment you will use. The average paddler will take around one thousand paddle strokes per mile so it is very important to ensure the paddle you are purchasing will allow you to enjoy your time on the water. Here are some things to consider.
 
Low Angle vs High Angle:
 
            Step one in the selection process is determining whether you are a low angle or a high angle paddler.  These terms refer to the angle of the shaft of the paddle in relation to the water.  To determine which “camp” you are in, next time you are paddling watch to see where your top hand goes.  If your top hand stays around shoulder height you are utilizing a low angle technique.  Low angle paddling is very efficient and commonly used when paddlers are covering long distances.  If your top hand is consistently around eye level you are utilizing a high angle technique.   Low angle paddles are longer, typically 220cm-240cm depending on paddler stature and the width of your boat.
 
High angle paddling uses a bit more energy but excellent for providing power and excellent when using a wide variety of strokes.  High angle paddles excel in dynamic paddling environments like the surf zone, tidal rapids, or rock gardens to name a few.  It is important to identify which “school” you are in because the blade shape for a low angle paddle is dramatically different than that of a high angle paddle.
 
Low Angle Blade Shape:  These blades are long and narrow and meant to be inserted into the water closer to parallel with the surface of the water.   Low angle is the most common paddling style, great for maintaining a smooth powerful stroke.
(Horizontal)

High Angle Blade Shape:  These blades are typically shorter and wider and meant to be inserted into the water closer to perpendicular in relation to the surface of the water.   Blade enters the water sooner, these blades also give the paddler a more powerful catch.
(Vertical)

 
Blade Shapes in General:
Most kayak paddles these days are defined as asymmetrical to keep the blade from fluttering when pulled through the water.  The asymmetrical designs works to distribute power or force even between the top half and the bottom half of the paddle to keep the blade from twisting.
 
Dihedral:  The ridge that runs down the center of the power face of the blade.  The dihedral acts as an usher of sorts, providing a path for the water to flow off the face of your blade.  Without it, water will gather in the center of blade and have nowhere to go, causing the blade to again flutter.    
 
Blade Size:
 
Once a paddler has chosen blade shape (high vs. low angle) the next thing to consider is the size of the blade measured in square inches.  Typically larger statured paddlers and paddlers with higher fitness levels will use blades that are a bit larger, while paddlers who are of smaller stature and or recreationally minded may find that going with a paddle with a smaller surface area suits their needs better.  The basic premise remains unchanged, the larger the blade the more water you can “pull”, but remember more water equals more resistance. 
 
Sizing Example:
Full Size High Angle Blades= 710 Square inches
            Paddlers of large stature and paddlers with high fitness
Mid Size High Angle Blades= 610 Square inches
            Great intermediate sizing for either large powerful paddlers or efficiency minded folks.
Mid Size Low Angle Blades= 650 Square inches
            Larger statured low angle paddlers
Small Size Low Angle Blades= 550 Square inches
            Smaller statured paddlers.
 
Paddle Materials (Blade and Shaft):
 
When talking materials it is important to clarify that paddles will sometimes have many different materials.  For example you may find a paddle with a carbon fiber shaft and fiberglass blades. 
 
Materials have a significant impact when it comes to the swing weight of the paddle.  Swing weight refers to how well the paddle is balanced, the lower the swing weight the less energy you will use to lift the blades.  Another way to think of swing weight is the amount of energy required to lift the blade out of the water and rotate the blade forward to the catch position.  Reducing the swing weight also allows for a faster transition between strokes.  In Short, lighter blades allow for paddling at a higher cadence that produces more even speed and makes the most effective use of energy.  Different materials will of course have a huge impact on swing weight; they will also have an impact on efficiency as a function of flex or rigidity.  In short, the more rigid a paddle is the more efficient it will be.
 
Plastic: Durable, Heavy, flexible, Lower Price Point
Aluminum: Heavy, Hard on your hands, flexible, Lower Price Point
Wood: Buoyant, Soft, Warm, Moderately Priced
Fiberglass: Low Swing Weight, Rigid, Moderate/High Price Point
Carbon Fiber: Lowest Swing Weight, Most Rigid, High Price Point
 
There are also many paddles on the market that will blend materials to give you, the consumer the “most bang for your buck”.  However know that there is a difference between published weights and swing weights.  Two different paddles may have the same published weights but different swing weights.  To test the swing weight of the paddle grab the paddle with one hand in the center of the shaft so the blades are equidistant from your hand, then rotate your wrist.  The paddle should be light and should feel well balanced.
 
Paddle Length:
 
We all know that kayaks and the folks who paddle them come in all different shapes and sizes.  When selecting the proper length for your paddle you need to take many things into consideration:
 
a.)Paddler Height
b.)Boat Width
c.)Paddling Style (low vs. high angle)
 
There are many size charts out that that combine all three of the previously mentioned topics and formulate a “fit”.  Note that these charts only “take into consideration the paddles overall length without taking into account the length of the blades or the distance of the shaft between them.”  Matt Broze
 
Several variables come into play when selecting shaft length.  The shaft must be long enough to allow the blade to be completely buried in the water without hitting the side of the boat when starting the stroke.  A longer paddle will move the kayak further with each stroke but will cost more energy to do so.  A longer paddle will also allow the paddler to maintain an effective cruising speed with less effort and allow the paddler to extend the blade further from the side of the kayak when executing the sweep stroke (turning stoke).   The goal is to find the best length that will suit the paddler to be the most efficient when cruising with your specific paddling style.
 
Shorter paddles will force the paddler to raise their top hand to get the paddle entered into the water completely without coming in contact with the side of the kayak.  This will bring blade in closer to the boat minimizing yaw, or the movement of the bow from side to side with every stroke.  It is also safe to say that all other variables being equal shorter paddles have a lower swing weight and are more rigid allowing for a quicker response time and immediate feedback.
 


Conclusion:
 
The point of this discussion was to provide you with some food for thought for the next time you go out for a paddle.  Try and think of some of the things discussed in this short little blurb and know that there is never a black and white, right or wrong configuration when selecting a paddle.  The important thing to remember that a lot of these topics are “feel” based therefore completely subjective and going to change from person to person, so get out there and experiment!  Try longer paddles and try shorter paddles with varying cadences.  Try long skinny blades and try short stubby blades, you may be surprised at what you find.
 
Please feel free to contact us with any questions regarding paddle selection at 360-297-4659

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Forrest Wells
Forrest Wells

Author

Forrest is a BCU 4 star paddler, ACA open water advanced instructor, ACA SUP instructor, Alaska Kayak Guide and has his 200 ton Master's ship license. In addition to keeping the KPS ship headed in the right direction and running efficiently, he is an avid outdoorsman and kayak/SUP racer. He also helps coach water polo, plays a mean guitar and can cook up a tasty oyster on the half-shell.



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