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Choosing a Whitewater Kayak Paddle

When choosing a whitewater paddle your considerations are going to be a bit different than they would be if you were choosing a flat water paddle.  A whitewater paddle needs to be strong, durable and performance oriented.  In this discussion we are not only going to talk about using the paddles in the river but also in the surf and dynamic coastal environments such as tidal rapids.  Many paddlers use whitewater paddles for these “other” application because of their strength and rugged construction.
 
First let talk about some of the general considerations for the paddler and how they will effect your paddle selection. 
 
1.) Blade Shape: 
 
Whitewater paddles come in two basic shapes.  The first of which is commonly referred to as a River Runner.  These blades have a larger portion of the surface area above the center line of the blade.  This allows for an earlier more powerful catch there fore providing a more power oriented and efficient shape making them ideal for river running, creeking or coastal rock gardening.

River Runners

Werner Powerhouse Fiberglass Whitewater Kayak Paddle
The second Blade shape is commonly referred to as a Play Blade.  These blades have a larger portion of the surface area below the center giving the blade it’s down turned shape.  This shape allows for enhanced maneuverability when linking strokes.

Play Paddles

Werner Player Fiberglass Whitewater Kayak Paddle

2.) Blade Size
 
The size of the Blades will depend on a couple of things.  Are you a large or small stature paddler?  Would you consider yourself a fit paddler?  What type of boating will you doing the most of?
 
The answers to all of these questions should influence your size blade selection.  Most smaller stature paddlers will select midsize or smaller blade shapes, depending on fitness level and application as to not become worn out or injured.  Larger Stature paddlers may want to go with a midsize or full blade depending on fitness level and application.  Larger blades are a bit more work but provide more power and stability and are often used by creek boaters. Most river runners elect to go with midsize blades to maximize efficiency.  There is an upside to a full size blade.  These blades will enact change to your boat quicker and will provide more surface area when using stabilizing strokes like the low and high braces.  In short, make sure you are selecting a shape that is both suited for your stature and application.

Mid Size Blades

Full Size Blades
 
3.) Materials
 
Whitewater paddles are broken into a couple of different parts, the blade and the paddle shaft being the most prominent.  As we discussed earlier a whitewater paddle needs to be strong, durable and efficient.  The materials that make up your blades and shaft will have a direct effect on all of the above.  Please, note that many manufacturers will combinations of materials.
 
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
 
Additionally some manufactures like Werner Paddles, are coring their performace blades with foam.  In the whitewater surf and coastal applications a foam cored blade provides extra flotation to aid in bracing and rolling.  They also provide an advantage in those aerated environments.

4.) 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 

*paddling style as it applies to length in whitewater is more about the cadence your prefer to paddle.  In the more dynamic environments like the river or the surf some folks prefer to use a shorter paddle that will be better suited for a higher stroke rate, thus keeping the blades in the water for more time giving you even more control. 

River Running

Paddler Height Paddle Length
4'8" - 5'2"
(142 - 157cm)
191cm
5'2" - 5'8"
(157 - 173cm)
194cm
5'8" - 6'
(173 - 183cm)
197cm
6' - 6'3"
(183 - 191cm)
200cm

6'3" and Taller

203cm
Play Boating

 

Paddler Height Paddle Length
4'8" - 5'2"
(142 - 157cm)
188cm
5'2" - 5'8"
(157 - 173cm)
191cm
5'8" - 6'
(173 - 183cm)
194cm
6' - 6'3"
(183 - 191cm)
197cm

6'3" and Taller

200cm

Chart provided by Werner Paddles

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
.
STANDARD AND SMALL DIAMETER SHAFT

Choosing the proper shaft size (diameter of the shaft) for your hands assures a more comfortable experience on the water. You'll maintain a lighter grip for better technique, allowing better control and reduced fatigue. Measure your hand size by placing a ruler at the base of your hand (at the joint of your wrist) and measuring to the tip of your middle finger. If you measure smaller than 6.5" we suggest small shaft. Longer, go to our standard shaft. Paddlers with shorter, thicker fingers also gravitate to small shaft.

Straight Shaft vs Bent Shaft:

This descision is based entirely in the realm of ergonomics and good technique.  In our opinion there is no performance advantage gained when using a bent shaft paddle.  The Bent shaft acts to help you keep your wrist inline through out the various strokes.  For paddlers who spend a lot of time in their boat this is definitely a worth while investment to protect the wrists.

Learn more about the advantages of a Bent Shaft from Werner Paddles in the video below:

5.) 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 Bent Shafts, Try Straight Shafts, find out what feels best and works best for you!
 
Please feel free to contact us with any questions regarding paddle selection at (360) 297-4659.
 
Forrest Wells
Kayak Pro Shop