Choosing a Sea Kayak Paddle by
--The paddle is your most immediate connection to the water.
It is as important to you as the paintbrush is to the artist. And,
even more so. Someday your life may depend upon it.
Some paddlers I know have gone out and purchased their paddle several
weeks or even months purchasing their first boat. This is a great
idea if it means more time, consideration, and financial resources
are devoted to this extremely important piece of your kayaking "kit." The
point is that your paddle should not be purchased as an afterthought,
when you are suffering buyer's remorse, or after your budget has already been
busted. And while some outfitters will give a good deal on a paddle
when / after you purchase a kayak, you might want to at least research paddle
options beforehand -- and have one picked out by the time
you purchase your boat.
A common recommendation is that you buy the lightest paddle you can afford --
you will not regret it. A lighter,
more efficient paddle will immeasurably enhance your kayaking experience. If
you have to skimp somewhere, skimp a little on the boat rather than out of the
paddle. (Most $240.00 paddles are dramatically better than most $140.00 paddles.
The average $2400.00 boat is only marginally better than the average $2300.00
boat). You lift your paddle thousands of times each hour and its the source of
your most immediate contact with the water. Kayaking with a good paddle versus
a clunker is like the difference between jogging in lightweight running shoes
and hiking boots. Over the long term, if I had to choose, I would rather paddle
a heavy plastic boat with a good paddle than a sleek glass boat with a clunker
A recommendation I often make is to buy your backup paddle first and your primary
paddle later. If you plan to take trips of more than an hour and venture more
than a few minutes from shore, you should plan to include a spare paddle as part
of your gear. And if you're open to purchasing a second paddle within 12 months,
it often makes sense to purchase a less expensive paddle that will later become
your spare paddle first. This will give you additional time to develop your technique,
research your options, and determine and refine your preferences.
||Paddles, from left, All
paddles pictured are aymmetical in overall shape: (1) flat
plastic blade with centerline rib, fiberglass shaft; (2) plastic
spoon blade, fiberglass shaft; (3) fiberglass blade,
fiberglass shaft; (4) graphite
blade, fiberglass shaft; (5) carbon
blade with dihedral face, carbon shaft; (6)
carbon wing blade, carbon shaft.
When purchasing a paddle, whether it is to be a primary paddle or
a spare, these are the decisions you should consider, in order of
(1) 1-Piece vs. 2-Piece:
Two-piece paddles have a joint in the middle of the shaft and thus
can be taken apart for transportation or storage. If you are purchasing
a paddle to be used as a spare, this is the way to go. If you
are not yet sure whether you prefer to paddle feathered or unfeathered
or are concerned that some feather angles may be hard on your
wrists, a 2-piece paddle may be the way to go. Otherwise, you
should strongly consider a 1-piece paddle because the absence of
the joint results in the following advantages:
- 1-piece paddles are slightly lighter and slightly stronger
- 1-piece paddles never develop a loose joint
- 1-piece paddles do not need to be rinsed after use in salt
water and are less likely to need maintenance
- 1-piece paddles have a more consistent flex along the length
of the shaft
One-piece paddles are not adjustable in terms of feather angle,
but if you are just learning, it is as easy to learn to paddle
feathered as it is to paddle unfeathered. Choose a 60 degree feather
angle and go with it. (See article
on feathering for more information.)
One-piece paddles may be a bit more difficult to transport on
or in your vehicle, but chances are if you can transport and store
a kayak, you can transport and store a one-piece paddle. If you
will be taking your paddle on airlines, backpacking with your
paddle, or competing in adventure races, you might consider a
3, 4, or 5-piece paddle, which are now available from several
The most common materials for paddles (in order of increasing cost
and decreasing weight) are aluminum, plastic, fiberglass,
and carbon (also called graphite). Low end paddles are often
plastic blades with aluminum shafts. Top end paddles have carbon
fiber blades and carbon fiber shafts. Mid-range paddles usually
have plastic of fiberglass blades and fiberglass shafts.
Aluminum shafts are strong and stiff but comparatively heavy.
Aluminum also conducts cold, which is a major consideration
if you paddle where the air or water temperatures are below 60
degrees. Fiberglass shafts are reasonably stiff, strong, and light
-- and are the most common. Carbon shafts are extremely stiff
and light, resulting in more efficient stroke, and for this reason
are preferred by those who race or paddle long distances. The
stiffness of carbon shafts makes them less durable, however --
carbon shafts can break if put under too much pressure.
Plastic blades are relatively thick and have thicker edges. Many
plastic blades have relatively more flex. These factors result
in a less crisp and efficient stroke. Use of fiberglass and carbon
allows construction of blades that are stiffer and thinner, although
less durable. Carbon blades, especially, are can develop nicks
or chips around the edges if whacked off too many rocks. For many
paddlers, a fiberglass blade represents a good compromise of strength,
stiffness, durability, weight, and price.
Note: companies such as Aquabound sell paddles with "carbon" blades
that are actually plastic blades with some carbon content. In
thickness and weight, these blades more resemble a plastic blade
than a carbon one. A true carbon blade is made of carbon cloth
that has been saturated in resin -- no plastic.
Wood paddles are an option some might want to consider.
Most wood paddles are have both wood shaft and blades. Wood paddles
are generally somewhat heavier than midrange synthetic paddles;
however they provide the nice feel and flex of wood. Personally
I haven't found a Euro-style paddle made of wood that is light
enough for me to want to put it to daily use. (Greenland style
paddles are shorter and lighter -- and will be the subject of
a future article).
Paddle length can be very complicated or very simple. Let's start
with the simple. Most people can happily and efficiently paddle
most touring kayaks with a 220 cm paddle.
Not so long ago, it was common to recommend 230 cm paddles
-- which are about 4 inches longer than I an recommending. If
you are paddling a tandem kayak, recreational kayak or other kayak
wider than 24 inches you may want to go with a 225 or 230 cm paddle.
The same applies if you are taller than 6'4" or so. (240 cm paddles
are beasts. Avoid them if possible!) If you are a smaller person,
if you paddle a boat narrower than 22 inches, or if you prefer
a more vertical stroke, you may want to go with a 215 cm paddle.
Many old school adherents are still recommending paddles longer
than the guidelines I've provided above. However, the thinking
on paddle length has changed in the last 5 to 10 years -- and
it makes a lot of sense when you consider the following:
- when you are seated in your kayak, you can put your hands
out and touch the water, no matter how tall you are. Being taller
doesn't necessarily mean you need a longer paddle -- and may
even allow you to use a shorter one.
- the width of your kayak is the biggest determinant of paddle
length. If your kayak is between 21 and 24 inches in width with
a reasonably sloped deck, you will likely be happy with a paddle
in 220 cm range. For a wider boat, you may want to go with a
paddle that is 5 to 10 cm longer.
- Paddling style is the second most important factor to consider.
A shorter paddle encourages a more vertical paddling style (shaft
at 45 degree angle while blade is in the water). This high angle
style is more efficient because the paddle stroke is closer
to the boat, where more of the energy is transferred into propelling
the boat forward rather than pushing the bow from side to side.
A shorter paddle also results in a more efficient stroke because
it creates a shorter lever arm. (A longer
lever arm requires more force for each stroke). Most people
find they prefer using a shorter paddle once they try one. Personally,
I am 5'11" (with fairly long arms) and use a 215 cm paddle
to paddle boats with beams ranging from 21 inches to 24 inches.
Still not convinced? See an article
on paddle length for more
Paddle weight is key and would be listed earlier except that to
a great extent it is influenced by the factors above. . Personally
I would not choose to paddle more than a few minutes with a paddle
weighing over 36 ounces. (Somehow manufacturers find buyers for
paddles that far exceed this weight.) 32 ounces is a good target
weight for a primary paddle. I've used carbon paddles as light
as 16 ounces -- and yes there is a tremendous difference. You
lift your paddle with each stroke and so the difference of a couple
of ounces is multiplied thousands of times over the course of
a paddling day. A paddle that falls at or under the 32 ounce target
usually means carbon or fiberglass -- and a length of 220
cm or shorter. The joint adds one or two ounces and so this is
another reason to go with a one piece paddle.
(5) Blade shape
Choices in blade shape include symmetrical versus asymmetrical (describes
overall shape) and flat, dihedral, spooned, and wing (describes
cross section shape).
Most good touring blades are asymmetrical for the simple reason
that the blade is placed in the water at an angle -- and the additional
surface area at the outer tip and above the blade's midrib compensates for
the fact that some of the surface area above the midrib and on
the inside edge of the blade is usually not buried in the water.
Asymmetry creates balance in this case!
Spoon and wing blades make
for a powerful forward stroke but are not as versatile for the
variety of strokes, braces, and rolls that kayak touring requires.
Therefore, I recommend most beginning paddlers start with a flat
or dihedral blade, each of which has distinct advantages. A good
"flat" blade is curved lengthwise but is relatively flat from
top edge to bottom edge. This creates a versatile paddle with
good power for forward stroke as well as high and low braces.
A dihedral blade is divided lengthwise into 2 planes, with a crease
along the horizontal midline of blade. The dihedral shape provides
good control and reduces any chance of fluttering. However, the dihedral
results in a loss of power for the forward stroke and for bracing,
since the angled planes of the dihedral help the water slip off
the blade. More details and diagrams in Hank Hayes' article
on blade shape.
(6) Blade size
A touring blade suited for a low-angle touring stroke is typically
20 inches long and 6 inches wide. For a higher angle stroke, you
might want to choose a slightly shorter blade (18 or 19 inches)
that is also wider (7 inches). A bigger blade with more surface
area is good for quick acceleration and bursts of speed. A smaller
blade with less surface area is good for all day touring. In general,
a bigger person with more upper body strength would choose a larger
blade. However, the weight and width of the boat should also be
factored in -- a big strong person paddling a fully loaded tandem
kayak might prefer a smaller blade than
the same paddler in an unloaded single kayak. It all depends how
much resistance you are encountering. Stepping down in blade size
is like gearing down on a bicycle -- it allows you to maintain
a faster cadence and thus stay at nearly the same speed while
experiencing less fatigue.
(7) Other considerations:
If your hands are significantly smaller than average, you might
want to consider a paddle with a smaller diameter shaft. Drip
rings are a plus if you paddle in cold water and or relatively
calm conditions -- as they help keep your hands and spray skirt
dry. If you paddle in warm conditions or in rough water, drip
rings are probably not that much of a benefit.