A good paddle increases enjoyment...
Photo courtesy of magoo_ns
Kayakers develop a special relationship with their paddle that's
a little different from what they share with their boat. A paddle
is an extension of your arms, an intimate tool, a trusted friend.
But what makes a good paddle, what are the things to look for?
Like many things in life you get what you pay for. The
investment in a good paddle can definitely increase your enjoyment.
The following points will help you decide which paddle is right for
Sea kayak paddles are generally longer than their whitewater
cousins. While a whitewater paddler might use a paddle 216
centimeters long on the river, the same paddler would probably be
happier with a 220-centimeter paddle on the sea. This is because
the sea kayaker principally has to forward paddle rather than use
the multitude of whitewater strokes. The longer the paddle the more
forward drive you can deliver— but the price is more strain
on the arms. The strain comes through having to push more paddle
through the air as you move along. If it's windy, the effect is
amplified and a longer paddle will be far more difficult and tiring
to use than a shorter one.
Most paddles that are sold as sea kayaking paddles are between
218 and 226 centimeters. If you're tall and strong, opt for a
longer paddle, if you're shorter or haven't done that much paddling
go for a smaller one. If unsure, go shorter rather than longer, as
you have to be able to control your paddle at the end of a long,
windy day just as much as at the start.
There are basically three categories of material for the paddle
shaft: alloy/aluminum, fiberglass and carbon. If you plan on
paddling any distance, go for a "softer," lighter fiberglass or
carbon paddle. The aluminum and alloy paddles have stiffer shafts,
which makes for a more powerful paddle because the force you apply
is directly transferred to the water. This is good if you're a
sprint racer where you want every bean of energy to be transferred
to the water and forward motion. The downside is that your arms
will tire quicker and it raises your chance of developing
The principle difference between the fiberglass and carbon
shafts (apart from price) is one of strength, with the carbon
shafts being stronger. With the more expensive carbon paddles you
can order different shaft stiffness depending on how strong a
paddler you are.
Blade area and material
Bigger blades have more bite and, with more surface area in the
water, render greater power. Of crucial importance for the Sea
kayaker, however, is how much blade area you are going to have
exposed should a strong wind pick up. A large blade will obviously
catch more wind and be more fatiguing to use. For this reason, even
if you are a strong paddler, you may find chopping down a few gears
and using a smaller blade gets you where you want to go in the same
amount of time but with arms at the end of your trip that are good
for another day's paddling.
Blade material ranges from plastic to reinforced nylon to
carbon. The plastic blades are heavier but reasonably
indestructible (and probably won't make you cry if you do break
one). Carbon Kevlar blades while tough are lighter and more brittle
than plastic thus requiring greater care (and will definitely make
you cry if you break one). For the weekend sea kayaker the
reinforced nylon is a good compromise between strength, weight and
Paddles designed with beginners in mind have blades set close to 80
degrees. This is because the wrist twisting action is a little
easier to get your head around than at lesser angles. However, once
you have got the hang of paddling you'll find lesser angles much
more comfortable. As with everything there's a compromise as the
lesser the angle the more air the blade will catch. Anything
between 65-70 degrees you'll find comfortable and practical to
If you are paddling any distance a split paddle is a must. Split
paddles detach in the middle allowing you to store them under the
bungy cord on the deck of your boat. If you lose your main paddle
you've got a spare. It is certainly worth buying at least a cheaper
paddle and using it as your spare split paddle.
For Sea kayaking I'm a fan of having my main paddle as a split
also. The Quiklok and Smart Shaft connections are strong and don't
rotate when you're paddling. Splits are so much more convenient
than non-split paddles. They easily fit into the trunk of your car
and, when you're camping in some windy bay for the night, can
easily be stored inside your kayak.
Alloy/plastic paddles, such as Quality Kayaks Safari paddle, start
at around $65.This makes them suitable for using with groups of
beginners where robustness is more important than comfort. From
there it moves up to around $135 for the first of the
glass-reinforced blades with fiberglass shafts. Beyond that for
carbon blades you're looking at $200 plus, moving into beautifully
crafted carbon kevlar wing blades at around $300.
Postscript—The Wing blade
Wing blades are to paddles what carvers are to skis; they feel so
good! Wing blades do take a little getting used to but after a
couple of sessions you'll never look back. They sit so much better
in the water and don't shimmy about when you put the power on. This
makes them much more efficient and the reason most racing paddlers
use them. The blades come in three sizes: small, medium and large,
and you can order whatever shaft length you want. Wings do have the
disadvantage that they tend to catch the wind a little more
(especially side winds), making the small size the most suitable
for sea kayakers. Also, you'll need to take a little more care when
bracing with a wing blade as their shape may trip you up.
Wings are more expensive and you don't see too many sea kayakers
using them, but for the weekend sea kayaker that's looking to
refine their paddling— try a wing blade!
Charles Graham is part of the Adventure Philosophy team.
Check out their website at www.adventurephilosophy.com.