Choosing a Paddle
By the time you've rented (or borrowed) a canoe a couple of times, you'll have begun to appreciate the importance of having a good, properly-fitted paddle. A good paddle is a magic wand, but a bad paddle—or a paddle that's too big or too small—is often little better than the piece of rough-sawn 2 x 4 that was my first blade.
Before we get started, however, we'd better be sure we're talking the same language. A paddle doesn't have as many parts as a canoe, but it's good to know their names, anyway.
What goes into making a paddle? Not much There are just three main components: a grip, a shaft, and a blade. That's it, though the picture's complicated a bit by the fact some folks use "blade" to mean "paddle." In practice, however, this is seldom a problem. Note that grip, shaft, and blade can all be carved from one plank (as was the case with my old 2 x 4) or crafted separately and then glued, pinned, or swaged together. And not all paddles have straight shafts. In some cases, the blade is set at a slight angle—typically 5-15 degrees—to the shaft. This increases the efficiency of the forward stroke, though at some small cost in efficiency elsewhere. Not surprisingly, bent-shaft or "hooked" paddles find favor with racers and people who take long trips in skinny canoes. They're not too popular with whitewater paddlers.
Of course there's more to most paddles than this. Many are wonders of composite engineering, lovingly built from laminates of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and fiberglass. Others are milled from wide planks of ash or birch. Still others—and these are probably the most common—are made by fitting molded plastic grips and blades to an aluminum shaft.
Choose the material to suit your taste and wallet. There are good paddles of every type—and bad paddles, too, unfortunately. Just what makes a good paddle? Easy. A good paddle is (1) light, (2) strong, (3) comfortable, and (4) cheap. Not surprisingly, no one paddle is going to be all these things. If you want both ultra lightweight and high strength, you'll have to give up "cheap." Plan on spending upwards of $100. If you can settle for middling lightweight, however, you'll find much less expensive choices.
Comfort is a personal thing. If you have small hands, you'll find that hanging on to a paddle with a fat grip or thick shaft is tiring. By the end of a long day, it may even be painful. The remedy? Try before you buy. Borrow or rent a variety of paddles until you find one you like. I prefer ash beavertails for most flat water paddling and heavy-duty fiberglass rock-crushers for whitewater. You may have other preferences. Always pay attention to comfort, though. Better a cheap and ugly paddle that feels good in your hand than a beautiful (and expensive) one that doesn't.
Speaking of "fit," there's more to fit than meets the hand. Paddles come in different sizes. The size given in the catalogs—it's almost always in inches, by the way, at least in American catalogs—is usually the overall length of the paddle (grip plus shaft plus blade). Unfortunately, paddle blades vary tremendously in size and shape, and the really important dimension is the length of the shaft. So be prepared to do a little arithmetic when you go shopping.
But how do you determine shaft length? If you've been paddling for a while, of course, you'll already know what it is. But what if you're just starting out?
No problem. Get a paddle—any paddle will do, so long as it's reasonable long. You can even use a piece of closet rod. Kneel on the carpet in your living room, and turn the paddle upside-down, placing the grip on the floor about six inches to the left of your left knee—or to the right of your right knee, if you prefer. Hold the shaft vertical, with your hands positioned about where you'd place them if your’re paddling. (You'll have to pinch the shaft with your upper hand. You obviously can't hold the grip!) Now move your upper hand up and down the shaft until your upper arm is more or less horizontal. When it is, have someone measure the distance from the floor to your upper hand. (Too shy to ask for help? Then just stretch a measuring tape along the shaft of the paddle and note where your hand falls.) This is your shaft length. Add it to the blade length of the paddle you've got your eye on and you'll have a reasonably good idea what size you need.
It's not quite this simple, of course. Solo paddlers in beamy boats will probably want a somewhat longer paddle. Paddlers in skinny canoes with low-mounted tractor seats may opt for something shorter. And paddlers who sometimes paddle while standing (fishermen, for example) may want a much longer shaft, though they'll probably switch to a shorter paddle when they sit or kneel. Still, the size you arrive at in your living room is a good starting point. Borrow or rent a few different paddles—some shorter, some longer—and see which you like best.
Once you have your paddle, you're ready to go up the creek. Don't forget a spare!
If you're thinking of buying a kayak, you already know that you'll need a double-bladed paddle. In fact, the double paddle has now become the badge of the kayaker. Still, there's no reason why canoeists can't use them, too. Nessmuk did, after all, and there's still no better way to move a pack canoe down a lake.
Just what is a double-bladed paddle, anyway? Put simply—you guessed it! It's just a shaft with a blade on each end. (I said it was simple!)
Most double-bladed paddles are feathered: the blades are offset by an angle between 45 and 90 degrees. This is done in order that the upper blade will cut cleanly through the air during the forward stroke and offer minimum windage. Well, maybe if you're an Olympic athlete, paddling into the wind in half a gale…. For the rest of us, though, feathering is a mixed blessing. It takes some getting used to, for one thing. You grip the paddle with your "control hand"—usually the right, even for southpaws—while allowing the shaft to rotate in the other, as you orient the blades to strike the water squarely. Until you get the knack, you'll find yourself trying to brace with the edge of your paddle from time to time. Still, we all need a little rescue and recovery practice, don't we?
More importantly, perhaps, the constant extension of the wrist that feathered blades require can predispose you to repetitive stress injury, or aggravate an old carpal tunnel problem if you already have one. Happily, newer paddles are usually offset less than 90 degrees. That's good as far as it goes, but the risk of injury remains, particularly on long tours. You'll have to make your own decision. Every paddle I've owned has been feathered, most of them a full 90 degrees, and I've never had a problem, even on week-long tours. Still, I can't say I see offset blades as offering any real advantage for most paddlers.
The best advice, as always, is to try both styles in a variety of conditions, and see which you like best. Since many doubles are jointed, or "break-down"—an eight-foot-long paddle is an awkward load to put in the back of a Ford Focus, after all—the same paddle can often be set up either way, feathered or unfeathered. This makes it easy to try both styles. Don't plan on switching back and forth to suit conditions, though. As you gain experience, you'll start thinking with your muscles. If you switch from a feathered paddle to an in-line paddle, it'll take your muscles a while to relearn old habits. In the meantime, chances are good that you'll blow a brace and go for an unplanned swim, usually just when it's least convenient. So try both styles early on, make your choice, and then stick with it.
Speaking of different styles: If you're planning on extended, open-water tours, take a look at Inuit-style paddles. They have long, skinny, unfeathered blades, and they're ideally suited to hard paddling in windy conditions. For folks with less ambitious goals, however, or folks who plan on doing some easy whitewater, the more common touring blades are probably better.
As is the case with canoe paddles, the ideal kayak paddle is (1) light, (2) strong, (3) comfortable, and (4) cheap. And, as with canoe paddles, no paddle will be ultra-light, super strong, and cheap. You'll have to decide what's most important to you, and what you can afford. Comfort is important to everyone, however. If you have small hands, and if your paddle shaft is too thick, you'll have difficulty hanging on. Boat control will suffer as a result, and long days on the water won't be any fun. A final consideration: shafts can be oval or round. Most people find oval shafts more comfortable.
The moral? Try before you buy.
And when buying, or borrowing, length matters. For some reason, even though canoe paddles are usually sized in inches, American catalogs give the lengths of kayak paddles in centimeters. No problem. 220- to 240-cm paddles (roughly, 7 to 8 ft long) are just right for most adults in most touring and recreational kayaks. The wider your kayak, all other things being equal, the longer your paddle should be. Paddlers in big folding doubles or inflatables will want something close to 250 cm (81⁄4 ft). Whitewater boaters, on the other hand, will go shorter, starting at 205 cm (63⁄4 ft) and moving down from there.
You've plenty of choice. The catalogs are full of paddles. Don't let this overwhelm you—you only need one. (There should always be at least one spare in every party, however.) Borrow or rent, then buy. Choosing a paddle isn't rocket science, but it's a very important decision. After your PFD, your paddle is the most important tool in your kit. It has to fit, and it has to suit both your boat and the kind of kayaking you want to do.