The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a paddle is an “implement that has a long handle and a broad flattened blade and that is used to propel and steer a small craft”. It is probably worth adding that a paddle can have one or two blades and the preferred number of blades generally depends on the type of craft.
When the Inuit invented the kayak 4,000 years ago, they propelled it with a double-bladed paddle that was held in both hands and drawn backwards through the water on each side of the boat alternately. The double-bladed paddle is still used today by all kayakers, some canoeists, and a handful of stand up paddlers. There are three distinct types: European paddles, wing paddles, and the type used by the Inuit which are known as Greenland paddles.
European paddles consist of short but relatively wide blades at both ends of a long cylindrical shaft. Most European paddles have plastic or fibreglass blades and alloy or fibreglass shafts. They can also be made from lightweight, high-performance materials like graphite or carbon, but these are much more expensive and therefore not as popular. Wooden European paddles are hardly ever available commercially, but you can make your own.
The correct length of a European paddle is determined for each paddler and boat combination independently so that in the normal course of forward paddling the whole of each blade, and none of the shaft, is submerged without reaching or leaning back. Factors at play include the torso height of the paddler, the width of the boat, how high the boat sits in the water, and even how high the seat is in the boat. Despite what you may have heard, it isn’t possible to work out the right length simply by standing the paddle on its end and cupping your fully raised hand over the top.
Most recreational, touring, and sea kayakers use paddles between 214 and 220 centimetres in length. White water paddles tend to be less than 200 centimetres long. A longer paddle gives you more leverage and power, but a shorter paddle is easier to control and allows you to execute more dynamic strokes. Try a few to work out what suits you best, or better still, get a paddle with adjustable length.
If you can afford to pay a little extra, a fibreglass shaft is preferable to an alloy shaft. Fibreglass shafts are flexible and absorb the shock of your paddle strokes instead of transferring it directly to your body. They are also lighter. Alloy is a heat conductor so it gets very hot on hot days and very cold on cold days, although this can be alleviated by the use of shrink tubing in both hand positions.
All but the most basic of paddles have a raised bump or an oval shaft where the right-hand grips onto the shaft. This is called an index and it is designed to assist with hand positioning.
Some paddles are available with a split shaft. This means that the paddle can be broken in two when not in use, which is useful for transportation and storage or when you need to carry a spare with you on the boat.
The natural tendency is to go for bigger blades but you should think twice before automatically doing that. A larger blade gives you the potential for more power but it requires more effort per stroke so you may not be able to paddle as far. A smaller blade requires less effort, but it is not as powerful so more strokes are required to go the same distance.
For maximum efficiency, the entire tip of the blade should enter the water at the same time. Symmetrical blades have a square-shaped tip and asymmetrical blades have an angled tip with a shorter leading edge. A square tip works well on shorter paddles where the stroke is more upright and the blade enters the water almost vertically. Paddles designed for white water kayaking sometimes have symmetrical blades. An angled tip is better on longer paddles where the stroke is more horizontal.
Blades can be flat, but they usually have a power face and a back. The power face can be flat, cupped, or dihedral. Cupped blades are shaped like the head of a spoon to grip the water and provide power and stability for each stroke. Dihedral blades are raised in the middle and taper away at the sides. This helps water flow smoothly over the blade and decreases fluttering and twisting.
The blades on a European paddle are often set at different angles to each other. This is called feathering and it is used to reduce wind resistance. The most appropriate angle is dependent on the wind direction. It is possible to get paddles with adjustable feathering but 60 to 70 degrees is pretty standard and fine for most people.
Drip rings are a nice thing to have on a double-bladed paddle. These are rubber rings placed at each end of the shaft to stop water from the paddle blades from running onto your hands and into the boat.
Wing paddles are specialised European-style paddles designed for racing. The blades are cupped lengthwise and from side to side for less slippage and more power. With the right technique, the wing is also said to produce lift as it moves through the water, enabling the user to propel the boat further than with any other paddle. They are great for forward paddling but not as effective in other strokes like draws and braces. Wing paddles are usually made from graphite or carbon.
Greenland paddles are essentially the same as the paddles that were used by the Inuit. It is amazing and very cool that they are still around today.
The Greenland paddle is traditionally made of wood, although some carbon versions are now available. It consists of two long blades less than 10 centimetres wide joined in the middle by a comparatively short shaft known as a loom. There is no feathering of the blades and the loom is usually between one-quarter and one-third of the length of the paddle. Some Greenland paddles have a smooth transition from blade to loom, while others have a small shoulder at the transition point. There are also shorter versions called storm paddles that are designed for easy stowage and use in strong winds.
Determining the correct length for a Greenland paddle is a straightforward process. Your paddle should be an “arm span and a cubit” long. This is the breadth of your outstretched arms from fingertip to fingertip, plus the distance between your elbow and the tip of your index finger.
The technique used is much more compact than the European paddling style that most people are taught when they first learn to use a double-bladed paddle. The ends of the loom are gripped with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, with the remaining fingers placed on the blades. The longer Greenland paddles are held low in the lap with your arms hanging loose at the sides and your elbows bent forwards at right angles. As with European paddles, the power comes from torso rotation, but the elbows stay bent and the arms move backwards and forwards, rather than out in an arc. A storm paddle requires a “sliding stroke” in which the hands are moved from end to end to maximise the amount of blade in the water.
If you are handy in the workshop you might be able to make your own Greenland paddle using instructions published on the internet. Otherwise, there are several expertly made alternatives available from paddlesports retailers.
Single bladed paddles
Both canoes and SUPs are designed to be propelled with paddles that have a blade at one end and a handgrip at the other. The top hand holds the grip while the other pulls the blade through the water with the shaft. While some people use double-bladed paddles with canoes and SUPs, they are in the minority. The construction materials for single-bladed paddles are the same as double-bladed ones, but canoeists often prefer them to be made of wood.
Traditional canoe paddles are straight from end to end. They have no discernible front or back and can be used in either direction. Many modern blade designs have a clear power face and a back. There are also canoe paddles with bent shafts. These were once only the domain of marathon paddlers, but they have recently been making their way into everyday use. The blade on a bent shaft paddle is angled forward at about 14 degrees to provide more power at the start of the stroke and lift less water at the end.
As with double-bladed European paddles, the correct length of a canoe paddle is determined for each paddler and boat combination independently so that in the normal course of forward paddling the whole of the blade, and none of the shaft, is submerged without reaching or leaning back.
SUP paddles have much longer shafts because the paddler is standing rather than sitting or kneeling. For flatwater paddling, the correct length is paddler height plus 10 inches. For paddling in the surf, it is paddler height plus 8 inches. If you plan to SUP in both environments, or people of different heights will use your paddle, it is a good idea to get one with adjustable length.
SUP paddle blades are usually triangular in shape and flat across the bottom. They are angled forward from the shaft in the same way as a bent shaft canoe paddle and for the same reasons. A longer tapered blade is preferable for long-distance paddling while a short wide blade is better for catching waves.