As kayakers gain skill and experience, their paddling stroke technique improves, and they commonly upgrade to higher performance kayaks. When you make such changes, it’s time to shop for a new paddle too.
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a kayak paddle. Your body build, the width and height of your kayak, your forward stroke technique (high vs. low angle), and personal preferences all interact in determining what length and style paddle will be most efficient and best for you. Someone who only kayaks for fitness or race training will choose a different paddle than someone who likes to explore coastlines or paddle in surf and rock gardens. If you haven’t got a clue what paddle to buy, we recommend taking a lesson such as our “SK 101" or "Paddle Strokes & Rescue Techniques” course which gets the experience needed to choose your first paddle. As you learn these skills, you will begin to feel the differences between various paddle designs, and with that ability to feel the difference, you’ll be able to tell which paddles are right for you. If you can’t take such lessons before buying your first paddle, don’t buy the most expensive paddle. On the other hand, don’t buy something so cheap and heavy that it will ruin your fun and slow your learning. We recommend choosing a decent all around two-piece paddle with the intention of making it your spare paddle after you’ve had enough time in a kayak to form an opinion on what paddle you really like. If you venture beyond sheltered waters, it’s prudent to carry a spare paddle for safety, and in case you ever need to use it, it’s nice to have a spare that isn’t a real clunker.
K.A. Buyer's Guide to Sea Kayak Paddles
The following is an in-depth Buyer's Guide to Sea Kayak Paddles to help you decide which paddle is best for you. If all this leaves you more confused than ever, call us and we will help you choose a paddle. At the Kayak Academy, we carry a large selection of paddles to meet every kayaker's needs.
For kayak paddles marketed to adults, the total surface area of the paddle blades does not vary much from one sea kayak paddle to the next (for example, a Werner Shuna has 610 sq. cm while their biggest blade, the Corryvrecken has 710 sq. cm). Yet for people who regularly go out and paddle fast for exercise, even these subtle differences in blade size have noticeable effects. When paddling hard with a relatively small sized blade, strong kayakers can feel the loss of power due to the blade slipping aft as they pull on it. A less strong paddler may pull on this same paddle with all their might and never feel the blade slip any more than a bigger blade would for them. In that case, the less strong paddler won’t go any faster with bigger blades. In fact the bigger blades will add weight to the paddle making it more fatiguing, and using excessively big blades may be hard on your shoulders too. On the other hand, the strong paddler might be able to go faster, brace more powerfully to stay upright in rough water, and find it easier to roll with larger blades.
In comparison to most traditional arctic kayak paddles (which are beyond the scope of this guide), almost all modern (“Euro”) style paddles have short, wide blades. However, even among Euro paddles there is a significant amount of variation in the ratio of blade length to width. Although an expert can do anything with any paddle regardless of its shape blade, wide blades tend to be more forgiving of mistakes when bracing and turning. By “forgiving”, I mean the blade is less likely to dive and cause you to capsize if you make a slight error in the blade angle for the stroke. For similar reasons, wide blades also tend to make rolling easier. So we generally recommend touring paddles with blades that are at least seven inches wide. On the other hand, if you avoid kayaking in rough conditions and don’t plan to learn to roll, then paddles with long, narrow blades (called, “low angle paddles) will work fine too, and they are a little gentler on the shoulders.
Several other blade shape factors besides width contribute to a paddle’s overall tendency to dive or not when you make an error with your blade angle. Practically all (Euro) sea kayak paddles blades are curved (concave on the side normally facing aft) -- some more than others. A little bit of curvature may reduce the splash as the paddle enters the water, however, the more curved a blade is, generally the less forgiving it will be. Practically all sea kayak paddles are asymmetric (angled at the tip). Without this asymmetric angle, the lower corner of the blade would enter the water first in a forward stroke, and this would result in the paddle tending to spin in your hand. If the asymmetry is well matched to your stroke style (i.e. high vs. low angle forward stroke technique), you will get equal water pressure on both sides of the blade during the planting of your paddle, and this reduces the tendency of the paddle to twist in your hand. At low speed these effects are so small it is hard to feel them at all, but when sprinting they become real. However, the more asymmetric the blade the less forgiving it will be. So for most people we generally recommend paddles with blades that are somewhat wide, not too concave, and not extremely asymmetric. This pretty well describes all the sea kayak paddles we sell (except by special order for folks who are sure they want something else).
The best way to see if a paddle is forgiving or not is to walk out into thigh deep water and do some sculling high braces and sculling draw strokes with it. Try closing your eyes and loosening your grip while testing this. Feel what blade angle the paddle seeks without forcing it not to dive. Some paddles dive as soon as you relax, others seem to find the correct blade angle all on their own. If you’re gutsy, you can do this in a kayak instead of standing in the water, but you may end up capsizing if you test a paddle that is not forgiving.
For sea kayakers and kayak anglers, the taller and wider the front of your kayak is, the longer the shaft of your paddle needs to be in order for you to be able to reach into the water for an efficient forward stroke. Note I said nothing about how tall you are. Although in a perfect world, smaller people would chose lower and narrower kayaks -- in which case there would be some correlation between a person's size and the length of the paddle that works best for them, but in reality it's more complicated.
A decade or so ago it was common for sea kayakers to use extremely long paddles (235 – 260cm long paddles in 23” beam one-person sea kayaks). For kayak anglers using Sit-On-Top (SOT) kayaks these lengths are about right. Then about ten years ago the pendulum swung to the other extreme (205 – 210cm long paddles in 23” beam one-person kayaks). The former made it difficult to sprint, and the later makes it hard to turn (especially in wind). Over time, an excessively short paddle can lead to shoulder impingement problems if you paddle long distances. For most one-person sea kayaks in the 21” – 23” beam range, a good all around paddle length will be about 215cm to 225cm respectively. As hinted at above, this is true regardless of the paddler’s height. If you use extremely low angle forward stroke technique, add about 5cm to the above. If you use extremely high angle forward stroke technique, subtract about 5cm. For two-person sea kayaks, paddle lengths of 225 – 235cm are typical, again depending on the height and width of the kayak. Most double sea kayaks are too wide to use a very high angle stroke technique, so there is less individual variation in paddle length for doubles than with single kayaks. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, for two-person kayaks it is best to have both paddles be the same length and style. If one paddler in a double is stronger than the other, the stronger one can pull harder on their paddle without getting out of sync, as long as both paddles are the same (just as when pedaling a two person bike, both sets of pedals go around at the same rpm regardless of whether one person is doing all the work or both are putting out equal power). But if one person uses a shorter paddle than their partner in a double kayak then you will have to constantly adjust your strokes to stay in sync.
The best way to choose your paddle length is to test several paddles of different lengths to see what feels best and gives you the best average speed over a long distance (If you don’t have a GPS, you can do this by simply checking how long it takes to paddle between two points. If you use a GPS for this test, be sure to paddle long enough that you aren’t getting fooled by which paddle you can sprint faster with). Ideally do this test with several paddles that all have the same model blades.
SOT fishing kayaks tend to be much wider than sea kayaks (to add stability for casting especially if standing up in the kayak) so they require paddles with longer shaft lengths. Also some angler kayaks have high seat heights (or the ability to raise and lower the seat), and the higher you sit in a kayak the longer your paddle needs to be. SOT anglers tend to use paddles from 230cm - 270cm (i.e. in NuCanoe Frontier)
Way back when all kayak paddles were made of wood, the typical paddle shaft had a larger diameter than the fiberglass and carbon shafts on today’s paddles. When the switch from wood to fiberglass was made, most paddle builders choose a common size off-the-shelf fiberglass tube which was slightly smaller but over time it proved to be strong enough for most people and significantly lighter than the old wooden paddle shafts. Few people noticed the reduction in diameter from the old standard size wood shaft, and before long these smaller fiberglass shafts became the new standard size (Later when carbon paddle shafts came on the scene, they copied the popular diameter used on fiberglass shafts, and even most newer wood paddles have submitted to roughly this diameter shaft). The significant point here is that what became the standard size shaft was never size by paddling ergonomics. So most people with average sized or larger hands will benefit by adding some heat shrink tubing or other material around their paddle shaft to thicken it up. If you have small hands, then the standard size paddle shaft may be about right without adding anything to thicken it. In recent years some paddle manufacturers (including both Werner Paddles and Aquabound) started marketing even smaller paddle shafts "for women", but the average women's hands are not much smaller than the average men's hands. So these small shaft paddles often tend to be too small for all but a few adult women (those with XXS or smaller glove size hands).
“Bent shaft” kayak paddles have several bends on either side of each hand grip area making the shaft look something like the crank shaft in an engine (in fact, such paddles are also known as “crank shaft” paddles). Depending on how you look at it, the purpose for this complicated shape is to extend your reach when planting your paddle at the beginning of a forward stroke, or you could say it is to keep your wrist better aligned with your forearm at the beginning of your forward stroke. There are some trade-off to this. One is that to maintain the same strength as a straight shaft, the bent shaft paddle ends up being heavier, and although it can improve the wrist position at the start of the forward stroke, it makes the wrist position worse for backing up, ruddering with the paddle, and low bracing for stability. Of course there are ways to get the extended reach and proper wrist alignment even with straight shaft paddles, otherwise everyone would have switched to bent shaft paddles, but it takes most people a long time to learn such technique. If your wrists had a history repetitive use injuries before you started kayaking, then a bent shaft paddle may help you minimize the risks of further injuring your wrists while learning to kayak. If you haven’t had problems with repetitive use injuries, either style shaft can work fine provided you keep a loose grip on your paddle and learn to use ergonomic stroke techniques, but there are advantages to keeping things simple. So for most people we recommend starting with a straight shaft paddle.
Feather angle (the twist from one blade relative to the other) used to be a big decision when buying a paddle, but all the two-piece sea kayak paddles we sell have adjustable ferrules that allow you to set any feather angle you want from 0 – 90 degrees left or right in fifteen degree increments. So you can experiment and change the feather angle to whatever pleases you.