Buying A Kayak Paddle
The first time I bought a kayak paddle, I actually needed to buy three kayak paddles. There were fewer choices back then, and I just bought paddles with plastic blades and aluminum shafts. Those are still popular, but have been joined by fiberglass, carbon fiber, kevlar, and other paddle blade and shaft materials.
When buying a kayak paddle, first make sure it will work well for you on your boat. Different boats require different paddle lengths, people come in different sizes, and people develop their own stroke styles that dictate different paddle styles and lengths. As a general rule, whitewater kayakers will want shorter paddles, while sea kayak paddlers will want longer paddles.
Kayak paddles for beginners are not very expensive, but when you need to buy three of them, they start to seem pricey. I bought two kayak paddles with aluminum two-piece shafts and curved plastic blades, and one that had a thinner (read: less comfortable) two piece shaft and flat blades. The kayak paddles with flat blades are cheaper, and there's a good reason: they do not work as well.
Properly Shaped Kayak Paddle Blades
Properly shaped kayak paddle blades droop below the paddle shaft and are curved to "bite" the water as you paddle. I sometimes give the flat bladed paddle to beginners when I take them out on my Malibu II for a little training. I let them struggle with it for a little while, then hand them my curved paddle. Every one of them is shocked by how much better it feels, less "slippery" and more stable as you paddle with it, and far more powerful. I never get my paddle back, so I end up paddling home with the flat-bladed paddle.
I don't do this because I believe in torturing beginning kayakers with a lousy paddle. I have several kayaks and paddles, and I only use the flat bladed one when we run out of good paddles. When you're out of good paddles, you hand the lousy one to someone who doesn't know any better. I don't make them use it for long — just long enough for them to get the feel of it, so they will feel the difference a good paddle makes.
Any kayak paddle with curved blades is fine for ordinary use. One piece kayak paddles with feathered blades, ergonomic hand grips, lightweight carbon fiber shafts, honeycomb grid lightweight blades, and ultra light drip catchers are the state of the art, but those features get very expensive and are not appropriate for average users or beginners. Why do people pay so much for a great paddle, when their kayaking activities don't require the best equipment?
If you kayak a lot, and go for long distances, the benefits of a really great paddle become obvious. Let's take the list above one at a time:
Features of a Great Kayak Paddle
- One piece kayak paddle: That sleeve and button on a two piece kayak paddle add weight and reduce the stiffness of the kayak paddle shaft. A kayak paddle must be light, but should not bend.
- Feathered Blades: If you are paddling against the wind, it helps if the blade that is out of the water is not being pushed flat through the wind, but is "feathered" to take the wind on its edge. Right handed and left handed paddlers usually prefer the opposite blade feathering from each other.
- Ergonomic hand grips: If you put your thumb to your fingers, as you do when gripping a paddle, the shape you make is not round like a cheaper kayak shaft. Great paddles will fit your hand better, and the blade will be balanced with the grip so as not to want to rotate in your hand as you paddle. Grips that are offset from the main length of the shaft to be neutral, or balanced with the blade, will be far more comfortable during a long paddle. A straight shaft with a blade that drops below the shaft will always want to rotate away at the bottom, so you have to hold it tightly to prevent it from rotating in your hand. An offset grip that is designed to be neutral when paddling will not rotate in your hand when you paddle, so your grip need not be as tight and fatigue will be lower on long trips.
- LIGHTWEIGHT carbon fiber shaft: When you are holding your arms out in front of yourself for hours on end, you don't need any extra weight out there. Light and stiff usually means carbon fiber, but other materials can be used.
- Honeycomb kayak paddle blades: The greatest weight savings can be had out in the blades. Kayak paddle blades usually weigh more than the shaft of the paddle. Carbon fiber is used to make lightweight blades, but you can make them even lighter if they are mostly air inside. They have to have a decent amount of surface area, they have to be cupped and shaped to move through the water with maximum grip and minimum turbulence, and they must not bend under the load of a strong paddler paddling hard. It is also somewhat important that the tips and bottoms of the blades resist chipping and abrasion. A structural honeycomb core with a lightweight kevlar or carbon fiber skin can make for an extremely lightweight blade.
- Ultra light drip catchers: It gets annoying when the water from the blade on the up side keeps dripping down onto your hands, but again the drip catchers are something that add weight.
The Best Length Is Not Always Obvious
Kayak paddle size is important. At a kayak symposium at Fort DeSoto Park a few years ago, I talked with an accomplished kayak racer who was one of the kayak instructor staff. He told me that once they found the perfect paddle for his racing stroke (which is not the same for every racer), they wanted to find the correct length. He tried a few different lengths on various time trials, and the blade that felt the best to him, and that felt to him to be the fastest and most comfortable for his stroke, was not the one that resulted in the greatest speed. Time after time, his best results were with a paddle that he felt was a bit too long.
I don't really care how fast I am going as much as I care whether my stroke feels comfortable. In my foldable Klepper kayak, I like a longer paddle than in my Ocean Kayak Sprinter sit-on-top. It just feels better. The general rule is, taller people with longer arms will want longer paddles, and larger, wider boats with high cockpit coamings require longer paddles. The other general rule is, longer paddles weigh more.
Go to a kayak rental and sales place, and ask to try various paddles before buying one — preferably in the kayak that you will be using the paddle with. You will be surprised at how different they can be, though they look similar. When you try a paddle, don't just take a few strokes. Paddle for at least 15 minutes with each one. Find the one that feels most comfortable on the way back, not on the way out. Buy the shortest paddle that feels comfortable to you, to save weight, but don't buy one so short that it will be a struggle to keep it in the water and away from the boat as you paddle. That is the problem I have if I use a short paddle in my foldable kayak.