Again, boat width is an important point that could result in an average-size person with a wide boat using a 245cm paddle. Consider all the variables and, if possible, try some paddles out before choosing a size.
The following questions can help fine-tune the fit of your paddle.
It goes without saying that the lighter the weight, the easier the paddling. However, the best paddles offer a balanced combination of light weight and strength. Whitewater paddles are expected to hold up to a vigorous workout, and strength is a big consideration. Touring paddles, on the other hand, won't be subject to the same strains, so weight becomes more important, especially on long trips.
Wood transmits the feel of the water well, helping achieve a smooth stroke. It retains warmth to keep hands comfortable in cold conditions. Some upkeep is required to maintain its appearance. Many wood paddles are covered with a layer of fiberglass and/or have a tip guard to improve durability.
These paddles are lightweight, durable and virtually maintenance-free. The nature of fiberglass allows for more complex blade shapes. In the middle of the price range, these are by far the most popular choice for whitewater and sea kayaking alike.
Carbon fiber paddles are among the lightest available. The high-tech material and manufacturing process produces durable paddles with extremely light weights. They cost more, but are worth it if weight is a concern, such as when you expect to be paddling long hours or on multi-day trips. Carbon fiber is slightly less durable than fiberglass.
Paddles with aluminum shafts and plastic blades are durable and economical, but heavier than paddles made from other materials. Also, aluminum can feel cold in cool weather. They make great spare paddles, and can be a good choice for beginners or recreational kayakers. Blades are made from a variety of plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene, thermoplastic and ABS.
Blades are either feathered or nonfeathered. Nonfeathered blades are positioned parallel to each other. Feathered blades are rotated at an angle to each other. The main benefit of feathering is that it reduces wind resistance. As one blade strokes through the water, the other slices through the air. Blade angles vary from 45 to 90 degrees, with most falling in the 45- to 65-degree range. Smaller angles are easier on the wrists, but larger angles offer greater efficiency when paddling.
Blades are feathered in such a way that one hand always maintains control of the paddle. This "control hand" rotates the shaft with each stroke so the blades enter the water at the most efficient angle. Most whitewater paddles are controlled with the right hand. Most touring paddles have take-apart shafts that let you change the feather angle and the control hand. The control hand is a matter of personal preference, and is not necessarily determined by whether you are right- or left-handed.
Large symmetrical blades can power you through the water quickly, but each stroke requires a lot of energy. While smaller blades are gaining in popularity, larger blades are useful for surfing and paddling that requires quick, powerful bursts of acceleration.
Asymmetrical blades help you paddle most efficiently. They are narrower than their symmetrical counterparts and tolerate a more horizontal stroke, which uses up less energy. If you're paddling for long periods of time, or just want to reduce fatigue in general, consider asymmetrical blades.
Blades are either flat, cupped (spooned) or dihedral. Cupped blades are curved much like the head of a spoon. This design helps the blade remain stable as you paddle through the water. Dihedral blades have a built-in angle, similar to an airplane wing. The dihedral shape helps water flow smoothly and evenly over both halves of the blade to prevent fluttering and twisting. Many paddle blades are a combination of dihedral and cupped shapes.
Paddles are available with either 1-piece or take-apart shafts. One-piece shafts are inherently stronger. Because whitewater paddles suffer more abuse than touring paddles, they generally feature the more durable 1-piece shafts. Touring paddles, on the other hand, usually break down into 2 or more pieces. Take-apart shafts let you change blade angles from feathered to unfeathered. They make great spares for whitewater kayaking and touring, because the are easy to transport.
Shafts come in 2 shapes: oval and round. Oval shafts offer a more comfortable grip than the traditional round shape. Some round shafts feature oval hand sections for a better grip. This is called oval indexing.
Swing weight is how balanced a paddle feels while paddling. A paddle with lightweight blades and a heavier shaft feels lighter than a paddle with heavy blades and a light shaft. Ideally, blade weight and shaft weight should be balanced. Hold a paddle and practice your stroke to get a feel for the swing weight.
If your paddle breaks in the middle of a whitewater run, or if you lose it on the second day of a 4-day sea kayak trip, what will you do? Without a spare, you might literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle. An aluminum-and-plastic paddle with a take-apart shaft makes an inexpensive spare that could save you serious time and grief should the unexpected happen. They are easy to stash and stand up to rigorous use.
If possible, the best way for you to choose a paddle is to try one out. Check out your local REI store — some let REI members demo boats and paddles for free.
You could also borrow from a friend or attend a kayak symposium where manufacturers let you test gear. Local paddling clubs are a good source of information for these types of events.
After you purchase a paddle, try a dry run. Sit in your boat and practice paddling. Is the paddle long enough? Does it feel comfortable in your hands and not too heavy? If so, you're ready to hit the water. Happy paddling!
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 12/24/2012
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