I think I was paddling for about three years, when one day, after a few hours on the water, I noticed my wrists were hurting – badly. I had had some ache before, but this time it was really noticeable. Over the next several months, the ache got worse. I started to think it was paddling, and that maybe this wasn’t the sport for me. Thankfully, later that same year, I attended a symposium where my friend and kayaking mentor, Danny Mongno literally took the paddle I was using from my hands, and handed me a Werner Cyprus. He said, “paddle with it for the week and let me know what you think.” The rest shall we say is history. I have had my Cyprus ever since.
But this post isn’t about how great my Cyprus is (even though I think it is). Nor is it intended to be an advertisement for Werner (even though I think they are the best paddles you can buy). It’s about how to pick the best paddle for you.
As in any sport, having the correct equipment is essential. My experience with the wrong paddle taught me that there are four critical elements in selecting a paddle: length, shaft diameter, blade type and size, and the weight of the paddle.
I’m not sure why it is, but it seems whenever you get a kayak “package deal” from a sports store or outfitter, the paddle they throw in is a length of 220 cm. It must be based on average height or something, but I have met more women my size – 5’3” – using that length paddle and complaining that their shoulders hurt; they have trouble with their forward stroke, or it just feels wrong. Well, if you’re my height and in a kayak that’s about 22” wide, it wrong for you. It’s too long.
The general rule of thumb when selecting a paddle length best suited for you is – base it on your height and the width of your kayak. For me, with a height of 5’3” and a kayak width of 22”, the correct paddle length is 205 cm.
Of course just like selecting a kayak, you should paddle with a couple of different lengths to be sure it is comfortable. I have one friend who is my height and has the same boat width as mine. She paddles with a 210 cm and is very happy with it and has a beautiful forward stroke.
There are a lot of great paddles and paddle companies out there I expect, but for me, Werner Paddles is top of the line. One reason I love Werner, aside from the great quality of their product, is they have a great fit guide to assist you in selecting a paddle length. If you visit their website: www.wernerpaddles.com/fit-guide/ you will find their guide. Check it out. No matter how short or tall you may be or what the width of your kayak is, the system will help you find the paddle length for you. Try it out. It works.
I’m going out on a bit of a limb here when I say there are essentially two paddle blade types – a high angle blade and a low angle blade. Those who race will object, but we’re not talking about racing here. And our traditional paddlers might also want to weigh in and of course there is the white water paddler and paddles. But in this blog we are talking about Euro paddles to be used by sea kayakers.
What’s the difference in terms of paddling?
A high angle paddle is designed to take a bigger bite out of the water. Your stroke originates at eyebrow level and the paddle is placed deeper in the water and very close to the kayak. A low angle paddle blade is longer and displaces water over the length of the blade. Execution of the forward stroke begins at the chin or shoulder level and tends to be less deep and wider than a high angle forward stroke. (But more on the forward stroke in another blog) A specific paddle or paddling style should not be viewed as better or worse than the other. The blade you select should be suitable to your boat, your body and your comfort in paddling. It’s important to try out the two styles of paddles (and paddling) and be sure you match the paddle with your stroke style. It will be very uncomfortable and not very efficient to be using a high angle paddle if you are a low angle paddler and vice versa.
One final point about paddle blades is that they come in different materials. Material type impacts both flexibility versus stiffness of the blade as well as weight. Some of the materials you will find are nylon – most flexible and heaviest but really durable; fiberglass more stiff, really sturdy and much lighter; carbon – very stiff and very light, and carbon foam filled – stiff and extremely light. You should also be aware that the lighter the material the more expensive the paddle.
I never would have believed that the diameter of the paddle shaft could make such a difference in my paddling comfort and stamina, but it does. When I first started paddling I had a paddle with a standard diameter. I didn’t think anything of it. I just paddled. Over time, as I said, my wrists really hurt. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I started to wear gloves thinking that would help. It didn’t. It wasn’t until Danny handed me that Cyprus that I understood. Not only was it lighter and shorter but the shaft size was smaller. I have small hands, so that few centimeters of thickness between the standard shaft and the small shaft, really made a difference. In fact, it mattered so much, that when I had a custom Greenland paddle built for me, I measured the Werner shaft so the Greenland paddle had similar dimensions.
The other consideration when selecting a shaft is straight versus bent. The advantage of the bent shaft paddle is that you know the position and placement of your hands. The function of the bent shaft paddle is to keep your wrist better aligned with your forearm at the beginning of your forward stroke. Some also claim that a bent shaft is better for people who have had wrist injuries.
For me, it’s the straight small diameter shaft. I have had no wrist pain or injuries and I know where my hand placement should be. I also find the straight shaft less restrictive than the bent shaft. I like being able to move my hands on the shaft if I feel I need to for whatever reason.
The two other items you will find on a shaft are drip guards and the ferrule. The drip guards are there to help keep water of the shaft and make it less slippery. I tend to use them to remind me of my hand placement on the shaft. The ferrule is basically the attachment system of the paddle. Some paddles have big bulgy ferrules on them. They are not only ugly, but very distracting and heavy looking, as far as I am concerned. What I like about the Werner ferrule is that it is internal, and the shaft remains smooth, neat and attractive.
I have an instructor friend who, whenever she is asked about paddles, the first thing she talks about is weight. She’s not wrong to start here. The weight of the paddle is very important. There are so many people using paddles that weigh way more than they should. I am convinced it’s also why people can’t last on long paddles, shoulders and wrist are injured and the sport is eventually abandoned. I also think it’s why so many people love Greenland paddles. It’s like a breath of fresh air when you hold one. But you can have the same experience when you hold the correct Euro paddle. The key is don’t buy anything that isn’t made of fiberglass, carbon fiber, or wood such as Cedar. It’s just not worth it. And for those on tight budgets, once you know your correct paddle length and blade, shop around for a good sale or buy used from a respectable kayaking club website. I’m telling you the lighter the weight of the paddle, the less pain and injury you will suffer.
Keep in mind, when we paddle, we are moving a lot of heavy water every time we stroke. Yes, good body position and proper stroke technique is key to preventing shoulder and wrist injuries, but so is paddle weight. Invest in a good light paddle and you will go far and fast and reduce the potential for injury.
Had I not learned how important it is to size a paddle to my body and kayak, and think about the weight of the paddle, I either would have damaged my wrists and possibly my shoulders, or I might have given up the sport altogether. Don’t wait (and suffer) as long as I did. In all sports, you need the correct equipment. Having the correct paddle for you matters to your paddling technique and to your health. kerry
— Kerry Pflugh