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Choosing the Right Sea Kayak Paddle for an Expedition

I think it’s fair to say that a paddle is one of the most important pieces of equipment to bring on a kayak trip. It’s something that you’ll have in your hands all day everyday so it’s important to select the right one for your next adventure. Sanesh and I have recently completed a 140 day sea kayak expedition up the West coast of North America and have learned a few things about our paddles. Here we share some key questions to consider when deciding which paddle is right for your next trip. We’ll end with a quick summary of our thoughts on our chosen paddles for the trip and what we’d get next time.

On our expedition we both primarily used Werner paddles: I used a 210cm two-piece straight shaft Cyprus and Sanesh used a 220cm two-piece straight shaft Kaliste. We both carried 225cm Gearlab Kaleq paddle as our spares.

 

There are six questions you should ask yourself when narrowing down your selection: Euro or Greenland paddle, blade and shaft construction, low or high angle paddle, bent or straight shaft, paddle length, and 1 or two piece construction.

 

Euro or Greenland

 

Firstly, whether to go with a Euro or Greenland style paddle. For those unfamiliar, the euro blade is the one that is most easily recognizable - a stick for a shaft with two ovoid paddle blades, one at each end. The Greenland paddle is the traditional shape used by the Inuit and Greenland peoples for centuries which looks more like a long flattened stick or stretched-out bow tie. Many people say Greenland paddles offer a smoother paddling experience and are easier on the joints, but they require a special technique to use effectively and offer less immediate power. If you are interested in this style of paddle, Gearlab makes an excellent selection of models and there are plenty of teaching resources online.

 

The Euro blade is going to feel more natural for most people. It is based on rowing oars and has been refined in the last hundred years to offer a variety of specific shape, sizes, and lengths for specific situations. The technique for use is straightforward: blade into the water near where the toes are in the kayak (catch), pull the blade back to the hips using a rotation of the core (pull), and slice the blade out of the water at the hips before repeating the motion with the other blade (release). It’s a motion that is pleasant to repeat thousands of times per day on expedition and can be quite meditative. The rest of this article will focus on the nuances of Euro paddle varieties

 

Blade and shaft construction

 

The next question is what materials to choose for the blade and shaft. The primary options available for the shaft are aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. Aluminum is a sturdy and inexpensive option, but it can leave a black residue on the hands and is extremely cold to touch when paddling in chilly conditions. It is also the heaviest of the three options. Fiberglass is a great middle ground. It’s lighter than aluminum and less expensive than carbon fiber. It is known to be quite springy so offers a less responsive paddling experience. It is also heavier than carbon fiber. Carbon paddle shafts are light and rigid. They are usually the most expensive option, but have become somewhat of a standard in the industry lately. If you intend to paddle multiple hours per day for several days, a carbon fiber shaft would be my choice.

 

For the blades, the main choices are plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fiber. Plastic blades are the cheapest option, but the heaviest. They have the most flex and can feel sloppy in the water, but are quite durable so are a great option for first time paddlers or youth. Fiberglass blades are the standard ‘ubiquitous’ option. They come in a variety of colors, styles, and constructions. Most whitewater and surfing blades are fiberglass for rigidity and strength. They are a little heavier than carbon fiber, but otherwise quite comparable. There are two options in carbon fiber paddle construction: flat or foam-filled. Flat carbon fiber blades are very similar to fiberglass blades with the distinction of being a little lighter and stiffer. Foam filled blades, on the other hand, are about as close to a religious experience as you can get while kayaking! The blade itself is thick and buoyant, foregoing a spine on the backside. This shape allows for smooth skulling and slicing, and beautiful rebound at the end of each stroke. The paddle blade practically pops itself back out of the water upon “release,” at the end of each stroke, leading you seamlessly into the next one. The only downside to this blade style is that it is a little more fragile than the others - each carbon ‘skin’ is only a few layers thick so it is prone to small cracks on the face when pushed agains rocks or icebergs (Sanesh and I both have these small holes from pushing through the ice at Hubbard Glacier). This style is the most expensive option for paddle blades, but it is worlds apart from the rest and would definitely be my choice for a long expedition.

 

Low or high angle

 

When holding the shaft of the paddle with one blade in the water, there is an angle created between the shaft and the flat plane of the ocean surface. If this angle is between 10-30 degrees, you’re using a low angle paddle. If it’s 30 - 50+ degrees, high angle. Paddle makers optimize the shape of the paddle blade to match the intended angle of the stroke. For example: the Kaliste blade shape is intended for low angle paddling while the Cyprus is optimal with a higher angle stroke. Which you prefer is largely a matter of preference - a low angle stroke requires less body movement and allows for a more relaxed paddling position while a high angle stroke engages more of the core and shoulders and can lead to a less ‘crampy’ paddling experience.

The other consideration to make at this point is about blade size. Most manufacturers make a large and small version of their blades. The Cyprus paddle I used is the smaller brother of the Ikelos and the Kaliste Sanesh used is the bigger brother of the ‘Little Dipper’. Generally, a larger blade offers more power, but more strain on the joints while a smaller blade is smoother in the water, but less powerful.

 

When in rough waters or surfing, a high angle paddle is generally preferred, while a low angle paddle is standard for touring. I’ve met paddlers who do all sorts of things, though, so there is no defined rules here. The choice comes down mostly to personal preference, but I would recommend a low angle paddle for older or less experienced expeditioners as they tend to be a bit more comfortable.

 

Bent or straight shaft

 

The next question to ask is whether you want a straight or bent shaft. The straight shaft is, as the name suggests, a shaft that runs straight from one blade to the other. It is the standard option and has been a favorite among paddlers for decades. Most paddle manufacturers, including Werner, offer a range of diameters for paddle shafts: the smallest is great for children or small adults while the medium fits the vast majority of people. Few manufacturers offer a ‘large’ size but, as a large-palmed person, I appreciate when I find one.

 

Bent shafts, on the other hand, are shaped such that the location of your hands is angled outwards at roughly a 20 degree angle. This is more ergonomic and comfortable for the trailing hand at the end of the stroke. There’s a slight adjustment period when first switching, but it quickly becomes a natural motion.

 

There’s significant debate in the paddling community about which option is more ‘natural’ and offers a better experience. In my view, this is another consideration that comes down to preference. I find that my pinky fingers sometimes are sore at the end of a long day when using a straight shaft, so I’ve come to prefer bent shaft paddles over the past 5 years. It’s a more expensive option, but I appreciate it on long trips.

 

Length

 

Paddle length is determined by the paddlers’ height, boat width, and personal preference. For short paddlers 200cm-205cm is a standard high angle length and anything up to 230cm will work as with a low angle blade. For a mid height paddler 215cm is the upper limit for a high angle blade and 240cm is as long as I’d recommend for a low angle paddle. Taller folks can scale up the mid height options by 10cm and have good results.

 

The best way to find out which length works best for you is to paddle a bunch of paddles, though the standard high angle length is 210cm while for low angles, it is 220cm. These standards reflect what Sanesh and I used on our trip.

 

1 or 2 piece

 

The last question to ask oneself is whether to get a paddle in one or two pieces. A two piece paddle is obviously very convenient for transporting in a car or on the plane and is much simpler to store at home. It also allows for the changing of feather angles (the angle between the power faces of each blade). This is super convenient if you’re a paddle who enjoys a feathered blade some of the time, but not always. Sanesh and I found that we rarely changed our feather angles and were most comfortable at the 0* center position.

The only argument we could see against getting a two piece paddle is that of durability. While Werner’s ferrule (shaft connection joint) is excellent - stiff and precise, it does loosen over time. In the 140 days of our trip, we’ve covered 1800 nautical miles and paddled over 600 hours. In that time, we’ve both noticed our ferrules becoming loose. By day 90, we could both hear an audible click with each stroke as the internal spline moved against its housing. By day 140, there was a significant wobble in Sanesh’s paddle and mine wasn’t far behind. Werner offers a repair service and can replace the ferrule for a fee but it is difficult to mail a paddle to their shop in Washington.

 

600 hours of paddling is likely more than most people will do in a 5 year period, but this wear is a notable consideration when embarking on a long expedition.

 

Extra Details

 

Both of the main paddles we used on our expedition were from Werner in Monroe Washington. They do an excellent job of manufacturing locally and were kind enough to give us a tour last fall. I wanted to take a moment to highlight the extra details that Werner puts into their paddles that make a huge difference.

 

The first detail is the drip rings. These rubber rings catch water coming down the paddle shaft and drip it off the paddle. This keeps your hands dry and stops water from collecting on your spray skirt. These rings are fairly common on Euro style paddles however those found on Werner paddles are very well made. They are tight enough to stay in place and sturdy enough that they look as good as new after 140 days of use.

The other critical detail is shaft indexing. The shafts of Werner’s straight and bent shaft paddles aren’t completely tubular. Rather, they’re slightly oval so the paddlers fingers can naturally grab the paddle the right way. This detail is amazing! I can grab my paddle with my eyes closed and know that it’s facing the right direction for a stroke.

 

Our Experience

 

Sanesh enjoyed his Werner Kaliste over the expedition. It was light, stiff, and the blade shape and shaft length comfortably matched his body and Nimbus Telkwa Sport kayak. After spending some time with a bent shaft paddle, Sanesh much prefers the ergonomics of the straight shaft. He also experimented with different feather angles, and did not like any as much as he liked the flat angle. Specifically, in rougher seas, it was harder for him to orient the feathered paddle, making it harder to brace. For his next paddle, he’d likely get a one piece straight shaft 220cm Kaliste, and put a layer of protective tape on the power face to guard it from icebergs!

 

I also thoroughly enjoyed using the Cyprus for this trip. It was my first time using a high angle blade after nearly a decade of favoring low angle paddles. I enjoyed the way the paddled coaxed me into exaggerating my body rotation and left me feeling more limber than normal at the end of long days. I also felt that the blade size was perfect - I never felt strained in my elbows or shoulders and was able to keep the boat going the speed and direction of my choosing without issue. I am an evangelist of the foam filled blades and was so grateful to have them guiding me from stroke to stroke throughout the trip. Given my height, paddling style, and my Sterling Grand Illusion kayak I found the 210cm length of the paddle slightly too long and would opt for 205cm next time. My only other grievance with the paddle is that the carbon fiber construction is black so it is difficult to see in low light. I fixed this simply by adding a large sticker to the paddle’s forward face and two strips of retroreflective tape to the shaft near the blades. For my next expedition, I would still opt for the Cyprus blade, but would combine it with a 205cm 1-piece bent shaft. I’d also have the blades set to a 0* feather angle. The added durability would give me peace of mind and the shaft would effectively reduce the strain on my pinky finger and increase the efficiency of my stroke.

 

Summary

 

Based on our experience paddling 140 days in sea kayak up the West coast of North America, we’ve arrived at six questions you should ask yourself when searching for a sea kayak paddle: Euro or Greenland paddle, blade and shaft construction, low or high angle paddle, bent or straight shaft, paddle length, and 1 or two piece construction. Keep these questions in mind when you’re at your local VPO and the paddle tech will be able to match you to the right option.

 

Buying a paddle is a big deal! It’s what you’ll be looking at and holding in your hands for the entirety of your expedition. A great paddle can completely change your outlook on a difficult day and help you reach objectives you otherwise wouldn’t imagine. Speaking frankly about price: paddles aren’t cheap. That being said, if you’re wondering where to spend your budget for your next expedition, it's hard to find a piece of gear more worthy than your paddle.

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