Two Blades for the Price of One: Choosing a Kayak Paddle
If you're thinking of buying a kayak, you already know that you'll need a double-bladed paddle. In fact, the double paddle has now become the badge of the kayaker. Still, there's no reason why canoeists can't use them, too. Nessmuk did, after all, and there's still no better way to move a pack canoe down a lake.
Just what is a double-bladed paddle, anyway? Put simplyyou guessed it!it's just a shaft with a blade on each end. (I said it was simple!)
Most double-bladed paddles are feathered: the blades are offset by an angle between 45 and 90 degrees. This is done in order that the upper blade will cut cleanly through the air during the forward stroke and offer minimum windage. Well, maybe if you're an Olympic athlete, paddling into the wind in half a gale . For the rest of us, though, feathering is a mixed blessing. It takes some getting used to, for one thing. You grip the paddle with your "control hand"usually the right, even for southpawswhile allowing the shaft to rotate in the other, as you orient the blades to strike the water squarely. Until you get the knack, you'll find yourself trying to brace with the edge of your paddle from time to time. Still, we all need a little rescue and recovery practice, don't we?
More importantly, perhaps, the constant extension of the wrist that feathered blades require can predispose you to repetitive stress injury, or aggravate an old carpal tunnel problem if you already have one. Happily, newer paddles are usually offset less than 90 degrees. That's good as far as it goes, but the risk of injury remains, particularly on long tours. You'll have to make your own decision. Every paddle I've owned has been feathered, most of them a full 90 degrees, and I've never had a problem, even on week-long tours. Still, I can't say I see offset blades as offering any real advantage for most paddlers.
The best advice, as always, is to try both styles in a variety of conditions, and see which you like best. Since many doubles are jointed, or "break-down"an eight-foot-long paddle is an awkward load to put in the back of a Ford Focus, after allthe same paddle can often be set up either way, feathered or unfeathered. This makes it easy to try both styles. Don't plan on switching back and forth to suit conditions, though. As you gain experience, you'll start thinking with your muscles. If you switch from a feathered paddle to an in-line paddle, it'll take your muscles a while to relearn old habits. In the meantime, chances are good that you'll blow a brace and go for an unplanned swim, usually just when it's least convenient. So try both styles early on, make your choice, and then stick with it.
Speaking of different styles: If you're planning on extended, open-water tours, take a look at Inuit-style paddles. They have long, skinny, unfeathered blades, and they're ideally suited to hard paddling in windy conditions. For folks with less ambitious goals, however, or folks who plan on doing some easy whitewater, the more common touring blades are probably better.
As is the case with canoe paddles, the ideal kayak paddle is (1) light, (2) strong, (3) comfortable, and (4) cheap. And, as with canoe paddles, no paddle will be ultra-light, super strong, and cheap. You'll have to decide what's most important to you, and what you can afford. Comfort is important to everyone, however. If you have small hands, and if your paddle shaft is too thick, you'll have difficulty hanging on. Boat control will suffer as a result, and long days on the water won't be any fun. A final consideration: shafts can be oval or round. Most people find oval shafts more comfortable.
The moral? Try before you buy.
And when buying, or borrowing, length matters. For some reason, even though canoe paddles are usually sized in inches, American catalogs give the lengths of kayak paddles in centimeters. No problem. 220- to 240-cm paddles (roughly, 7 to 8 ft long) are just right for most adults in most touring and recreational kayaks. The wider your kayak, all other things being equal, the longer your paddle should be. Paddlers in big folding doubles or inflatables will want something close to 250 cm (8¼ ft). Whitewater boaters, on the other hand, will go shorter, starting at 205 cm (6¾ ft) and moving down from there.
You've plenty of choice. The catalogs are full of paddles. Don't let this overwhelm youyou only need one. (There should always be at least one spare in every party, however.) Borrow or rent, then buy. Choosing a paddle isn't rocket science, but it's a very important decision. After your PFD, your paddle is the most important tool in your kit. It has to fit, and it has to suit both your boat and the kind of kayaking you want to do. 'Nuff said.
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