Monday, June 07, 2010

Pick the Perfect Kayak Blade

When you choose your kayak blade size, shape and shaft length, two factors come into play.  The first is your height and corresponding arm length.  The second is your paddling style.  How you do most of your straight-line paddling will determine the most efficient shape and size for your blade and the optimum blade and shaft length.  The angle at which your blade strikes the water dictates the shape. If you are an inexperienced paddler, you'll want to take a paddling class first.

  • Tape Measure
  • Kayak paddle samples
  • Kayak
  • A Nice Lake somewhere
  • Choosing a Blade
Paddle Length

Choose a good paddle length based on your height.  There are 3 optimum ranges of paddle shaft lengths.

Paddler Height                                                           Paddle Length Range
Shorter than 5 feet 2 inches.......................................  188 to 194 centimeters
Five feet to 5 feet 8 inches........................................   191 to 197 centimeters
Taller than 5 feet 6 inches.........................................   194 to 200 centimeters

Boat Width

Measure the width of your boat at the center.  A wide boat is over 25 inches.  A 22 to 25 inch wide kayak is considered middle width and anything under 22 inches is narrow.  This will impact how you select a comfortable blade length.  Wide boats tend to require a longer paddle.  Narrow boats favor shorter paddle lengths. If you have a wide boat, choose toward the longer end of the range above.  Narrower boats would lead you to choose toward the shorter end.

Paddling Style
Your paddling style will affect the length and shape of the blade itself.  Experienced paddlers tend to favor a specific angle of attack when paddling.  The angle of attack is the degree of slant at which the paddle enters the water.

A high angle blade enters the water almost vertically. It's most commonly used in whitewater or close quarters paddling.  The low angle style is used primarily in flatwater paddling with a wider boat.  The mid-angle style is a compromise between the two styles.  Use your paddling style, boat width and paddle length to determine the optimal shape of the blade.
  • A low angle blade tends to be narrower and longer to sweep through the water more effectively at the shallow depth of a low angle stroke.
  • A mid-angle blade is a compromise between the two - narrower than the high-angle, but wider than the low angle. A mid-angle paddler also wants a blade that lengthwise, falls between the high and low style blade lengths.
  • A high angle blade calls for a shorter, wider blade that grabs lots of water without having to plunge the paddle too deeply into the water - very important if you're in shallow rocky whitewater.  The shorter, wider blade is far more effective when a high degree of maneuvering is called for, but also calls for some arm strength that a low angle paddler may never need when making deeper power strokes.  
Testing with Your Own Boat
Your boat's width will determine, to some extent, your angle of attack when paddling.  Wider boats calling for lower attack angles and narrow boats allow for higher angles.  So grab any old paddle of the approximate correct length and take your kayak out on the lake. Take the boat you will use most and take off in a straight line without thinking too much about it.  After you've taken 8 or 10 strokes, observe the angle at which the blade strikes the water when you paddle.

Straight-line paddling is a good standard from which to determine your style, since you'll likely do more straight-line paddling than anything else. If the paddle is at 45-degree angle or less when you pull, you are paddling at a low angle.  If you tend to paddle at more than a 45-degree angle, you are middle angle paddler.  If the blade is nearly vertical when you pull the blade through the water, then you are a high angle paddler. Flatwater kayakers will tend to paddle low, while whitewater or surf kayakers tend to paddle high to get deep power strokes or shallow control strokes in tight spaces.

Choose Your Blade Shape
If you've got the length of your double-bladed paddle right and you know what your most comfortable angle of attack is, it's time to choose the blade shape for your paddling style

The low angle blade shape is longer and thinner and the tip may be angled.

The mid-angle blade shape is symmetrical and not too wide or too long, but somewhere in the middle.

The high angle blade shape is shorter and wider for quick control strokes.


Because the two blades are connected by the shaft, if you wish to feather the recovering blade, it needs to be set at an angle to the opposite blade so that when one blade is pulling through the water, the blade in the air is angled so that wind resistance is kept to a minimum.  Blades are typically canted 30 degrees to 90 degrees from one another.  The best way to figure out which feathering angle is best for you is to try it out. Two part paddles often can be assembled at adjustable feathering angles. 


If you paddle low and have a wide boat, choose the longest lengths. If you paddle low and have a mid-width or narrow boat, you will tend toward the middle of the range.  If you paddle high and have a narrow boat, a shorter paddle will probably suit you better. If you paddle in the middle position, the boat width will probably extend or shorten the length you want by a few centimeters either way, but not likely all the way to the end of the range.  This will give you a guess that's probably accurate to within a centimeter or two. Try out some paddles in the length that is closest to the length you've calculated might be best.  See how the blade feels when you use it before you buy it if you can.

Drip Rings

One of the problems, especially during cold weather is that with a double-bladed paddle, when one end is digging into the water the other is lifted high out of the water (hence the need for feathering your blade). When the high blade comes up, gravity sends a stream of water running down the paddle shaft, up your sleeve and down your pants till you are sitting in a puddle of cold water freezing parts of your anatomy you'd prefer not to have frozen. You can buy commercial drip rings that deflect these icy rivulets away from the cockpit of your kayak. You can also make some handy home-made ones like the ones in this article from foam swim noodles. I highly recommend some kind of drip ring in any case.


Paddling styles are not set in stone. Allow yourself time for paddling experience to help you turn the basic style you learned in beginner's class into your own personal paddling style. As a beginner, blade shape and size doesn't much matter since you are still finding your "style". Find your style before you pick that perfect blade shape.


Making a Custom Double-Bladed Paddle

Rutabaga Paddlesport Shop: How to Select a Kayak Paddle

Werner Paddle Sizing Guide

Topkayaker Net: Choosing a Kayak Paddle

Resource Websites:

American Canoe Association
United States Canoe Association
World Kayak Federation      

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