Many people spend a lot of time deciding on the perfect kayak to buy. Then they happily paddle with a cheap paddle that was thrown in on the deal. And that's okay to start with, but you need to understand a kayak paddle is as important to great paddling as is the boat. The paddle can mean the difference between many hours of pain and drudgery or physical exhilaration and enjoyment. Without a boat you don't float. Without a paddle you don't move. The boat and paddle are a matched pair. As much thought that went into choosing a boat should go into choosing a paddle. The factors to use when choosing a paddle are weight, length, blade size and blade shape. Among other things, I'll tell you why most people should choose a straight blade kayak paddle.
Feathering a blade means to slightly turn a blade for less wind resistance and take advantage of natural body motion. Most people should learn to paddle with a feathered blade.
Choose the lightest paddle possible. Lightweight is expensive. Pay only what you can justify and that you can live with. My marathon paddles cost up to $500, but there's no reason you can't find a good paddle for $100.
Most people choose a paddle that is too long. The paddle should only be long enough to bury the blade in water as you make a comfortable stroke near to and parallel with the boat.
Most people choose a blade that is too big. Only whitewater paddlers or highly trained athletes need or can adequately use a large blade. Medium or smaller is better.
The defunct standard in kayak paddles is the asymmetrical European-style with curved blade. The biggest reason is because competitive paddlers use them. Most people believe that if a highly trained athlete uses a certain type paddle it should be good enough for them. Manufacturers are happy to oblige and probably 90% of all paddles sold are European-style.
The European-style blade is a poor choice for the average paddler. You must understand the physical ability and mindset of a highly trained competitive paddler. In a paddle stroke the idea is to get the blade in the water as far forward as possible and feel power immediately as the stroke starts. In other words the power position of the blade is when the body is at full extension. As the rearward stroke nears the hip the blade must be pulled from the water because the curve of the blade would work against forward motion and because the blade on the other side must be positioned for entry at full extension. Consider that the hardest portion of the stroke is when the arms and muscles are fully extended. If you aren't blessed with great physical condition and training you can't take advantage of the power at the beginning of the stroke. In fact, the stress at full extension is a great way to pull muscles and otherwise hurt yourself.
The timing of the power in a paddle stroke is the reason why a straight blade paddle is much better for the average paddle--and especially older paddlers. You can extend a flat blade paddle just as far forward as the European-style but the stroke starts easier and power doesn't peak until the blade is closer to the paddler. The muscles are not so extended and stretched. You have much better leverage when the paddle is closer to the body in the stroke. The stroke can be extended slightly further back without negative effect.
Think about it. Do some experiments. Keep an open mind and you may find your paddling to be easier and more enjoyable.
Gerald is an outdoor sportsman who travels by land and water through mountain forest, rocky foothills, and shifting sand dunes. In his spare time he designs and builds wood composite kayaks, canoes and paddles. He still competes in select marathon races and does long distance expedition paddling and exploration.