Changing Feather Angles

I am a fan of the feathered paddle, because I find it more efficient for my paddling style. I first learned how to paddle with a one piece, very heavy fiberglass paddle with a straight tip covered in metal. The paddle was a 90-degree feather. As the years passed paddles became lighter and more efficient. The best I can find from my research about feather angles is the primary reason for the 90-degree feather was to decrease wind resistance on the non-working blade as you moved forward. In addition, it gives less resistance in a head wind.

Over the years, paddle manufactures were able to make two-piece paddles that were reliable even though there was a center joint. In addition, they added a second and third hole in the joint so the consumer could buy one paddle that could be feathered right or left indexed or set unfeathered. The adjustability of the paddle feather now gave the paddler options.

There are strong opinions about which feather angle is best and whether one should paddle feathered or unfeathered. Each of these topics deserves their own article, which I will address in the future. For right now I want to focus on the concept of changing one's feather angle as conditions change.

I still hear instructors and guides recommending that one should change feather angles as wind direction changes. The concept makes sense when you look it from the viewpoint of wind resistance. If you paddle a high angle feather and the wind comes from the side, the argument is that it can blow your paddle over, which means you can end up following it over. That is not only true in concept; I experienced that very thing on a windy day trip when I was still a novice paddler. I then tried to learn how to switch from feathered to unfeathered when the need arose. Even though I was able to learn how to switch from feathered to unfeathered, I never liked the idea.

Over the years, I realized that my paddle manipulation skills became set into my body. I know that I have my default setting. My experience has repeatedly shown me that when one gets nervous they usually revert to their default programming. Therefore, if the wind were blowing strong enough to knock you over, one would think the seas are pretty rough too. If that is true, the average paddler's anxiety level will increase. Here is where the default settings come in to play. Since the likelihood of needing a brace in rough conditions increases, how will you brace on your offside in an unexpected emergency? I know I will go to my default setting, which is set to my paddle at 90 degrees. My experience of watching paddlers over the last twenty-five years tells me the average paddler is going to forget they changed their feather angle and end up with a diving blade rather than the brace they were expecting on their offside brace.

Instead of changing your feather angle during cross winds I suggest two alternatives. First is to lower your stroke angle. This not only decreases wind resistance it also allows you to perform supportive strokes, which may be needed on the rough water caused by the winds (see USK article, "Supportive Forward Sweep Stroke"). Second, if you insist upon using a high angle stroke when paddling with a cross wind, you can let go of the top hand if the paddle gets blown over. The reason one usually capsizes when their paddle is blown over in a crosswind is because the body will follow the paddle if the top hand is still attached. The same result can happen when you over-run your paddle when performing a draw stroke.

I have a great story that exemplifies my feelings perfectly. I was teaching a clinic out of the country on a slow moving river. A student asked to use my paddle during part of our lunch break. I didn't realize they changed the feather angle to zero when they used it. When I returned to my kayak I went through my regular routine. As I pushed off from shore I went to do a low brace turn on my offside to turn and look back at shore to see my class. My muscle memory expected support from my 90 degree feathered paddle. My paddle was set unfeathered thus giving me a knife edged blade for my low brace instead of the flat blade I was expecting. As I went over I started to laugh, because I knew exactly what happened. The next thought through my mind was the questionable quality of the water I was about to enter. I had seen upstream the day before and the sanitation conditions were very suspect. As I went underwater I exhaled out from my nose and did the fastest roll I could to get back upright. When I came up I remember saying to myself, "this is why I don't recommend changing feather angles."

As your braces become habits, you know you will be able to depend on them. By changing feather angles, you are altering the starting position on which your habit is based. Will your brace be as dependable if you change your feather angle, especially in rough conditions? You know my feeling. Keep one feather angle and get good at your bracing skills. 

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Sea Kayaking.

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