The backbone of any paddle - the one structure that ties every part of the paddle together, from the shape of the blade to the particular style of stroke - is the shaft. Even from the time the first water traveler launched that floating log in order to cross a stream, he or she soon realized the need for a power assist beyond his or her own extended arm and cupped palm.
Resource wise, the first paddles were made of wood, a tradition still regarded by many as the most classic material for a paddle or oar. Technology has enabled manufacturers to apply advances in aluminum alloys, synthetic/resin chemistry and space-age carbon fiber to develop new materials out of which, in many cases, can be used to produce lighter and stronger paddles – blades and shafts.
Even among wood shaft purists, laminating processes has broadened the range of options available to combine the commonly-used woods into shafts that utilizes each wood's positive characteristics and expands the range of visual appeal those colorful woods create when layered together.
Cedar, spruce, ash, and walnut are typically the most common woods used to make paddles. They are often laminated to form a stronger and more visually appealing/striking color layering. Some shafts are protected with a coat of urethane while others preserve and protect the finish with oil applied to the surface. Some wooded paddles may have no finish at all – they are simply dried out between uses. Personally I find a wooden shaft to be warm and evoke a sense of earthiness to the paddling experience.
Aluminum alloy is the standard metal used as paddle shafts. Having a fairly strong weight to strength ratio, Aluminum is well suited for inexpensive paddles. Easily machined, it works well in two-piece paddle production. Most aluminum is anodized to increase corrosion resistance and wear resistance as well as making the surface easier to paint.
1) Fiberglass - A common shaft material renowned for its lightness and strength.
2) Carbon Fiber – Very strong weight to stretch ratio and generally the most expensive material of the group.
Diameter Size and Shape:
Of course shafts come in a variety of lengths to address differing stroke technique and paddler size. And because paddlers' hands vary in size, most manufactures make shafts in two basic diameters: large and small. A poor grip on a paddle not only will affect the efficiency of your stroke, it can also cause fatigue and discomfort.
Another consideration for diameter size may be your preference for wearing gloves (as opposed to pogies) to keep your hands warm/dry. A smaller diameter grip might accommodate the added thickness of a paddling glove. You should try both sizes to determine which one is better suited to your own hand.
Coupled with size is shape. The cross-section of a paddle at the section of the shaft where you will grab onto it will be either fully round in diameter, or will be ovalized. The oval cross-section is called indexing. It offers a physically different shape along the shaft that helps you quickly position your grip at the appropriate spot along the shaft to align your grip with that of the powerface of the paddle. It also helps most paddlers maintain a more secure grip, with less fatigue.
Straight vs. Bent/Crank Paddles:
An alternative to a completely straight shaft along the entire length of the paddle is a bend in the shaft where the normal hand position lies. The shaft is bent or "cranked" to minimize the amount of wrist flex during the forward stroke. Those who tend to grip hard on a paddle and/or fail to execute proper torso rotation often tend to prefer the alignment positioning benefits of the bent shaft paddle. Others disagree.
Those who prefer the straight shaft say it allows for more versatility in utilizing the paddle for varied stroke options such as shifting hands as needed, for example, when extending paddle reach to one side of center while making correcting strokes to counter the wind.
The consistent main reason for using a bent shaft is to help a paddler better align his/her wrist and arm to maintain proper alignment and reduce fatigue. Again, trying out both types of paddles on the water will be your best option for deciding which one's for you.
Shaft Swing Weight:
Think of the physical weight of a paddle as its static weight – the total of all its parts: shaft, blade and any components (two piece clips, adjustable ferrules). Swing weight therefore could be considered it's dynamic weight – it's "heft" while in motion and the feel or flow from the distribution of weight for proper balance throughout the entire paddle.
You don't measure swing weight with a scale, you measure it with touch, with the senses. Two paddles can physically weigh the exact same overall. The paddle with the better swing weight will seem to flow through the paddling motions better, be balanced throughout the power stroke and the return arc swing. It will also tend to have lighter blades. A paddler will likely be much less fatigued after using a paddle with a good swing weight as opposed to one without.
Paddles with good swing weights can still vary in physical weight – differences sometimes measured in mere ounces. Doing simple math, it's quick to determine what a difference a few ounces will make over time.
Let's say you have a choice between two paddles that are comparable in every aspect except weight. Paddle A weighs 0.5 pounds (8 ounces) more than paddle B. You go with A because it's cheaper or it looks cooler. Besides it's not that much heavier. Out paddling, you are now cruising along at a leisurely pace - three knots per hour – maybe 40 strokes per minute. Each sweep with the heavier paddle means you are lifting an extra half pound every 1.5 seconds. That's 20 additional pounds each minute. In an hour's paddling time, using A instead of B means you have lifted over 1,200 extra pounds. Phew!
Ease that grip!
Whether you prefer a rounded shaft or indexed; a bent shaft or straight, proper gripping can minimize fatigue. And while the power stroke hand usually gets all the attention, the non-power stroke side of the paddle is important, too. Instead of a firm, solid grip on the return stroke, consider loosening up a bit. You want to maintain control of your paddle and you want to keep a uniform cadence while you paddle. If, however, you nestle the shaft into the base of your thumb and index finger, you can either open your grip completely or relax all but those two fingers and lightly encircle the blade with a light finger grip.
You can still exert pushing force on the non-powerface side balancing out the pulling force on the powerface side. Switching hands like this as you paddle is similar to using toe clips on a bicycle where the upward pull on the pedal adds power to the downward pedal. It's an easy technique that lessens the strain and fatigue on both hands.
Cost & "Second Paddle" Rationale:
Paddle prices can vary by several hundreds of dollars - from very inexpensive aluminum shafts and plastic blades to ultra composite carbon paddles costing many hundreds of dollars. As an initial investment, a moderate to higher-priced paddle is going to be a smart purchase. But what about a spare?
Spare paddles are a basic requirement, especially on extended trips or remote places. Do you double down and buy two expensive paddles or do you go the thrifty route and buy a "cheapie" betting that you'll probably never use it anyway?
One school of thought says you should have a twin to the paddle you always use and know. The other says save your money and just have something that will get you by in emergencies. All my spares have been older paddles that were going to be put out to pasture as I upgraded. It's your call on this one...
Selecting the right paddle takes in many variables, some basic and matter-of-fact, while others are quite subjective. It's easier to know what's going to work best for you once you've achieved proper paddling form and feel comfortable with a particular style. Choosing the right gear will then be a matter of personal preference.
There remains one more component to consider when choosing a kayak paddle: one-piece or two-piece. Strongly associated with that decision is whether or not you want an adjustable ferrule for options in feathering the paddle. That is another whole discussion in its own right.
Have fun and be safe out there!
Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer. For more of Tom's paddling tips and gear reviews go to his website: www.wavetameradventures.com He has written 2 books, "Kids Gone Paddlin" and "How to Think Like A Survivor" that are available on Amazon.com.