I resisted bent-shaft paddles long after they were in vogue. I thought they looked goofy and in whitewater, I couldn't brace on the off side. Then, friends and I canoed the Steel River in Ontario with our solo canoes. I stroked along with a 56 inch straight paddle, switching to a 60-incher (for reach) in the rapids. By day four I had developed a serious problem with my left hand. Continuous "C-stroking" had numbed the nerves so that I couldn't paddle. A day of rest helped enough to keep me going-that is, if I abandoned the "C" and switched sides (no more wrist-twisting) to keep the course. When I got home I tried a bent shaft paddle. I've been hooked on 'em ever since. Now, the only time I use a straight shaft is when I paddle rapids.
Many people choose paddles that are, in my opinion, too short; others select badly balanced paddles or ones with noisy splines. Angled blades vary from near zero degrees to about fifteen. What is best and why? And are paddles with double bends superior to those with single bends? In all, it can be quite mystifying.
For years, I used a paddle with a 14-degree bend and I was quite happy with it. Then I observed that most racers had changed to 12-degree bends. I tried this bend and have been hooked ever since. You wouldn't think that two degrees would make much difference, but it does You seem to sit up straighter and have more control with the shallower bend. Try this comparison: heft a 14 or 15 degree paddle and take a few strokes through the air. Notice that the paddle feels awkward at first, then the awkwardness subsides. Now, try the same test with a 12-degree paddle. It feels good from the start. What about paddles with lesser (two to ten degree) bends? Frankly, I can't tell much difference between them and straight blades. We've been experimenting with different bends for decades. At this writing, 12 degrees is the bend to beat.
SINGLE OR DOUBLE BEND
Some people who have shoulder problems say that the double-bend is kinder to their body than the single bend. Perhaps. But nearly all serous paddlers and virtually all racers, prefer a single bend. Racers power straight ahead (no J-stroke) then switch sides on command. Switching is almost instantaneous with a single bend; it's slow and awkward with a double bend--the curved shaft hangs up as the shaft drops through your hands. In racing, every second counts! If you have shoulder problems or just prefer to stroke along mostly on one side, seldom changing sides, you may like a paddle with a double bend. Otherwise, I think you'll prefer a single-bend.
Lighter is better. Period. But balance is equally important. A good bent shaft paddle will weigh under a pound; an all-round straight paddle (suitable for moderate rapids) may weigh up to two pounds. A paddle should not feel blade-heavy.
LENGTH AND CONTROL
There's a formula for paddle length which in practice is often inaccurate. For example: to fit you with a paddle you sit on a stool of a given height and a measurement is taken from the floor. The assumption is that the stool is about the same height as your canoe seat, which it probably isn't. The formula doesn't take into account the tripping load of the canoe-i.e., how deep the craft sits in the water. Add more weight, the hull rides deeper, remove weight and it rises. In theory, you should change paddles (length) when you change the load.
Then, there's the matter of control. A long paddle provides more reach and control than a short paddle-braces are more stable, draws and cross-draws are more powerful, and steering, via a J, C or pitch stroke is more effortless because a bent blade runs closer to the keel-line than a straight blade. It's a canoeing axiom that the closer to the keel-line you paddle, the less directional correction is needed. Try J, C or pitch-stroking with a 50 inch bent-shaft, then switch to a 54. BIG difference! The longer paddle covers more distance in the water so less "angle correction" (less "pitch" or pry) is needed to keep the canoe on course.
Bent blades are also kinder to your body. There's less twisting of the shaft and your hand during the stroke so carpal-tunnel and tennis-elbow aches are minimized. This is a huge advantage if you paddle a solo canoe for hours at a time.
Paddling with a bent-shaft is best described as more "push down than pull back". With a straight paddle it's more "pull back". This saves your arms and back. The "rolled-ever" directional grip of the bent-paddle allows a more relaxed hold-you don't have to clutch the grip as firmly as with a straight paddle. Cross-bow draws are more efficient too because the outward angled blade has more reach.
Some blades have thick supporting splines on one or both sides for stiffening. Splines are noisy and they act like an airplane wing and create lift. Blades should run neutral in the water. Splined blades don't!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Some canoeists have a shedful of paddles, each with different lengths and bends to suit their needs. But good paddles are pricey and if you can afford just one or two, my preference would be a 54 inch, 12-degree (preferably ultralight carbon-fiber) model and a 56 inch straight paddle (for rapids). An inch or two either way won't affect how you get around the pond.
Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com