When folks sit around the cracker barrel and discuss life on the water, paddling nerds usually spend time discussing boat designs; esoterica like prismatic coefficients and flare and rocker and wetted surface area. What is usually missing is a discussion of the paddle.
My opinion is that paddle design is equally important to the performance of your canoe or kayak, yet it is often passed over as ancillary. I think it’s just as difficult to design a quality canoe or kayak blade as a quality boat.
I hear a lot about big paddle blades “moving a lot of water.” Truth is, a good paddle blade doesn’t push anything. In fact, it doesn’t move water at all. The idea is for it to stick in the water and not move. A splashing paddle stroke means energy that was going to move the boat is making a lot of noise instead.
Water is pretty dense and it’s pretty amazing how much a good paddle doesn’t slip in the water. The same density that makes bellies flop (and turn bright red) makes for a great medium into which you insert a blade and apply pressure.
The trick is to optimize the size of the paddle blade so you get a good plant in the water, without making it so big it’s unwieldy or heavy or hard to handle. Smaller blades slide in and out of the water easily and quietly, but might slip a little more than you’d like when you’re accelerating.
The car analogy
I spent a decent part of my youth yanking engines out of old Volkswagens, and I love the smell of grease, so I tend to use car analogies. Most people drive cars, and that familiarity helps tell the story. Besides, they’re really good analogies.
Cars produce power, and the goal is to get as much of that power to the ground as possible without losing it along the way. To do that, you need a method of transmission (hence the name). In your case as paddler, the engine is your body, specifically your core muscles. Arms are just the way to transmit that power to the paddle. Of course, you want to lock your motor down tight to your boat, which is why boat fit and outfitting is so important. A motor that is sloppy loses power before it even gets to the transmission.
So what about your tires? That’s where the analogy works great, for me at least. The tires that best transmit power to the ground are found, naturally, on dragsters. Giant tires squeeze out thousands of horsepower and don’t waste any of it. What big tires (and big blades) do is accelerate. Put skinny little tires on a dragster and you’d burn the tire up before you went three feet, let alone a quarter mile.
Should we put dragster tires on your compact sedans for driving to the grocery store? Hardly a good idea. That’s way too much rubber meeting the road for the amount of power your Prius creates. Big tires also create drag: that’s a lot of rubber to move. Larger tires do give you a little more contact with the road, which can aid in the precision with which the automobile steers ... to a point.
The idea behind automobiles and how tires are selected for specific cars depends a lot on the size of the motor and the application of power. To accelerate to highway speeds requires some horsepower. To maintain highway speeds requires almost none, just 10 to 20 horsepower.
Okay, back to paddles. Want to accelerate? Get a big blade. But just like the fat tires on a dragster, you get to lug all that weight around when cruising along on flatwater. Want efficiency? A smaller blade will work great, it just won’t accelerate as quickly as big paddle blade. Your little paddle is transmitting all it needs to move you along.
Most people don’t accelerate, drop their big guns and grab a smaller paddle. It all depends on your application.
Whitewater and surf require more acceleration than flatwater, where a sort of Zen-like repetition rules the day. It would be cool to have a paddle where you could change the size of the blade by magic; big to accelerate or decelerate, and small to cruise along. Someday, maybe.
While you can’t change physics, I respectfully submit that there are no right or wrong paddles. Paddling is a mindful activity but it is certainly not a religion, or worse, a cult. If you are a fan of big blades for flatwater paddling, then more power (literally) to you. Do you like skinny little Greenland kayak paddles? By all means, use them. Like a bent shaft canoe paddle or a traditional willow-leaf design? Good for you. As the French say, à chacun son goût.
Don’t let a sea kayaker draw you in to the Euroblade versus Greenland debate, as it’s a false dichotomy. They both have their place, and that place is in the water. After all, the best paddle is the one that is the wet the most often.
Darren Bush is owner and chief paddling evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. When not eating, sleeping or working, he's likely paddling or making something with his hands.