How to Choose a Fast Kayak Paddle

Now for paddle choice. You have heard from some experienced kayak instructors and paddle manufactures that wing paddles are only for racers and that they are unstable. You will hear from me that wing paddles are more stable, faster and able to cover more distance. Who is right? Well ironically everybody is right.

If you use a wing paddle like a traditional paddle and pull it alongside your kayak it will probably want to knife under your kayak providing you with a very unstable experience. If you use a wing paddle correctly it will feel "locked" in the water during your stroke (or more correctly your rotation). While I am paddling I can use the paddle to move myself around in my seat. The wing paddle does not slip sideways like a conventional paddle can. When I go touring with my wing my cadence is always much slower than those with conventional paddles. Why is this?

A wing paddle should enter the water near vertical next to the bow and maintain that steep angle through the whole stroke which exits almost 2 feet off the side of the boat. This diagonal line from entry to exit two feet off the side of your hips is longer than a straight line from entry to right next to your hip. This is one reason why you no longer have to paddle as high a cadence to keep up with non wing paddlers. Another is that by maintaining that steep angle through your stroke the wing is able to create a low pressure on the front surface creating "lift" which gives you that locked in stable feeling that you just can not attain with a standard blade.

Using a wing correctly will force you to rotate. Your torso is much stronger than your arms so you will be adding a lot of strength to your stroke. A trick I use to help people learn to rotate is to have them lock their elbows straight and try to paddle. While this is not the correct way to paddle it does teach them that they are able to move the kayak along nicely by only rotating.

I don't believe myself a good enough writer to describe a correct stroke 100% in writting and the wing paddle is not an item you can buy and magically go faster. It seems to have a learning curve larger than general kayaking. So how do you learn to use one? If you bought a paraglider and tried to teach yourself, how would you do compared to someone taking lessons? It is a real art and something best learned from a wing paddle clinic. Often at west coast races someone like Greg Barton or Brent Rietz will hold clinics the day before a race. Also check around for a sprint club. The sprinters have to have their stroke dialed in as they can lose a sprint event by a fraction of a second. If it appears that there is just nobody able to teach in your area and you can't make a trip out to a clinic go to your local kayak shop and have them get you a copy of Brent Rietz's "Forward Stroke Clinic" on video. Also there is a free 30 second video that shows Mike & Alexandra Harbold thanks to Fred Mechini. I really like Alexandras form. Make sure to check out how their knees are moving as they rotate and press with their feet. Click here to view it for free.

So what do you look for in a wing paddle? Unless you are doing sprints you do not need the stiffer blades and unless your are a big guy you really don't need the large wings. The "Mid" size wings seem to work very well. If you weigh under 140 pounds you should consider a "JR" wing. The length and feather are something that you will want to play with so for your first wing I strongly recommend an adjustable wing. Many are available with a 10cm range of adjustment. If you are under 5'9" I would suggest a 205 to 215cm. For under 6'2" I would pick a 210 to 220cm. If you are a big person over 6'2" try a 215 to 225cm. These sizes should run shorter than your conventional paddle.

Wings come in three construction types - glass, hybrids and graphite. Glass wings are generally under $200.00 and weigh about 32 - 40 ounces. Hybrids are a mix of carbon and glass. They look just like a full carbon paddle but weigh 27 - 32 ounces and cost under $300.00. A full carbon wing sells for just under $400.00 and weighs 20 - 27 ounces. I enjoy the full carbon models.

The last thing to look for is the amount of twist within the blade itself. This twist is what gives the paddle it inclination to track off the side of the boat (in a diagonal line like it should). This "twist" is what also makes a wing want to knife under the side of a kayak when used incorrectly (in a straight line fore an aft). Another advantage of "twist" is that it doesn't want to cavitate at a very high cadence. Generally the less "twist" the more stable for a beginner. "Twist" can range from 0 up to 23 degrees. Most paddles work nicely somewhere in the middle.

While a wing won't do some of the neat trick braces or work as well in the surf, I have found it so very much more efficient in going forward that I have not bought a conventional paddle since my first wing over 10 years ago. And I have not (willing) used a conventional paddle in the last eight years. I believe that more than any other piece of equipment you may buy the wing will be the most endearing if you take the time to get valid instruction on its use.

Notice in this photo of Javier Correa (thanks to: Fred Mechini) how he has finished his rotation. His whole torso is rotated and you can see how his right knee is down from pushing. You can also see how the paddle has exited about 2 feet or so from the side. He is set up very nice for the next stroke. His left leg has plenty of bend in it so he can start pushing once he plants the paddle right next to his bow. Also you can see how by rotating through his stroke he is already set up for the next side. One last thing I really like about his stroke is how straight his forward arm is, he may have straightened it a bit for the catch but just like Alexandra Harbold he uses less "chicken wing".

Link back to: The Wing Paddle Page