Quite simply, a paddle is a blade attached to a shaft. Some paddles have a blade at each end of the shaft, some have a blade at one end and a grip at the other. To make things simple, we’ll call single-bladed paddles canoe paddles and double-bladed paddles kayak paddles-because that’s how they are used most of the time.
For general recreation, look for a paddle with a comfortable soft T-grip or pear grip, and a mid-sized or smaller blade. Consider a fiberglass or aluminum shaft with a stout plastic blade. There are some very nice entry-level wooden paddles out there as well. A heavier paddle will cost less, generally, but we’d argue for spending a little money to reduce the weight. You’ll have a lot more fun with a light, comfortable paddle.
For canoe trippers moving loaded canoes at cruising speed for hours on end, paddle durability and light weight are very important. Team a pear or soft T-grip with a smaller beavertail or tulip-shaped blade with a bit of flex to ease the jolt of all those strokes. Consider fiberglass, synthetic composites, or wood, and a 12- to 14-degree bent-shaft.
For whitewater canoeing, control is the issue, with a T-grip to control the angle and a broad rectangular or tulip blade for power and stability in aerated water. Shaft flex should be minimal. Blade tip and edge protection are vital components. The best materials are fiberglass or laminated wood.
You’ll find a complete guide to canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the Canoe & Kayak magazine 2004 Buyer’s Guide. Order it from the Canoe & Kayak shopper.
Finding the Right Length The most efficient shaft length (grip to throat) is the distance from your mouth to the water when you’re in paddling position. That varies if you sit or kneel, if you’re high in a deep tripping canoe, or low in a competition cruiser. Add the 20- to 24-inch blade length and you’re in the ballpark. Most paddlers will do fine with a 56- or 58-inch paddle. Bent-shaft paddlers often want a shorter paddle, in the 50- to 54-inch range.
Blade Shape Short, wide blades provide the most purchase in aerated water as well as the quickest application of power-the basic needs of whitewater paddlers. Longer, narrower blades grip less water with each stroke, but require less energy, providing a more efficient cadence.
Grip Shape Your choice of grip should reflect the type of water you paddle. An angular T-grip provides precise and powerful control of your blade angle for whitewater. The “squashed ball” of a pear-shaped grip offers comfort and efficiency for hour after hour of tripping distances. The arced top of a “soft” T reaches to meet the elongated ears of a broad pear grip for the paddler cruising in-between waters.
Shaft Shape Round shafts are easier to make. Oval shafts, at right angles to the blade face, are more comfortable. There is no standard diameter. Try a variety of paddles before you buy. Too large a shaft, and your hand tires. Too small, and your hands will cramp.
Bent-shaft or Straight For flatwater paddling, more and more canoeists are abandoning the j-stroke and going for the sit-and-switch style of paddling first adopted by canoe racers. It’s more efficient and less tiring. Paddlers on moving water usually want the precise control of a straight-shaft paddle.