Saturday, October 30, 2010

SUP Paddle technique: Part 1- Choosing the right paddle- by Robert Stehlik

Click here for a newer post reviewing 2012 SUP paddles

This is the first part of a series of paddle technique posts.  First things first, before getting into the technique you need the right paddle to work with.

Shaft: Length and shape
Blade: size and shape
Materials: flex, weight, pricing
Fixed length vs. adjustable
Double bend shafts

When people talk about SUP equipment it is usually about the board while the paddle is often neglected despite it's importance. Some factors to consider when choosing a paddle are:

There is no set formula for length, more of a personal preference. If in doubt, size the paddle longer and temporarily tape the handle without gluing it, then shorten it to a comfortable length and epoxy it in. Remember, it is easier to shorten the shaft but difficult to lengthen it once it's cut.  As a guideline, for surfing, the paddle should be about 6"-9" taller than user.  For flat water paddling/ racing it should be 9"-12" taller (or more). Some other factors to consider are the thickness and floatation of the board used (the thicker the board and the higher you are up off the water, the longer the paddle should be); the dimensions of the blade (a paddle with a long, narrow blade needs to be longer than a short, wide blade). As a rule of thumb, if you stand the paddle upside down on the handle, the base of the blade (waterline when paddling) should be at nose or eye level for distance paddling.

I hear that if the paddle is too long, it can cause the shoulder to over-extend and can be harder to "power up".  At 6'2" (74") I have never had this problem as most paddles are 85" or so uncut and I actually wish I could try a paddle that's a few inches longer than that.
If the paddle is too short, it forces the paddler to hunch over which can cause lower back problems. A shorter paddle also limits forward reach and leverage and makes it more difficult to plant the whole blade in the water before applying power.  If your paddle is too short, you will not be able to effectively use the technique tips in this series.
For more information on paddle length, this is a good one from Bill at Ke Nalu:
Measure Twice, Cut Once

Update December 2013:
Please note that since I wrote this post in 2010, many paddlers have started using shorter paddles (and also smaller blades) to quicken stroke rate and for better handling in the surf.  Some SUP surfers use paddles that are as short as head high, which makes it easier to accelerate quickly and switch sides smoothly when surfing but for the average paddler this is really too short.  I still like to use paddles that are at least 6" over my head, even for surfing and I don't recommend going shorter than that with your first paddle.  Once you have good posture and technique and your back muscles are conditioned, you are ready to experiment with shortening your shaft.

The video below is from Part 5 of this series where I talk about recovery but I'm posting it here as well because I talk about paddle length in the video and it's helpful to watch this before going out and buying a paddle. 

The shape of the shaft and handle are important and personal preference matters- it should feel comfortable in your hands. I find smaller, oval shaped shafts and rounded palm grips most comfortable. Try the feel of several paddles and see which ones feels most comfortable in your hands. While rounded palm grips are comfortable, the rounded edges are not as easy to catch.  If you often miss or slip off a rounded palm grip and bang yourself in the head with it, as I have done many times, you might find a T-handle easier to catch with your thumb as you switch sides, like in the picture below.  It helps to slide the hand up along the shaft to catch the handle when switching, which I like for surfing.

The most important consideration when choosing a blade is to match the surface area of the blade to the paddler. Think of a 10 speed bike: you use a low gear to accelerate and/or go uphill and switch to a higher gear as you are going faster. If you suddenly stop the bike in a high gear and then try to get it going again, you have to apply all your weight to the pedals while the bike is barely moving forward. Accelerating in a high gear is very slow and exhausting. This is what happens if you are using a blade that is too big. Since a paddle is more like a single speed bike, you need to choose a blade that is small enough to let you accelerate easily and paddle uphill (into the wind) but still big enough to hold water at higher speeds without cavitation. Generally, a lighter, smaller paddler should use a smaller blade, while a heavier, stronger paddler can go with a bigger blade.
To use the same gearing comparison- a longer paddle is like a higher gear with more leverage while a shorter paddle is like a lower gear with faster stroke rate. You can somewhat adjust the "gearing" by changing the grip of the lower hand on your paddle (some move both hands lower on the shaft, effectively making their paddle shorter). Gripping the shaft lower will result in a "low gear" for accelerating and going upwind while gripping it higher will result in a "high gear" with longer reach for higher speeds.

These are the  C4 Waterman paddles I use, the upper blade is my surfing blade, the lower my distance/ racing blade (XPR), which has a slightly larger surface area (same width but longer blade).  The shaft on the surfing paddle is also about 2" shorter than my racing paddle.  When surfing, you need to be able to accelerate from a complete stop to catch a wave, so a "lower gear" works better, while distance paddling is more about maintaining a higher speed where a "high gear" is more efficient.

There are many blade outlines and shapes on the market and some work better than others. I find that a dihedral or "spine" on the face of the blade will somewhat reduce "flutter", the tendency of the blade to move side to side when powered up.   The picture above shows the dihedral and carbon/ kevlar blend weave of the blade. 

A thin blade edge will allow smooth water entry and exit but is also more likely to damage the rails of the board. A plastic paddle edge guard will protect the rails and paddle edge and is highly recommended for entry level paddlers. The down side is that it makes the entry and exit of the paddle less efficient. Quickblade uses a ABS plastic blade edge- a good idea that keeps the weave on the edge of the paddle from getting frayed and splintered although it won't do much to protect the rails.
The sharp edges of this blade are covered by plastic paddle edge guard which can be removed later if you feel it is no longer needed.  You don't need to use superglue when applying it.  Warming the edge guard up in the hot sun or in a microwave (about 15 sec.) before applying it will soften the rubber and make the glue strip inside more tacky.  A good shop will apply it for you professionally.  Clear rail tape for the board is also recommended to protect your investment as most damage occurs on the widest part of the rails.

Materials, Flex, Weight:
So you found a paddle length and blade size that works well for you. Another important aspect is construction. The paddle should feel "lively" and have a "snappy" flex. The paddle should flex naturally when you power it up and release the flex at the end of the stroke. There is some controversy as to whether flex is lost power. I find that as I learned to release the blade efficiently I can direct the stored energy of the flex forward to send the paddle back forward into the reach position, making the recovery effortless and giving the body a moment to relax. Good paddles are constructed to allow a powerful, snappy flex. Weight is important in distance paddling as a heavier paddle will tire out the paddler sooner.  Since the paddle is lifted out of the water hundreds of times during distance paddling, every ounce matters here.
Here are some of the pros and cons of the most commonly used paddles on the market:

Aluminum Paddles:
Pros: Anodized aircraft aluminum is strong, corrosion resistant, and affordable.
Cons: weight- usually heavier, not much flex
The Aquaglide aluminum vario paddle is strong, adjustable and affordable- a good choice for entry level and family use.

Wood Paddles:
Pros: Natural flex- wood has a great flex that is easy on the joints. Wood paddles are usually handcrafted and can be personalized works of art. They are also made mostly from natural and renewable resources and are therefore more environmentally friendly.  Some paddlers swear by wood paddles, see this blog post by Jenny Kalmbach.
Cons: Weight to strength ratio- wood paddles can be heavier and/or not as strong for the same weight and can be expensive.

Everpaddle makes beautiful wood paddles from reclaimed wood.

Many manufacturers of quality wood paddles have been making outrigger paddles for many years. Some of the nicest wood paddles I have seen were made by: Gillespie, Pure, Malama, Hawaiian Paddle, Whiskeyjack, and Johnson Big Stick

Fiberglass Paddles:
Pros: flexible, strong, inexpensive compared to carbon.  Great choice for everyday or heavy duty (surf) use, very strong if made well.
Cons: heavier than carbon, flex is softer.

Carbon Paddles:
Pros: Light and stiff, snappy flex, preferred construction for most racing paddles.
Cons: Can be too stiff (hard on joints) if not designed well, expensive.  Carbon is stiffer and will break at a certain point, while fiberglass and kevlar allow for more flex before breaking, it is also sensitive to nicks and dings that can weaken the integrity of the whole paddle.

Note: There are some cheap "carbon paddles" on the market that are really just "carbon veneer" paddles made mostly with fiberglass covered by an outside layer of carbon.  These paddles should be marketed as "carbon/ fiberglass composite" paddles.  In windsurfing, most mast manufacturers specify the carbon content- i.e. 30%, 70% or 100% carbon.  This would be helpful on paddles as well as the cost of carbon is significantly higher than glass.  There are also different grades of carbon with some of the top grades being very expensive.  If you want to check if your paddle is 100% carbon,  look at the uncut shaft of the paddle, a 100% carbon paddle will be all black, if you see clear inside, those are layers of fiberglass, see picture below.  A mix of carbon and fiberglass will be heavier than 100% carbon but also allows for more flex and may be stronger, so some glass in the paddle can be a good thing but make sure you compare apples to apples when it comes to pricing.
Look for rings- the bottom shaft is 100% carbon, while the top two are a blend of carbon on the outside and glass on the inside, you can see the different colored rings, the top two have 30% to 50% carbon content.

Composite Paddles:
Carbon, fiberglass, and other materials such as Kevlar, dynel, wood and others can be combined.  
Pros: Composite materials can improve flex and weight to strength ratio if designed well.
Different fabric materials and composition, weaves and wrapping/ layup can be used to influence flex characteristics and feel, there are many opportunities for innovation and testing in this area.
Cons: can be more expensive, new technology still being perfected.

Most blades have a foam core which should be made of high quality PVC foam.  Low quality foam can cause the blade to delaminate and bubble from heat/ moisture.

Fixed length vs. adjustable:
If you are the only one using the paddle and don't use it for travel, a fixed length paddle is the best choice as it is lighter and has better flex characteristics than an adjustable length or two piece paddle. If you are sharing the paddle with others, having an adjustable length is a nice feature. For travel, it's nice to have a two or even three piece paddle that can easily store in your luggage.

Double bend paddles:
The picture below shows a Werner Paddles double bend paddle shaft vs. straight shaft, illustrating how the double bend allows extra reach.  The double bend also allows a straighter grip angle for the lower hand and reportedly reduces flutter.  I have had a chance to try one of these but not enough to say if I like it better than a straight shaft  The lower hand grip is more ergonomic and comfortable but it did not have the snappy flex I am used to on a straight shaft.  I ordered one and am expecting it soon.  I will do some more testing and report my findings here.  Any comments are welcome. Werner does not recommend bent shafts for use in the surf.

Double Bend Update 3/1/11:  
I received a double bend Werner paddle about a month ago and have been using and testing it since.   Although the paddle does not seem to make me faster, I have noticed that my sore "tennis elbow" seems to bother me less after paddling with the bent shaft vs. straight shaft.  The more ergonomic grip seems to be easier on the lower arm grip, wrist and arm and I am very happy with that.  I'm not crazy about the way it flexes and the slightly heavier weight.  The flex is quite stiff and not as continuous and lively as the straight shaft race paddles I'm used to.  The scooped, relatively narrow and long Fuse blade (110 works well for me.  The paddle makes it easy to get a good reach (as illustrated in the picture above) and the narrow blade feels smaller than other blades with 110 size.   While the scoop in the blade helps getting a smooth, quick catch, it makes a clean release a little more difficult.  It tends to throw out more water than a straight blade if it is pulled straight up and out of the water and I had to adjust to get a nice clean release.  I did not have any issues switching the paddle but have heard others say it took them a while to adjust to switching sides with the double bend.  The unique Werner handle is comfortable and effective once I got used to it.  There is room for improvement (I would like to try a double bend with more flex and a blade with less or no scoop, also a little longer than the max. 86" height offered for me at 6'2") but the bent shaft has become my paddle of choice for racing and training.

My friend, Kevin Seid had a good analogy:  The paddle is like the samurai sword of the Zen Waterman.  It should  become like an extension of the body.  Intimate knowledge of your equipment is part of the way of the waterman.

Click here for Part 2 - The three ingredients of a powerful stroke. 

For more thoughts on how water moves over the paddle and paddle design

Paddle weights, just like the board weights claimed by manufacturers are often not very accurate (and manufacturers don't include the weight of the handle).  We have a reasonably accurate postal scale at the shop and I asked our two summer interns to weigh all the paddles (un cut and with the handle) and make a spreadsheet sorting them from lightest to heaviest paddle and our retail price.
I did not confirm the weights and it's possible that there are some mistakes but overall they seem pretty accurate.  Some paddles, like the Quickblades, come with different size blades and the girls did not specify the size weighed.  Also, some paddles had a plastic bag and/or hangtag which adds a little weight and some un-cut paddles are shorter than others.  Depending on how much shaft is cut off, the cut paddle will be a little lighter but then you have to add a little for the epoxy glue used.
So, here is a link to the spreadsheet:

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Click here to get a free ebook on choosing a paddle written by Bill Babcock of Ke Nalu paddles.  It's a little biased and should be called "choosing the right Ke Nalu paddle for you" but has some great information.

Thanks for reading, Aloha!

Links to the paddle technique series posts:
Paddle Technique Part 0: Introduction to SUP
Paddle Technique Part 1: Choosing the Right Paddle
Paddle Technique Part 2: The Three Ingredients of a Powerful Stroke
Paddle Technique Part 3: Stacking the Shoulders
Paddle Technique Part 4: Reach and Catch
Paddle Technique Part 5: Recovery, Paddle Length and Grip
Paddle Technique Part 6: Turning the Board
Paddle Technique Part 7: Catching Waves

After the 2009 BOP distance race L to R: Kainoa Beaupre, Edmund Pestana, Zane Schweitzer, Robert Stehlik

Robert Stehlik


  1. Terrific info, going to share with our girls from Ocean Girl Project sustainable surf camps for needy girls in Waikiki, we love Blue Planet!!

  2. I wish I had read this before I cut my paddle that I bought at my local surf shop. They told me to cut 5-6 inches over head, from head to handle and when I went out I was dissapointed because I felt I had to bend over more than I would like in order to get a good stroke. I would have done the temp. cut with the tape if I had read this, but at least I went 6" overhead. Thank you for the great tips!

  3. There's nothing like the Bent Shaft's from Paddle Hawaii ;

  4. Hello! This post couldn't be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!
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