What goes into making a paddle? Not much There are just three main
components: a grip, a shaft, and a blade. That's it,
though the picture's complicated a bit by the fact some folks use "blade"
to mean "paddle." In practice, however, this is seldom a problem. Note
that grip, shaft, and blade can all be carved from one plank (as was the
case with my old 2 x 4) or crafted separately and then glued,
pinned, or swaged together. And not all paddles have straight shafts. In
some cases, the blade is set at a slight angletypically 5-15
degreesto the shaft. This increases the efficiency of the forward
stroke, though at some small cost in efficiency elsewhere. Not
surprisingly, bent-shaft or "hooked" paddles find favor with racers
and people who take long trips in skinny canoes. They're not too popular
with whitewater paddlers.
Of course there's more to most paddles than this. Many are wonders of
composite engineering, lovingly built from laminates of carbon fiber,
Kevlar, and fiberglass. Others are milled from wide planks of ash or
birch. Still othersand these are probably the most commonare
made by fitting molded plastic grips and blades to an aluminum shaft.
Choose the material to suit your taste and wallet. There are good
paddles of every typeand bad paddles, too, unfortunately. Just what
makes a good paddle? Easy. A good paddle is (1) light, (2) strong, (3)
comfortable, and (4) cheap. Not surprisingly, no one paddle is going to be
all these things. If you want both ultra light weight and high strength,
you'll have to give up "cheap." Plan on spending upwards of $100. If you
can settle for middling light weight, however, you'll find much less
Comfort is a personal thing. If you have small hands, you'll find that
hanging on to a paddle with a fat grip or thick shaft is tiring. By the
end of a long day, it may even be painful. The remedy? Try before you buy.
Borrow or rent a variety of paddles until you find one you like. I prefer
ash beavertails for most flatwater paddling and heavy-duty fiberglass
rock-crushers for whitewater. You may have other preferences. Always pay
attention to comfort, though. Better a cheap and ugly paddle that feels
good in your hand than a beautiful (and expensive) one that doesn't.
Speaking of "fit," there's more to fit than meets the hand. Paddles
come in different sizes. The size given in the catalogsit's almost
alway in inches, by the way, at least in American catalogsis usually
the overall length of the paddle (grip plus shaft plus blade).
Unfortunately, paddle blades vary tremendously in size and shape, and the
really important dimension is the length of the shaft. So be
prepared to do a little arithmetic when you go shopping.
But how do you determine shaft length? If you've been paddling for a
while, of course, you'll already know what it is. But what if you're just
No problem. Get a paddleany paddle will do, so long as it's
reasonable long. You can even use a piece of closet rod. Kneel on the
carpet in your living room, and turn the paddle upside-down, placing the
grip on the floor about six inches to the left of your left kneeor
to the right of your right knee, if you prefer. Hold the shaft vertical,
with your hands positioned about where you'd place them if your were
paddling. (You'll have to pinch the shaft with your upper hand. You
obviously can't hold the grip!) Now move your upper hand up and down the
shaft until your upper arm is more or less horizontal. When it is, have
someone measure the distance from the floor to your upper hand. (Too shy
to ask for help? Then just stretch a measuring tape along the shaft of the
paddle and note where your hand falls.) This is your shaft length. Add it
to the blade length of the paddle you've got your eye on and you'll have a
reasonably good idea what size you need.
It's not quite this simple, of course. Solo paddlers in beamy boats
will probably want a somewhat longer paddle. Paddlers in skinny canoes
with low-mounted tractor seats may opt for something shorter. And paddlers
who sometimes paddle while standing (fishermen, for example) may want a
much longer shaft, though they'll probably switch to a shorter
paddle when they sit or kneel. Still, the size you arrive at in your
living room is a good starting point. Borrow or rent a few different
paddlessome shorter, some longerand see which you like best.
Once you have your paddle, you're ready to go up the creek. Don't
forget a spare! 'Nuff said.
Be sure to research canoe paddles in the buyers' guide!
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