Kayak paddle set up

The feather angle on your kayak or ski paddle is very important as it can affect your paddle stroke in both positive and negative ways.
Here are some quick guidelines to consider in setting your paddle up;

    1. Twist: left or right? There is little you can do with his parameter as you will be either one of the other. It is rare to find an ambidextrous kayaker re twist. In an ideal world you can choose which one is best for you, in the real world those who don’t have access to a two piece paddle are stuck with what is available where and when you learn.

    Some coaches say twist is often associated with handedness (i.e. right handed people are often right twist), but not always. It is however a good starting point.

    A quick and easy way to tell is do some “air paddling” while standing and have someone watch if the paddle orients itself correctly on “entry”. If you end up slicing (where the paddle would enter parallel to the side of the kayak) you need the opposite twist.

    A more empirical way to know which twist is right for you is see if you always fall in over and over again at the start of the stroke on the same side. If the blade slices in every time on a given side it is probably a twist issue.

    2. Length: this is often determined as a function of sitting height over the water in the kayak.

    A good starting point (that assumes a relationship between limb length and torso length) is to sit holding a paddle or a broom handle, etc. with your upper arms parallel to the ground and your elbows bent at 90º with your hands up (i.e. perpendicular to the ground). Grip the shaft so that your thumbs are on the inside of the grip. Have someone measure the distance between your thumbs. For flatwater kayaking this distance equals ~1/3 of your overall paddle length, the middle third. The other two thirds are located from each thumb to the tip of the paddle.

      For beginner flatwater paddlers shorten this distance slightly (up to 5 cm). New paddlers tend to paddle with a flatter stroke (left-right angle) and have poorer posture (i.e. they are shorter in the kayak).

      For beginner surfski paddlers shorten this distance (up to 15 cm). New paddlers tend to paddle with a flatter stroke (left-right angle) re flatwater paddlers and slouch more in the ski.

      For more advanced surfski paddlers shorten this distance (up to 5-15 cm). More experienced ski paddlers tend to paddle with a slightly flatter stroke (left-right angle) re flatwater paddlers and very skilled ski paddlers will sit up taller in the ski if conditions allow.

      In rough and sloppy water shorten the paddle slightly (0.5-2 cm). This allows a slightly faster stroke rate for the same hull speed (i.e. less force per stroke) which improves balance in most paddlers.

      In flat glassy calm water lengthen the paddle slightly (0.5-1 cm). This allows the paddler to slow the stroke rate slightly by stabilize the paddle relative to the kayak more and increasing the force per stroke without compromising balance too much.

      If you grip too narrow on your paddle shaft you use a lot of bicep and chest strength (smaller muscles). A wider grip will allow you to use more torso and back strength (bigger muscles). For each person there will be a happy medium based on your biomechanics.

      Too short and paddlers slouch, pull with the arms and have poorer technique.

      Too long and paddlers have trouble with balance at the entry and exit.

    3. Twist angle: Determining the twist angle will have a drastic effect on your stroke.

    Newer paddlers are best with a fairly flat angle, say 60º a this allows easy entries with minimal need for a steep angle on entry (which may compromise balance) and an easy exit. With a wing blade, a steeper angle will require better exit mechanics. If the angle is too steep for your exit skill, the blade will often pull under the hull, or grab on the exit leading to a swim or very poor balance, which will affect the entry on the other side, and so on.

    As paddlers become more skilled the angle can be changes to accommodate progressing skill and water conditions. If you have a very good exit and the water is flat (re your perception) you may select a steeper angle (toward 75-80º). However, exit mechanics need to be very good or you will pull yourself off balance when you try to extract the blade or you pull back too far.

    For very rough water when you know you’ll be paddling flatter (left right) to keep you centre of gravity low, flatten out the angle on the blade back toward 60º.

    4. Blade shape: There are many blade designs on the market. Some have a faster entry, some cleaner exit, some feel like they pull more, etc. Try a few out, often the nicer feeling ones cost more and are worth the difference.

    5. Blade size: Hull speed is a function of force per stroke (the portion thereof that is transmitted to the hull) and stroke rate. Big blade often = slower rate, small blade often = higher rate. The trick is matching blade size to event distance, paddling skill level and torso strength.

    For very skilled, strong and experienced adult men or genetically gifted and skilled women doing events of under 10-15 minutes a full size men’s sprint blade is ideal.

    For less experienced or less strong adult males doing events under 10-15 minutes or all adult men/women doing distance events (10-15 minutes or longer) a mid-size blade is often sufficient.

    For younger or new paddlers, a junior or small blade is often adequate and may yield better results.

    6. Grip guides: I advocate the use up tape guides on the paddle shaft to facilitate proper hand position. if you don’t have an ovalized paddle shaft you may alos choose to add a finger key to the griping side (i.e. a thin flat stick – popscicle style, under a layer of electrician’s tape).

    On the grip/twist side build up a slight ridge on the outside of the thumb (2-3 wraps of electrician’s tape as a base then either fold or twist the tape to build the slight ridge, then tape over it again to smooth off the edges). Newer paddlers are best to use a small built up section.

    On the non-twist side, I would recommend only a thumb side grip guide and if you want one a little finger guide.

    I’ve seen some paddlers from Southern California with moulded grips maybe someone can share details on these.

    7. Shaft shape: some paddles are ovalized; on round shafts it is best to ovalize the gripping side (twist hand) to allow you to control the paddle by rolling it through your fingers rather than flexion/extension of your wrist.

I’ll see about posting some pictures on this later.

Alan Carlsson
Engineered Athlete Services

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