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Cliff Jacobson Little Missouri River Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Cliff: Little Missouri River, Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  

Standing on a lump of coal.

I resisted the temptation to buy a bent-shaft paddle long after they were in vogue.  For one thing, I thought they looked goofy; for another, they lacked control when maneuvering.  And in whitewater, you couldn’t brace on the off side.  Then, one year, friends and I canoed the Steel River in Ontario with our solo canoes.  I trudged along with a 54 inch straight paddle, switching to a 58-incher in the rapids.  By day four I had developed some serious problems with my upper hand.  Continuous “C-stroking” had numbed the nerves so that I couldn’t paddle.  A day of rest helped enough to keep me going—that is, if I abandoned the “C” and switched sides to keep the course.  When I got home I tried a bent shaft paddle.  I’ve been hooked ever since. Now, the only time I use a straight paddle is when I paddle rapids; for this, a straight-shaft has no peer.


I’ve always preached that skills are more important than things, and bent-paddles are no exception.  Many people choose paddles that, in my opinion, are much too short; others select badly balanced paddles or ones with noisy splines.  Angled blades vary from near zero degrees to about fifteen.  What is best and why? And are paddles with double bends superior to those with single bends.  In all, it can be quite mystifying. 



For years, I used a paddle with a 14-degree bend and I was quite happy with it.  Then I noticed that many of the racers had changed to 12-degree bends.  I tried it and have been hooked ever since.  You wouldn’t think just two degrees would make much difference, but it does.  You seem to sit up a little straighter and are more in control with the shallower bend.  Try it, I think you’ll like it.  Also, try this interesting comparison: heft a 14 or 15 degree paddle and take a few strokes through the air.  Notice that the paddle feels awkward at the start, then later the awkwardness subsides.  Now, try the same test with a 12-degree paddle.  It feels good right from the start.  What about paddles with lesser (two to eleven degree) bends.  Frankly, I can’t tell the difference between them and straight.  We’ve been experimenting with different bends for decades.  For some time now, 12 degrees has been the bend to beat.



Some people who have shoulder problems say that the double-bend is kinder to their body than the single bend. Perhaps.  But most serous paddlers and virtually all racers, prefer a single bend. Racers power straight ahead (no J-stroke) then jointly switch sides on command.  Switching is almost instantaneous with a single bend; slow and awkward with a double bend--the double bend slows the paddle as the shaft drops through your hands.  In racing, every second counts!  If you have shoulder problems or just prefer to stroke along mostly on one side, seldom changing sides, you may like a paddle with a double bend.  Otherwise, I think you’ll like a single-bend better.



Paddle length is like women’s skirts—they go up and down on whim.  There’s also a formula for paddle length which in practice is often inaccurate. For example: to fit you with a paddle you generally sit on a stool of a given height and a measurement is taken from the floor. The assumption is that the stool is about the same height as your canoe seat, which it may not be.  The formula also doesn’t take into account how the canoe is loaded—i.e., how deep it sits in the water. Add more weight, the canoe rides deeper, remove weight and it rises.  In theory then, you should change paddles (length) as you change the load.  Finally, there’s the matter of control.  A long paddle provides more reach and control than a short paddle—braces provide more stability, cross-draws are more powerful, and steering, via a J, C or pitch stroke are more effortless.  Try the J-stroke with a 50 inch bent-shaft, then switch to a 54.  BIG difference!  A long paddle covers more distance in the water than a short paddle so less “angle correction” (less “pitch”) is needed to keep the canoe on course.



You should match your paddle length to the canoe you’re paddling and how you prefer to paddle.  If you exclusively paddle lakes in a quick, shallow cruiser, often switching sides, a relatively short  (50-52 inch) paddle is right for you. For river tripping in a moderate to high volume canoe where maneuvering among obstacles is the rule, a longer paddle (54-56  inches) is better.  And for big Royalex canoes and Canadian river trips, longer is better.  I might add that heavily loaded big water tripping canoes respond better to a slower, longer paddle stroke than do lightweight, lightly loaded cruisers.  A longer paddle works best here.


The bottom line: some canoeists have a shedful of paddles, each with different lengths and bends to suit their needs.  But good paddles are pricey and if you can afford just one or two top shelf stick, my preference would be a 54 inch, 12-degree carbon-fiber model (10-12 ounces) and a 56 inch straight paddle.  An ambidextrous T-grip provides the best control on s straight paddle you’ll use in rapids.


Cliff Jacobson

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