WHY BENT PADDLES ARE BEST FOR CRUISING CANOES
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
FreeStyle expert Jim Mandle, Buffalo River, Arkansas. Bell Wildfire solo canoe; Zaveral 12-degree carbon-fiber paddle. I resisted bent-shaft paddles long after they were in vogue. I thought they looked goofy, and in whitewater, I couldn’t brace on the off (back) side. Then, friends and I canoed the Steel River in Ontario with our solo canoes. I stroked along with a 56 inch straight paddle, switching to a 60-incher (for reach and control) in the rapids. By day four I had developed a serious problem with my control 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 (no more wrist-twisting) to keep the course. When I got home I tried a bent-shaft paddle. I’ve been hooked on ‘em ever since. Now, the only time I use a straight shaft is when I paddle rapids. Many people choose paddles that are, in my opinion, too short; others select badly balanced paddles or ones with noisy splines. Angled blades vary from 2-5 degrees to about 15. What is best and why? And are paddles with double bends superior to those with single bends? In all, it can be quite mystifying. PADDLE BENDS For years, I used a paddle with a 14-degree bend and I was quite happy with it. Then I observed that most racers had changed to 12-degree bends. You wouldn’t think that two degrees would make much difference, but it does. You seem to sit up straighter and have more control with the shallower bend. Try this comparison: heft a 14 or 15 degree paddle and take a few strokes through the air. Notice that the paddle feels awkward at first, then the awkwardness slowly fades. Now, try the same test with a 12-degree paddle. It feels good from the start, hardly feels bent at all. What about paddles with lesser (two to ten degree) bends? Frankly, I can’t tell much difference between them and straight blades. We’ve been experimenting with different bends for decades. At this writing, 12 degrees is the bend to beat.
Cliff: Little Missouri River, Teddy Roosevelt Natl. Park, North Dakota. "Standing on a lump of coal!" Zaveral 54 inch, 12-degree carbon-fiber paddle. SINGLE OR DOUBLE BEND (S-BEND) Some people who have shoulder problems say that the double-bend is kinder to their body than the single bend. Perhaps. But virtually all racers prefer a single bend. Racers power straight ahead (no J, C or pitch-stroke to correct the course) then switch sides on command. Switching is almost instantaneous with a single bend; it’s slow and awkward with a double bend--the curved shaft hangs up 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 don't think you'll like it at all.
Lighter is better. Period! But balance is equally important. A good bent shaft cruising paddle will weigh under a pound and have near perfect neutral balance. A paddle should not feel blade-heavy!
Wooden paddles sometimes produce a gurgle sound on entry. Two reasons: 1) Sloppy stroking/user error; and 2) thick blade edges which "punch" through the water rather than dagger silently into it. For durability, wooden blades (and edges) must be much thicker than carbon blades, so you need polished technique to run them quietly. Carbon-fiber paddles have knife-thin edges and are dead quiet on entry, even when used by paddlers with imperfect technique.
Cliff: Rio Grande River, Texas/Mexico border. Bell Wildfire Kevlar solo canoe. Zaveral straight-shaft 56 inch carbon-fiber paddle. As a rule of thumb, your bent paddle should be about two inches shorter than your straight paddle.
LENGTH AND CONTROL
There’s a formula for paddle length which in practice is often inaccurate. For example: to fit you with a paddle you 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 probably isn’t. The formula doesn’t take into account the tripping load of the canoe—i.e., how deep the craft sits in the water. Add more weight, the hull rides deeper, remove weight and it rises. In theory, you should change paddles (length) when you change the load.
Then, there’s the matter of control. A long paddle provides more reach and therefore greater control than a short paddle—braces are more stable, draws and cross-draws are more powerful, and steering, via the J, C or pitch stroke is more effortless because a bent blade runs closer to the keel-line than a straight blade. It’s a canoeing axiom that the closer to the keel-line you paddle, the less directional correction is needed. Try J, C or pitch-stroking with a 50 inch bent-shaft, then switch to a 54. BIG difference! The longer paddle covers more distance in the water so less “angle correction” (less “pitch” or pry) is needed to keep the canoe on course.
If all you want to do is power straight ahead on a flatwater lake or easy river, switching sides every three or four strokes, a shorter (formula-based) paddle length may be right for you. But if you want more power, a longer reach and greater control for braces and turns, upping the paddle-shaft length by a few inches pays rich dividends.
NOTE: A rule of thumb is that a bent-shaft paddle should be about two inches shorter than your straight paddle. My preference? I use a 56 inch paddle for serious rapids and a 54 inch, bent-shaft for the flats. These lengths work for me in my three Northstar solo cruising canoes, my ancient Dagger Venture-17 and my Pakboat 17. Overall body height has no relationship to paddle length! Why? Because you sit/kneel--not stand--in a canoe, and tall people have most of their height in the length of their legs.
BENT BLADES ARE KINDER TO YOUR BODY
There’s less twisting of the shaft and your hand during correctional strokes so carpal-tunnel and tennis-elbow aches are minimized. This is a huge advantage if you paddle a solo canoe for hours at a time.
Paddling with a bent-shaft is best described as more “push down than pull back”. With a straight paddle it’s more “pull back”. This saves your arms and back. The “rolled-over” directional grip of the bent-paddle allows a more relaxed hold—you don’t have to clutch the grip as firmly as with a straight paddle. Cross-bow draws are more efficient too because the outward angled blade has more reach and therefore moves more water.
About Splines: Some paddle blades have thick supporting splines on one or both sides for stiffening. Splines are noisy and they act like an airplane wing and create lift. Blades should run neutral in the water. Splined blades don’t! I will never own a paddle with a spline!
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, my preference would be a 54 inch, 12-degree (preferably ultralight carbon-fiber) model and a 56 inch straight paddle (for rapids). An inch or two either way won’t affect how you get around the pond.
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult rivers.
*If you want to introduce a teen or tween to canoeing and camping, I recommend my new book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL. It mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor skills everyone should know--basically a "how-to-camp and canoe book" disguised as an adventure novel. My hope is that survival story will keep their interest while the "how to stuff" will teach them right. Adults love it too!