Choosing the right SUP paddle

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Introduction

Investing in the right SUP paddle is just as important to paddleboarding than selecting the right tyres for your car. It doesn’t matter if you have a sports car, a 4x4 or an estate car, the right tyres will make all the difference to drivability, fuel economy and safety. So the correct SUP paddle can make all the difference to your paddling experience.
 
As an experiment, try taking a garden brush and a spade and stand on something so you are off the ground and use the brush as your imaginary paddle. Do a good 20 or so strokes on either side. Now swap to the spade and see how much harder it is. That is the exaggerated difference between the cheap alloy paddle with plastic blade that you often get bundled with a board, compared to a decent glass fibre or carbon fibre paddle. Imagine how much easier it will be to paddle for several hours with something that is literally half the weight and twice the strength.

Material

Paddles tend to come with shafts made of one of 3 types of material:
  1. Aluminium – usually with a plastic blade that is riveted to the shaft.
  2. Glass fibre – with a glass fibre or nylon blade
  3. Carbon fibre – with a carbon blade
You can get all sorts of variations, for example one of my paddles is a glass fibre and bamboo composite which is a half-way house between a glass fibre and a carbon fibre paddle. You get the strength of the glass but the lightness and warmth of the bamboo. Plus it looks good! You can also get Kevlar shafts and blades which are ideal for white water and pure wood paddles which are ideal for paddling in cold climates.
 
Starting at the low end, aluminium is heavy (for a paddle), it will usually come in several sections and they tend to be quite loose fitting so you get quite a bit of movement on each stroke, losing power. The shafts are also very rigid and just like driving a car with no suspension, a paddle that is too rigid can take it's toll on your muscles. The low end ones also have a cheap plastic or nylon blade riveted to the shaft and again over time this can work loose. If you aren’t sure if paddleboarding is for you, the supplied paddle is fine to get you started. There are, of course, better quality aluminium ones, often powder coated in black or some other colour, sometimes they are telescopic rather than splitting in to three. These are the same weight and the shafts have the same feel, but they are better built and you don’t get movement at the joints. They are a good cheap upgrade, especially if you risk damaging your paddle.

One of the biggest drawbacks of aluminium paddles are that they are very cold to the touch. This is ok on a hot summers day, but if you paddle in autumn, winter or spring, you will find it too uncomfortable to hold without wearing gloves or taping it up. Aluminium paddles can corrode (especially around fittings), can leave dirty marks on your hands (unless they are coated) and can snap.
 
Glass fibre paddles are much lighter than aluminium and tend to be stronger with less movement around any joins but a decent amount of flex to act as a shock absorber for your muscles. You may get one piece, 2 piece adjustable or 3 piece travel paddles and in the case of the latter, you’ll find various methods to lock the shafts in place to prevent any movement during the paddle stroke. You get more power per stroke with a glass paddle compared to an aluminium one and because they are lighter, you can go for longer. If you have a glass fibre blade however, this can get damaged quite easily on it’s edges by catching it against rocks or dropping it whilst carrying it. The shafts are almost indestructible, but the blades can get nicks. Fortunately, repairing glass fibre is a doddle using any kit you can buy in Halfords. Just don’t expect a colour matching service! Invest in a case (at least for the blade) and it will last you a long time. For white water where a paddle’s blade could get damaged, you can get glass fibre paddles with nylon blades. The trade-off with the durable blade is less performance, but in white water, that really isn’t an issue.
 
Carbon fibre paddles are the most common performance upgrade. Carbon fibre paddles are lighter than any of the others as well as stronger. You get more power per stroke and can paddle for longer due to the reduced weight. You get a decent amount of flex without too much. Is there a trade-off? Well, apart from cost, no. They are almost indestructible, certainly the shafts are. The blades can be susceptible to edge damage just like glass ones because of their thin profile, but the material itself is very strong so it’s only likely to be a nick you’ll suffer. Again, I wouldn’t use a top end carbon fibre paddle for white water and I would always transport it in a cover, but a good carbon paddle should last a lifetime of paddling.
For both glass and carbon blades, you can get edge tape or edge protectors to protect your investment from damage.

Blade shape

I’ve talked about materials but blade shape is also important. A smaller, narrower blade (high cadence) is best for surfing, or white water or for those that wish to paddle using a fast stroke. A larger, wider blade (low cadence) gives more power on each stroke. For someone starting out, a smaller blade with a high cadence can prevent fatigue and muscle soreness as less water is being moved on each stroke – however, if you are paddling out in company, you may find you need more strokes to keep up, in which case a larger blade (low cadence) gives more power per stroke but also uses more muscle power. Most flat water tourers will use a larger blade and most surfers will use a smaller blade.
 
Blade angle can make a difference. A cheap aluminium paddle will have a blade perfectly inline with the shaft. However, most of the more expensive paddles will have a blade angled at between 10-13’. This allows the paddle to dig in to the water at it’s entry point, but also to leave the water cleanly at it’s exit point. A blade without an angle would be scooping water as it exited and that is inefficient.
 
Finally, you have a personal choice when it comes to handle. Most paddles will either be palm-shaped or T-shaped. Surfers and white water paddlers apparently prefer the T-shape as they can hold it better in rough water, but almost everyone else prefers the palm shaped handle, I do!
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