Finding the right paddle craft

By Justin Walker January 7, 2015
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From the shop to the shoreline, this complete guide to finding the right paddle craft and gear has got you covered. It’s time to hit the water.

Sea Kayak

Whether testing yourself on a Bass Strait crossing, enjoying a leisurely exploration of one of Sydney Harbour’s secluded bays, or simply wetting a line to catch dinner, the sea kayak will get you there – and back again.

Also known as a “touring kayak” – to differentiate it from its whitewater brethren – the sea kayak is versatile enough to be used for everything from estuary paddling, through to open water (coastal, ocean crossings, expeditions, big rivers) and is the most popular kayak type sold in Australia.

The sea kayak’s appeal is its robustness and versatility. It tracks easily through rough water, thanks to its length (as a guide, those looking for an ocean-ready sea kayak should use 5 metres as a minimum length) and its rudder (some models don’t have a rudder and are popular with traditionalists).

It is also relatively stable, so easy to master, and its impressive load capacity makes it a favourite with overnight/multi-day waterborne explorers; these craft can lug up to two paddlers, and their gear, easily; load capacities of 200kg+ are not uncommon.

The biggest influence on sea kayak (or any watercraft) pricing is the material it is made of. Your buying decision will also be governed by what level of performance you require; basically, the more rigid the craft, the easier it will cut through the water – making it faster – with less paddler input.

In terms of material, the cheapest is plastic. This material is also the heaviest (and thus the slowest) and has the most flex, but it is very tough (although not unbreakable); next up the cost line is fibreglass, which is relatively stiff and easily repaired; Kevlar and/or carbon significantly ups the price of your kayak, but offer the best in-water performance and rigidity, as well as significant weight savings.

Sea kayaks made from either of these materials require more care in and out of the water; keep clear of rocks and rugged beaches – and avoid dropping them.

A sea kayak should include, at a minimum, these standard features: ample storage (most have two storage compartments, covered with a waterproof lid); easily adjusted seat; easy-to-operate rudder system (leave rudderless models until you’re more experienced, unless you’re certain that’s what you want); and plenty of deck rigging up top to store water bottles and other gear you need easy access to.

You can also specify numerous accessories: custom seats, compasses, electric (or manual) bilge pumps, etc. No matter what spec of kayak you go for, make sure you throw in a marine first-aid kit (and know how to use it).

Stand Up Paddle board

Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP for short) has risen dramatically in popularity over the past five years, thanks mainly to its fast learning curve; you will easily be up and paddling on your first day.. Originating as an alternative wave-riding device for surfers, SUPs can be found all along our coastline and in many rivers and lakes.

The SUP is of a similar design and construction to a Malibu (longboard) surfboard; most models are a combination of a foam core and fibreglass/plastic outer layer and can be fitted with between one and three fins (ala a surfboard) which assists in manoeuvring these long craft.

Inflatable SUPs are a recent addition to the sport. Most models are inflated via a hand pump and, when they are properly inflated, are quite firm, albeit not as solid as a solid-material board.

Another benefit of an inflatable SUP is its ease of storage when compared to its solid-state counterpart, which also means they’re much more portable when it comes to planning that SUP-focused holiday.

Kayak Paddle types

Length, weight, blade type and construction (one- or two-piece) are all important factors in choosing the correct kayak paddle. Kayak paddles have two blades, at opposite ends of a connecting shaft. These blades can be feathered or unfeathered.

The term “feathered” describes the positioning of the two paddle blades at opposing angles. This is claimed to increase paddle efficiency in the water and through the air; as the lower blade hits the water at the optimum angle (there is no set “perfect” angle; individual paddlers have their own preference) for pulling through the water, the opposing paddle is angled to “slice through” the air, with the least impediment to the paddler.  

To determine your optimum length, Australian Canoeing suggests this method:

“The correct length paddle for [sea] kayaks… will be such that the bottom blade is just fully submerged as it passes the paddler’s knee whilst the top hand is at around eye height.”

In terms of construction, the one-piece paddle is stronger and simpler, meaning less maintenance and more reliability. Most one-piece paddles are also lighter.

Negatives include storage constraints due to length, and the feathering on one-piece units is not adjustable. The two-piece paddle takes up less storage space, and you can adjust feathering. And they are the preferred option for a spare.

During the course of a day’s paddling, you will use your paddle continuously; a lightweight paddle will minimise muscle fatigue that, in turn, maintains stroke efficiency. The most affordable paddles are of aluminium (shaft) and plastic (blades) construction.

These are also the most inefficient, due to weight and plastic’s inherent flex. Move up to the top tier of paddles and you’ll score a seriously stiff and light, full carbon-fibre paddle. A full-fibreglass paddle/shaft combo is the most popular – and offers the best bang for your bucks.

In terms of paddle blade shape, there are two options: symmetrical or asymmetrical. Then, you also have to consider the shape of the blade’s cross-section.

This can be flat, spooned, wing or dihedral. An asymmetrical-shaped blade is recommended for ocean touring as, due to the blade being at an angle when it cuts through the water, the asymmetrical blade’s extra surface area on the outer section, as well as the extra blade-space above the middle section, compensates for those parts of the blade (usually the upper middle section and inside edge) that are not in the water. In other words, even without the entire blade in the water, you don’t sacrifice too much in the way of propulsion.

As its name suggests, a spoon blade “spoons” the water, providing high levels of forward motion, albeit at the expense of bracing power. For those just starting out, a flat blade is the preferred option; it offers decent forward stroke power, and also provides more “bite” when bracing.

A dihedral blade eliminates blade “fluttering” (when your flat blade struggles to “push through” water due to the amount of force being applied to it by paddler and water, it starts to flutter).

The dihedral blade’s combo of two slightly different angled planes on its face, separated by a raised edge that acts in a similar way to a ship’s bow, helps the blade break through/disperse the force of the water directed at the paddle face, providing a more efficient stroke.

This also means the dihedral blade doesn’t “hold” or “push” water as effectively as a flat-planed blade, with the result being a reduction in forward stroke power.

The perfect paddle blade size will only become apparent after many hours on the water. And, it is directly influenced by the type of paddling you do, which influences the stroke angle you implement; high-angle brings more power, while a low-angle stroke is used for touring.

Theoretically, the larger the blade area, the more power output, but this will depend on paddlers strength, fitness and size – and kayak width, tracking and weight. Yep, for a simple-looking piece of equipment, there’s a lot more to a paddle than you think.