Many riders are more concerned about the board than the paddle. A paddle is more individual specific than a board and therefore is much more significant in terms of paddling efficiency. Obviously there are good boards and much better boards, however boards are generic in what is available for riders at each specific level. You either ride a super narrow race SUP, a more stable and wider race SUP. Surf SUPs are mostly based on rider weight, ability and type of surf. The only other variable that determines performance is construction and therefore the weight of the board. There are many more significant variables to a paddle.
Rider height, weight, strength and (dare I say) board type all play a role in paddle dimensions. These are the following variables in every paddle:
- Shaft length
- Shaft diameter
- Shaft stiffness
- Shaft material
- Shaft shape
- Blade size
- Blade shape
- Black stiffness
- Blade angle
- Blade material
Each variable has some sort of effect on each other variable. The longer the shaft, the more flex it will have and therefore shaft material has to be a consideration based on the rider weight, height and blade size – for example. Certainly I could be over thinking all of this. And part of what I enjoy about SUP is the simplicity however, having an understanding and appreciation for the technical stuff, paying attention to the variables can make a difference that is in fact significant.
A paddle with a blade that is wider on the bottom (greater surface area at the bottom half of the blade) will have a better and more stable catch. Getting the paddle set is easier too. A blade that is curved on the bottom is more forgiving. The greater the angle of blade to shaft offset the harder it is to set the paddle at the front end of the stroke (the catch). However, the blade will release easier at the back end of the stroke. A straighter shaft to paddle offset will provide more bite on the catch however it will not release as efficiently. Generally, shorter paddlers require less angle as the torque, due to a shorter shaft length, is less. Shorter paddlers’ reach is less and it is therefore generally easier to set the catch. A narrower, longer and more evenly distributed blade shape requires greater attention to technique. However, power transfer is better and more consistent throughout the stroke. So generally, for racing/touring the blade should be smaller and a longer, more slender blade shape is advised. It can be bigger for surfing with a more tear drop shape for quick acceleration. Shorter paddles should consider a more flexible shaft whereas taller paddles will need a stiffer shaft as a longer shaft will naturally flex more.
Now with paddle length there is still some debate. Almost every single manufacturer will give you slightly differing information. Some believe that it should be as long as your reach is high, others say you should be able to bend your wrist over the top of the paddle (which would make it 2-3 inches shorter by comparison). For surfing, paddles should be shorter, blades bigger and shafts stiffer – as I have mentioned). For long distance, a longer paddle with a small blade and more flexible shaft will improve efficiency. Paddle length is partly personal preference. However, too short and you’re going into your lower back. Too long and you’ll be dropping your elbow putting excess strain on the anterior of the shoulder. A good starting point in 10% taller than your height and adapt it from there. Now the board also comes into play here. If you’re on a board that stands up out of the water, you may want to consider going for a slightly longer paddle (this is mostly applicable to race/touring boards). The difference can be up to 1 inch or a touch more. For surfing, some are going for paddles that are the same height as they are tall. My advice: apply the 10% rule, use an adjustable paddle. Work within 1-2% of that length either way and see what feels most comfortable. Length is more about comfort than performance, although comfort will influence performance the longer you’re out on the water.
Weight is also something worth considering for long distance racing. For example, if one paddle is 30 grams heavier than another, at a casual 40 strokes per minute, that is an additional 1.2kg of lifting every minute. Over 10km, that works out to between 72kg and 96kg for good to pro paddlers depending on conditions. 1 word: fatigue. Fatigue effects technique which effects efficiency. Efficiency is key. Unless you’re just a brute force powerhouse, efficiency is the single most important element in any sport and even more so in water sports.
I’m sure you can see that there is much more to selecting a paddle than most of us would consider. Stroke mechanics will not be an exact science – there are too many variables to be 100% definitive, but getting it as close to 95% will do nicely.