Why use a paddle with wing blades?
Racers as well as recreational paddlers often think that wing paddles are “better” than other types of paddles. Let me correct this misconception right away. Wing blades are only better at doing a forward stroke, and only if the forward stroke is done with good technique. For all the other strokes one can do with a paddle (bow rudder, stern rudder, draw, low brace, high brace, boof, etc) the wing blade is pretty useless.
This means that wing paddles should only be used in conditions and with craft that allow you to make full use of the benefits of a wing paddle, and where other paddling strokes are not really required. Forget about using wing paddles with a whitewater kayak or with a wide, stable recreational kayak or sit-on-top. If your kayak is made for speed in a straight line, like a racing kayak, surfski or touring kayak, and if it is used primarily on flat water or on the open ocean, a wing paddle might be the right choice.
Paddle shafts basically come in two configurations: straight or bent. With a wing paddle, you want to use a straight shaft. Without going into too much detail here, a straight shaft works better with the way you need to pull the paddle with your hands (not tight).
If you’re a beginner or have problems with tendinitis, get a shaft made out of fibreglass. They are more flexible than the other options, which is what you want. The flex will protect your joints and tendons from injuries.
A seasoned paddler can consider a shaft made of glass/carbon. Different ratios are being used. The higher the carbon vs glass ratio, the lighter the shaft tends to be, but it also become stiffer. Stiffness allows you to transfer power more directly to your blades through the shaft, but it puts a lot of strain on your muscles and tendons too. Personally I prefer a 30% carbon, 70% glass mix. I suffer from tendinitis and I don’t compete in sprint races, so no point in going for a stiffer paddle.
If you’re serious about sprinting and your body is up for some punishment, go for a full carbon shaft. But I would suggest that you get another paddle too with a more flexible shaft for long distance training sessions.
The feather angle is the angle between the two blades. I will write a separate article about feather angles sometime, but for wing paddles, most paddlers should be perfectly happy with a feather angle of 60°. If your paddling stroke is near vertical, consider a higher feather angle, maybe 70°.
Wing paddles are fairly long compared to most other paddles. The length of the paddle is not determined by how strong you are, but by your own height and arm length.
As a rule of thumb, stand next the paddle and stretch your one arm out above your head. You should be able to curl your fingers around the tip of the blade.
If you have quite long arms in relation to your body length, you might want to go a bit longer. If your kayak is substantially wider than your hips, you might also need a longer paddle to get proper reach. If you have short arms, go a bit shorter with the paddle.
With every paddling stroke you make, you lift the paddle out of the water. Paddle for a few kilometres and you will lift the paddle a few thousand times in a session. So it goes without saying that a lighter paddle will be nicer to use. But be careful about trying to go too light.
There are two ways for a paddle manufacturer to make a paddle lighter. Either use material that can give enough strength while reducing weight (like carbon fibre), or by simply putting less material in overall. This goes for the shaft as well as the blades.
As explained earlier, a lot of carbon makes the paddle very stiff, which can cause some chronic injuries. On the other hand, a paddle that simply does not have enough material in it will be weak and fail you at some point.
A good adult-sized wing paddle should weigh under 1000g. There are wing paddles as light as 650g, some of them of very good quality, but be careful about that stiffness.
Most wing paddles come with round shafts and no defined grip area. This is perfectly fine for typical wing paddle conditions.
Many shafts have a high gloss finish that become slippery when wet. When I get a new wing paddle, I always take some 1000 grit water sandpaper and remove the high gloss surface finish where I hold the shaft with my hands. Just breaking that high gloss finish is all you need to get a better grip. You don’t want the grip area to become too rough, otherwise it will cause blisters on your hands very quickly.
For river use (running rapids like those on the Fish, Dusi and Umkomaas marathons) I recommend an oval grip for the right hand. This is very usefull for making sure you hold the paddle correctly when making a stroke in the middle of a rapid. Some companies offer ovalized shafts (meaning the shaft itself is oval in the grip area). Most wing paddle manufacturers will be happy to glue a plastic insert onto the shaft with some air/heat shrink tubing covering it.
Split shafts have some advantages and some disadvantages compared to one-piece shafts.
- Easier to travel with.
- Enables you to adjust the length and feather angle of your paddle.
- More expensive than a simple straight shaft.
- The split is a potential weak point in the shaft.
- The split mechanism adds a bit of weight to the shaft.
- The flex along the length of the shaft is not as consistent as the flex on a one-piece shaft.
For children, a split makes a lot of sense, as the length can be adjusted as the child grows. For adults who do a lot of travelling with their paddles, splits makes a lot of sense too. If you generally just paddle at your own club and always use the same length and feather angle, it is a bit pointless to get a split paddle.
Blade outline profile
There are three distinct blade outline profiles: parallel sides, broad tip, narrow tip.
Parallel sides are ideal for most paddlers in most conditions. Seriously. Don’t get one of the other shapes if you don’t have a specific reason to do so. Parallel sided blades give a smooth entry and a gradual build-up of power as you pull the blade.
Broad tips are great for sprints. It loads immediately with a lot of power the moment you slam the blade into the water. But it is hard on your muscles and tendons. Unless you’re specializing in sprints, don’t use these blades.
Narrow tips are not very common and also not very popular, for good reason. The only benefit of this shape is that it doesn’t load with any real power when the blade enters the water, which can be beneficial if you suffer from tendinitis. But this shape also lends itself to developing bad paddling technique. If tendinitis is your concern, rather go for a smaller size parallel sided blade on a flexible glass shaft.
Blade size is determined by your strength as well as the type of paddling you do. Stronger paddlers will require bigger blades. Also, for sprints you would want a bigger blade than what you would use for long distance paddling.
Most wing paddle manufacturers offer at least 3 sizes of blades for adults, plus kids sized blades.
Wing blade shape – creating lift
At last we’re getting to the thing that makes a wing blade a wing blade: the cross-sectional wing profile. In essence, the wing profile creates “lift” when it moves sideways through the water, the same way an aeroplane’s wings create lift when it moves forward through the air.
If you put the wing blade into the water and just pull it straight towards the back (parallel with the kayak, in other words), you’re really just pulling a spoon-shaped blade through the water, which is only marginally more efficient than a flat blade. But if you pull the wing blade sideways through the water (away from your kayak) while pulling it towards the back at the same time, you’re getting the benefit of the “lift” propelling you forward, in addition to the force you’re exerting on the blade to pull yourself forward.
This extra lift that you gain with a wing paddle only adds about 3% to your performance. 3% doesn’t sound like much, but that translates to an extra 3 meters over every 100 meters you paddle. For free.
Wing blade movement through the water
In a nutshell, this is what you want to accomplish with your stroke: the blade needs to enter the water close to the boat, almost vertical, and then, as it gets pulled towards the back of the boat, it should also be moving away from the boat. The blade should move in a straight line from entry to exit. If the movement is done with an arc instead, you are doing a sweep stroke, which main purpose is to turn the boat, not propel it forward. The straight vector line movement combines the pure pull action of a normal forward stroke with the sideways wing action of the foil shape to gain extra lift/forward motion.
The actual technique to accomplish the specific blade movement is described here in detail.