Canoe Paddles – Does Size Matter?

canoe paddles
Canoe Paddles – How technical are they really?

For all the many, many years we’ve been selling canoes, renting canoes, and paddling canoes, we have had questions about paddles.   The paddling world seems obsessed with proper paddle lengths being very accurate.  When selling paddles, our customers will blow 45 minutes of their lives feeling the top handle of the paddle and swinging the paddle – air paddling.   I’m still not sure what anyone really learns by swinging a paddle through imaginary water while standing, but they do it all the time.   In our outfitting, it is safe to say that 70% of our rental customers do apply some strange methods for measuring their paddles.  It is usually related to a “technique” developed (and mentally imprinted) at a summer camp when they were a kid or something that Grandpa always said to do when selecting a paddle.

The measuring techniques that I usually get to witness include:

  • jamming the paddle on one’s toe and have the top handle touch one’s nose
  • jamming the paddle palm grip under an armpit.  If you look slightly in pain, that must be the one.
  • stand on one’s tippy-toes to shoulder height to accommodate the available selection
  • hold the paddle from ground to chin, nose, forehead, or other “high water marks”

Again, some people would be a bit obsessive with that straight shaft paddle length before heading out into the Boundary Waters.

Get a Grip

The other “deep” concern is the top of the paddle.  It can be a palm grip or a modified palm/T grip, or a regular T grip.  T grips often cause the greatest concerns.   When handing a T-grip paddle to the customer, I could see the aversion to the T grip about 98% of the time.  Consternation, concern, dread, etc.  There’s always a lot of gripping and handling of that T-grip paddle.   In many cases, there is a concern that the paddle will be the central focus of the Boundary Waters trip as if when seated in the canoe, the top grip of the paddle will be the center of focus for the next 7 days.    My 30+ years of experience with customers and guiding and paddling has easily proven otherwise.   Thirty seconds in the canoe and everybody completely forgets about that canoe paddle grip.   At the end of 7 days of paddling, I would ask if they had “issues” with the paddle and 99% had none regardless of paddle grip.  Some even touted how handy a T-grip was out there compared to a palm grip.   When a canoe tries to drift away, a T grip paddle can be used to catch the gunwale and bring it back in while one’s feet remain dry.   Why get wet if you don’t have to?   It sounds minor, but that  little convenience can brighten one’s day while loading the floating canoe (as it should be) with gear at the top of the portage which is usually next to the top of rapids.  A palm grip is worthless in this realm particularly if there is a strong current.

Critical Factors

So, what is actually critical in sizing a paddle properly?   Well, tt depends on a few variables.  The stern paddler has no canoe behind him/her so a longer straight shaft paddle would not be a problem.  Generally, a longer straight shaft paddle is desirable in the back because the stern paddler is in charge (and hopefully control) of all steering.  A long paddle aids in a more effective, smoother, J stroke.  At the end of each stroke -in the back of the canoe-, a longer paddle allows the ability to reach further behind the canoe which affects more leverage on the canoe like a ship’s rudder.  In the simplest terms, a ship always has the rudder at the very back of the hull. Swinging it one way or the other makes the bow of the ship correspond  by altering its course, as it should.  A paddle does the exact same thing as a rudder- in the stern of the canoe.   This is not to be confused with “ruddering” the canoe which is a very undesirable technique used by lazy stern paddlers who rely on their wives to provide power while they steer.  “Put your back into it, honey!”  (A blog post for yet another day)

In the bow of the canoe, that paddler is there primarily to contribute propulsion but not really steer.  For flat-water paddling, which the exception of maneuvering near shore, they should be paddling straight ahead, pulling the canoe forward in a coordinated effort with the stern paddler.  Does it have to be a coordinated effort?  Well, no.  Everybody can be flopping around and doing their own thing and the canoe will usually get to it’s destination, but coordinated paddling is most efficient and a future post in this blog.

Because the canoe that gets wider behind the bow paddler as opposed to the stern of the canoe which “pinches” off  behind the stern paddler, a “too long” paddle in the bow can be problematic.

As the bow paddler finishes a stroke with a paddle that is too long, the paddle can hit the canoe bottom/side (chine) behind the position.  A long paddle also ends up catching waves as it is swung back forward for another stroke.  It also can end up reaching forward at an angle that has zero benefit for propulsion whereby the paddle waits for the canoe to catch up to it and then the paddler finishes out the actual stroke.

If anything, the front paddle can easily be a bit short with little detrimental impact on moving the canoe forward with reasonably good proficiency.

So, what determines paddle length for a “rule of thumb” sizing?  Two things:

  • Torso length
  • The canoe being paddled

Torso Length:  From seated butt to shoulders, that is the only part that matters when sizing a paddle.  Unless you are planning on standing up for the entire trip, leg length is relatively meaningless.  The goal with paddle sizing is to make certain that the entire blade of the paddle swings through the water while seated in the canoe.  If 1/3 of the blade doesn’t immerse on a stroke, that paddle is a bit short and the paddler is not getting the most bang for the buck in each stroke based on the natural body framework.  Sure, the paddler could drop their arms a bit to make sure that the paddle goes deeper, but that’s one more thing of which to be conscious, so a closer fit is generally desired.

The canoe: If you are in a narrow canoe that will be loaded down, the top of your shoulders will be closer to the water.  You will need a slightly shorter paddle.  If you need a 56″ straight shaft paddle and are in a Souris River Quetico 17,  you would need a 52-54″ straight shaft paddle in Wenonah MN II.  The Wenonah has lower seats in it and due to it’s narrow size, sits lower on the water.  Shorter paddles are the generally rule for more efficient paddling.
The Paddle Measuring Technique – Rule of Thumb Method

For general purpose canoes like a Souris River Quetico 17,  Souris River Quetico 18.5, Grumman 17 or an Old Town Discovery 174, sit in straight-backed chair and have somebody measure from the chair seat to the nose.   For a straight shaft paddle, add 26″ to that number.  So, if the distance from seated butt to nose is 30″, add 26″ and your straight-shaft paddle length is 56″   For a bent-shaft paddle with a 14-15° bend, add 20″ .

For a Wenonah canoe, measure from seated butt to chin (instead of nose) for your base measurement and you should be fine.

Summary- Does Size Matter?

So how important is all this for recreational, general purpose paddling?  If your straight shaft paddle is 2″ too long based off the Rule Of Thumb method, but it’s all that is available,  does it matter?  Nah.  If you were in an Olympic canoe race it “might” matter, but for regular paddling it doesn’t mean much especially with a well-designed, general-purpose, canoe.  Paddling specialty racing canoes – yes, it will matter more.  The more specific the intended use for a canoe designed for say, racing; the more an accurate canoe paddle length will matter.  And, this will be the case particularly for racing paddles AKA bent-shaft paddles.  Even then, perfect paddle length only applies to two, tuned paddlers, looking to shave seconds, (not minutes) off their time to win a race.  For all the rest of us, this is meaningless and a complete waste of mental energy in my opinion.   Over time, you may find a paddle length that most naturally fits you, but if the one you are presently using is off an inch or two, you’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll forget about the paddle in 2.5+ foot white caps.  At that point, you will be really much more concerned about the canoe and how IT handles rough water.  Again, a whole other blog post.

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