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.

Want to Rent a Souris River Quetico 17 for your next BWCA canoe trip?  Click Here

Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling


Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling
You may have noticed that on this sight, I have a tendency to “toot my own horn” a little here and there about Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling-related Subjects.   It’s either with our superior quality Souris River Canoes, or our common sense approach to canoe handling, tie-downs, eating northern pike, crating canoes for shipment, etc.    Well the bravado never ends and I’m now going to show you the absolute BEST bent shaft paddle combination for moving any canoe.    As of April 14, 2005, there is absolutely no other canoe shop on the planet who recommends this paddle combination and I’m pretty sure they’ve never even considered this before, ever. So, here goes – this is the very best you can get to move your canoe faster if you are a recreational paddler.

If you’ve ever used a bentshaft paddle, (and you held it properly) you undoubtedly noticed that the canoe moves faster forward than with the use of straight shaft paddles. That’s because a 14 degree (most common bend) paddle is all about “push” in the water.

How a bentshaft paddle works
How a bentshaft paddle works

In a bent shaft paddle, because the handle is bent forward, it clears the paddler’s upper torso as it’s drawn through the water. The bend allows this paddle to be pulled through the water with BOTH arms for a shorter, but powerful stroke. (“A” represents the water being pushed (or “pulled through” resulting in push “C” to the canoe) That’s all a bent shaft it really does well. Because of the bend, more blade pushes water more effectively without lifting water as you’ll see on the next page. Doing a J-stroke with a 14 deg. paddle requires that you really do a swing-over-with-the-top-of-the-paddle-handle-maneuver to make a J in the water with the paddle on it’s side in rudder position. It’s clumsy and inefficient so a lot of what you gained in a powerful stroke, you give up while paddle wrestling.

Bent shaft paddles are really made to paddle using the sit-and-switch racing technique which means that two paddlers are located on opposite sides of the canoe. They paddle with short, fast, synchronized strokes, usually three each, and then one paddler says HUT and they switch simultaneously to the other side without breaking stride. I can paddle like this for about a mile and then my shoulders start to ask what the heck I’m doing that for, anyway? If you like marathon paddling, that’s one thing. Otherwise, marathon stroking is kinda dumb for BWCA travel for regular folks. Instead of blowing out all of your ooompf on a race down the lake, my paddle combination will help you improve your present paddling power so you may not be as tired when you finally get there.

The Straight-shaft Paddle
It’s been around since the dawn of canoe time and the straight shaft canoe paddle isn’t ever going to leave. There’s nothing wrong with straight shaft paddles but there’s nothing wrong with improving either.

Straight shaft paddle stroke
Straight shaft paddle stroke

Because the straight shaft paddle does not clear the body of a paddler like a bent shaft paddle does, the paddle-swinging dynamics change. The paddle gets lifted higher into the air before it’s dunked in the water. Then, as it is pulled through the water by the blue arm, the green arm ends up actually pushing forward. This makes the blue arm point of contact act like a fulcrum or the “pivot point on a see-saw”. As the paddle is being pulled through the water, the shoulders of the paddler drop with is and pull it through the water. The result in this stroke is that in the Total Stroke length, only about 1/3 or 33% of the entire stroke is “push”. Starting at stroke-point “E” above, the paddle is not pushing water back but instead lifting water. Instead of effectively pushing the canoe forward, the lifting force of the paddle is actually pushing the paddler’s butt (and the canoe) down into the water.

But, this paddle does a J-stroke beautifully. Just by dropping the shoulders at the end of the stroke and rotating the shaft downward by the top of the paddle (thumb on the hand of the green arm turns down thereby standing the following-through paddle blade into a rudder at the back of the canoe). The end result is that a straight-shaft paddle is more about steering than about push.

14 degree bendtshaft paddle
14 degree bendtshaft paddle

The 7 Degree Bent shaft Paddle
This is the compromise paddle. As I type, I hear the drums beating in the distance by the “experts” on both sides as they eschew the sins of compromise, but to them I say “beat it”. Yes, a combination paddle (called a combi paddle) doesn’t do it’s best in either world.   It doesn’t give maximum push and it doesn’t give maximum steering.   But, just like combi skis for cross country skiing which do a pretty good job of skating AND classical skiing, the 7 degree bent shaft offers two great improvements in power and steering over both of it’s brethren paddles.  If you’re not a racer and not a slacker, you’ll probably really love this combi paddle!  We have many, many, many paddlers who would agree.

7 degree bentshaft paddle
7 degree bentshaft paddle

The 7 degree paddle does a great job because it gives more push from it’s total stroke than the straight shaft paddle. Yet, because it’s flatter (in the amount of bend) than the 14 degree, you can effectively make a good J Stroke with it. The result is about 1/3 more power per stroke over a straight shaft paddle. This allows the guy in the back to really kick it down if he needs to do so when maneuvering the canoe especially in the wind. And, if he needs to do a draw stroke, there’s less accommodation of the larger bend of the 14 deg. paddle.

I feel that this is by far the best combination of paddles for any “not-being-raced” canoe. Put a 14 deg. bent shaft in the bow and a 7 degree bent shaft in the stern. You’ll notice that your canoe’s speed will increase yet your effort will remain the same. Short of attaching a rocket engine to the stern, there’s not much more you can do to kick up your speed for a small investment. It works very well. Note: If you are paddling a heavy, floppy, plastic canoe made by a company that makes camp stoves and coolers, use of this paddle combo will elicit stares. You really need to upgrade your canoe before the paddles.

We have our 7 degree bent shafts custom built for us by Mitchell See them Here

How to size a 7 Degree Bent shaft Paddle: Over 6′ Tall = 56″ Under 6′ tall = 54″  More refined: Long torso shorter legs, use the 56″.  Shorter torso, longer legs, use the 54″.  Torso height is what determines paddle length. All that crap about putting the paddle on you toe and sticking the end under your armpit, or up to your nose, or up to your eyebrow – that’s all BS.  From the bottom of your butt, how high the seat is in the canoe, how low the canoe sinks into the water, and your shoulder height, and whether or not you are seated in the bow or stern,  pretty much determines the paddle length.  I’ve seen so many wives tale, made-up, ridiculous ways to measure a paddle, and then they want to argue with me after asking “What size?”.    If you know the answer, why bother to ask?