Paddle Performance Terminology

Wouldn't it be nice if all paddle reviews used a consistent vocabulary to describe the subtleties of a paddle's performance, quality, and feel? We think so too. In an effort to encourage greater consistency and quality in these reviews, we've composed a list of common paddle performance terms. Maybe we won't get the entire world-wide paddling community to adopt our standards, but at least we can ensure consistency in our own reviews.

To make sure our readers understand the common paddle performance terms we use, we've defined them below. We've also included some basic questions to help you evaluate each performance characteristic for yourself. If you're inspired like us, use our terms and questions to review every paddle you can grab, then submit your reviews to RoguePaddler.com. Help us build the best, most useful collection of paddle reviews on the Web!

Specifications

The most helpful paddle reviews include the following specifications:

shaft

How many pieces is the shaft? (one-piece, two-piece, four-piece, etc.)
Is the shaft "featherable"? (able to set the blades at offset angles)
What is the shaft material? (wood, aluminum, fiberglass, carbon-fiber, etc.)
How long is the shaft? (length, in centimeters, not including the blades)
How wide is the shaft? (diameter, in centimeters)

blades

What are the blades constructed from? (wood, plastic, carbon-fiber, etc.)
How long is the blade? (length, in centimeters, from tip to base)
How wide is the blade? (width, in centimeters, at widest point)

Performance

Well-written paddle reviews typically comment on most or all of the following performance characteristics:

catch & slip

How firmly does the blade catch hold of the water as you reach forward and plant it in the water? If a paddle has good "catch" (sometimes also called "snatch"), it feels like you're planting the blade in solid ground and pulling the kayak forward. If a paddle "slips," the blade doesn't immediately grip the water. Instead, the first few inches of travel in your stroke are lost (and a portion of your effort is wasted) before the blade finally bites in sufficiently to move you forward.

pull-through
& flutter

How well does the blade maintain its grip on the water throughout the stroke? "Pull-through" and "flutter" are similar to the concepts of "catch" and "slip," but they refer to the performance of the blade throughout the whole stroke, whereas "catch" and "slip" generally refer only to the first few inches of travel immediately after you plant the blade at the beginning of the stroke. Pull-through and flutter are also affected by paddling effort. The more pressure you exert on the paddle, the more likely you are to experience flutter (vibration) in the shaft and blades.

stiffness
& flex

How stiff or flexible are the blades and shaft? The stiffer the shaft and the blades seem, the more your effort will be transferred to the blades, but the harder it will feel on your joints and lower back. Generally speaking, racing paddles are extremely stiff with little or no noticeable flex, whereas most touring paddles exhibit some minor flexibility (sometimes referred to as a "springy" or "dampening" feel) and feel more comfortable during a long day of paddling. Extremely stiff paddles are often associated with lower back pain and tendonitis.

acceleration
& efficiency

How quickly and effectively does the paddle accelerate the kayak to a comfortable cruising speed? How effectively does the paddle maintain average cruising speed (3.5 to 4 mph; or 3 to 3.5 knots) with a minimum of physical effort? These characteristics are influenced by the other performance characteristics listed above, and, of course, the design of the kayak you're paddling.

Generally, a wider blade will accelerate and turn a kayak more quickly (called "power"), but will also require more effort per stroke because a wide blade generates more resistance as it is pulled through the water. A narrower blade will require a few extra strokes to accelerate the kayak up to cruising speed, but will require less effort per stroke (called "efficiency") because a narrower blade passes more easily through the water.

Ideally, unless you prefer to own a quiver of several different paddles specifically-designed for different paddling situations, a good paddle will exhibit a nice blend of both characteristics: decent acceleration, but also good efficiency. For touring kayakers, efficiency is unquestionably the more important characteristic because it reduces fatigue over long crossings, but for playing in surf or whitewater, a quick-accelerating, fat blade is preferred.

maneuvering
& bracing

How quickly and effectively does the paddle initiate turns? How much lift is generated for support when sculling the paddle back and forth to brace against waves or capsizing? Generally, the narrower the blade, the less easily and effectively it will initiate turns, and the less lift it will produce when sculling the blade to brace. For maneuverability, therefore, wider is usually better. But keep in mind, the opposite is true for efficiency.

Ideally, a blade will be sufficiently wide to effectively turn and brace a kayak, but not so wide as to compromise efficiency, tire you out, or give you lower back pain.

aesthetics, durability,
& feel

How attractive and aesthetically-pleasing is the paddle? How well does it hold up to typical abuse? How does the quality feel when you hold it in your hands and pull it through the water? Aesthetics refers to any concerns you might have about the color, appearance, or "fit and finish" of the shaft and the blades. One important aesthetic concern about two-piece paddles, for example, is whether or not there is "play" or rattling in the ferrule (the joint where a two-piece paddle joins).

Durability refers to the actual strength and damage resistance of the shaft and the blades. Feel is the most subjective performance characteristic of a paddle. It's hard to quantify or explain, but it's vitally important to any helpful review. Essentially, ask yourself this question: Do I feel like I'm paddling with a shovel, a well-made tool, or a flawless work of art?

These are the most common and most consistently useful terms for describing the performance of a particular paddle. Of course, there are many other ways to help explain how a paddle feels and functions. Use a clever analogy or metaphor. Compare the paddle to another, similar paddle on the market. Describe the emotions that the paddle inspires when you hold it. Whatever it takes, try your best to capture an accurate impression. Your fellow paddlers will thank you for your advice.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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