A well-designed and well-trimmed sea kayak will usually maintain a straight course on the glide between proper paddling strokes (assuming no wind or current influences). Once the boat is up to a casual touring speed, the inertia of the boat can be maintained with only casual, forward strokes that help maintain that glide with very little effort.
A longer paddle (220 centimeters-plus or about 86 inches — 1 centimeter is 0.39 inches) that enables the blade to enter the water at a rather acute angle as opposed to nearly vertical, encouraged by a casual pulling stroke, is oftentimes all that is necessary to maintain an acceptable, pace-keeping forward motion. A short paddle usually won’t reach out far enough to paddle in this relaxed, “touring” style. Conversely, a long paddle planted nearly horizontally in the water becomes cumbersome if too long.
Size of Paddler, Boat Matters
Naturally the size of the paddler, arm and torso length, all affect the length of the paddle one should choose. I’m 6 feet 7 inches tall, and I can make a 240-centimeter paddle (about 94 inches) look pretty short. Those who are concerned with their paddle’s weight (“Let’s see, that’s 10,000 strokes at 2 pounds per stroke — that’s like heftin’ over ten TONS of weight, dude!”), will want to consider a shorter paddle for the mere weight of material alone.
Besides your size, the size of the boat matters — or more precisely, the beam or width of the boat. Wider boats such as tandems often require a slightly longer paddle shaft than you’d use to paddle solo.
Propelling a canoe with a double-bladed kayak paddle is becoming increasingly popular when solo canoeing. Longer, two-bladed paddles tend to offer the needed length to both reach out and down to the water from the higher center seat. Those who tend to kneel while paddling, reduce that reach even more.
Basically it comes down to personal preference with emphasis on a casual, broader cruising stroke or a more upright, right-angled power stroke as a key factor in selecting your preferred paddle length.
Try Different Lengths
In my mind, if a beginner starts out with too long a paddle, he or she often fails to develop a good rotating torso technique. And the shorter paddle, to be placed properly, tends to encourage the paddler to rotate. The longer shafts, however, make it easier to simply reach out and pull the paddle back using only the arms, with no rotation at all.
The difference between the average long (240 centimeter) paddle and the average short paddle (210 centimeter) is 30 centimeters or about 12 inches.
As with other technical aspects of kayaking, take the time to get out on the water and experiment paddling with several lengths. Seek the advice of seasoned paddlers — then, like most of these techniques – select the one that works best for you.
For an assortment of Paddles, click here.
Tom Watson is an award-winning writer who lived in Alaska for 16 years, 12 of which were on Kodiak Island. He is a frequent contributor to “Camping Life,” “Canoe & Kayak” magazines, author of three books:” Sixty Hikes within Sixty Miles of Minneapolis,” “Best Tent Camping-Minnesota,” both by Menasha Ridge Press, and “How to Think Like a Survivor,” by Creative Publishing International. He’s also an avid kayaker, camper, naturalist, writer, and photographer residing in western Minnesota. He will write a weekly column on camping tips for sportsmansguide.com.