Buying the right paddle for yourself is probably the most important purchase you are going to make in paddleboarding. There are several factors to consider when choosing a paddleboard paddle, like how long should it be, and what size blade should I get. But one thing that often gets overlooked is paddle flex.
When talking about paddle flex we are talking about the stiffness of the shaft. The blade of the paddle shouldn’t flex unless it’s constructed out of a soft plastic material. How much the shaft flexes depends on the material(s) it is made of, how it’s put together, and the strength of the paddler.
A lot of paddles are made with a mix of fiberglass, epoxy, and carbon fiber. These paddles can be good performers while still relatively light. Generally speaking, the more carbon fiber content a paddleboard paddle has, the stiffer and lighter it will be. Also, unidirectional carbon fiber will be less stiff than a paddle with carbon weave fiber.
Cheaper paddles can be made out of aluminum or some form of plastic. These will cost less but perform horribly and weigh a lot. There also quality wood paddles, but for the purposes of this post we will talk about the most common fiberglass/carbon fiber construction.
So why should we care about how stiff or flexible our paddle is going to be?
The stiffness of a paddle determines how much resistance we will have to overcome when pulling it through the water each time we take a stroke. The stiffer the paddle – the more effort it will take to pull it through the water. This is because the shaft stays relatively straight under the force you put on it so the maximum amount of surface area of the blade is pulling against the water.
A paddle that has a good amount of flex to it will bend more easily as it is pulled through the water. As it bends, the angle of the blade is diverted from straight up and down to a more forward position. So less surface area on the blade is in contact with the water. This releases water that would otherwise be caught with a stiffer paddle as a result, softer flexing paddles take less effort to pull through the water.
So what are the pro and cons?
Generally speaking, stiffer paddles will give you more power and drive because they allow your blade to catch and hold the most amount of water as you pull through your stroke. Experienced paddleboarders who race short to medium size courses usually like the stiffer paddles. On longer races they may be too stiff because of the extra effort you need to put in, but the high carbon content also makes them lighter, which will be a benefit.
Stiffer paddles will put more stress on your joints and softer connective tissues. If you have sore or injured shoulders, elbows or wrists you may want to opt for a less stiff paddle, at least until you’re in better shape.
Softer flexing paddles will make life easier on your back and joints. There won’t be as much tension building through your body as you paddle, and you may feel more relaxed. The softer flex also has a certain fluid “feel” to it that some people prefer- it’s not as hard and abrupt as the stiffer paddles.
On the downside, the softer flexing paddle is not as efficient as a stiffer paddle. Some of the effort you put into your stroke gets lost as more water is released from the blade. Also, the lower carbon fiber content may make them just a smidgen heavier.
Paddle stiffness is one piece of the puzzle when figuring out what paddle is best for you. Remember, the paddle is the single most import piece of equipment you will buy. Ask lots of questions, put some thought into what you want and don’t skimp!