Standup paddleboard (SUP) paddles come in many different shapes, flex patterns, blade sizes, materials and prices. Understanding some the basics behind sup paddle technology and construction will help you choose the right paddle for your style of paddling. Whether you are a strictly flat-water paddler, surfer, racer, downwinder or a jack-of-all-trades, there is a paddle out there that is designed for you.
SUP paddles are normally made out of fiberglass, carbon fiber, wood, aluminum or some combination thereof. The blades of the paddle can be made of the same material or a different material depending on their intended purpose. Fiberglass paddles are very common as they strike a balance between the heavier aluminum and wood paddles and the more expensive and ultra-light carbon fiber paddles. Some paddles combine fiberglass and carbon, infusing the paddle with the strength and lightness of carbon while keeping the price relatively affordable. Let’s take a closer look at these materials and what they offer in terms of performance, durability and price.
- Aluminum: Aluminum is often used on adjustable paddles because of how easily it slides in and out of the two halves of the shaft and for its durability. Aluminum paddles tend to be on the heavy side but they are very affordable.
- Fiberglass: Fiberglass is often used in the shaft and the blade of the paddle. It is moderately light, very durable with a moderately stiff flex and it can withstand impacts and heavy use.
- Wood: Wood paddles have a great feel to them with a soft flex that bends naturally with your stroke. They can be as light as carbon fiber but more often are a little heavier. The grain and blends of different types of wood make the paddles aesthetically beautiful. They do require the paddler to be more conscious of impacts and heavy use because they are more prone to being damaged.
- Carbon: Carbon paddles are very light and strong and have a range of flexes. The more carbon content in the paddle, the stiffer it is going to be. Paddle designers will often use varying amounts of carbon fiber in different areas of the paddle to concentrate where they want the shaft to flex and where they want it to be stiffer. Carbon is used in most performance-grade paddles.
So let’s talk about flex. A paddle will bend under your force as you pull it through the water during your stroke. Normally this bending will occur somewhere in the middle of the shaft but manufacturers can manipulate it to conform to whatever effect the paddle is tended to produce. In general terms, flex is more forgiving on the paddlers’ shoulders and arms. A stiffer paddle will offer more resistance as it’s pulled through the water thus demanding more energy from the paddler. The softer flexing paddle will allow more water to release as it travels through the water offering less resistance and in turn strain on the paddler. An interesting thing about paddle flex is that as the paddler finishes the stroke he/she the paddle will snap back to its original form, like a bow, and give the paddler a little boost in glide. This may seem imperceptible to beginners but over time one can feel it happening.
A stiff paddle, because it offers more resistance when traveling through water will also be more powerful than a softer flexing paddle. Racers often use stiff paddles because they will propel you faster ,giving you more bang for your buck so to speak. Surfers often use softer paddles because they don’t need the speed- a few quick and short strokes is often enough to get you up and on the wave.
In addition to flex, weight plays a big role in how much enjoyment you have out on the water. Obviously, the heavier your paddle the sooner you will tire. Adjustable paddles carry more weight because of the extra material and mechanisms involved which allow people of all different sizes to use them.
After choosing what type of flex you want in your sup paddle you will need to get the right blade. Generally, larger people will be able to move more water than smaller people. For them, a medium to large size blade will be a good choice. Petite women and children will want a smaller blade. Smaller blades are also good for people who paddle with short, quick strokes, or a high cadence. The smaller blade, offers a quick catch and release- that is, allows the blade to enter and depart the water easily. It also has a lower swing weight making it easier to move seemlessly from one stroke to the next.
Larger blades offer more resistance during the stroke and will allow you to paddle with more power since it is displacing more water. They are good for paddlers with long, smooth strokes or surfers who use them for bracing when turning into the side of a wave.
Blades also come in many shapes and materials. As with shafts, carbon blades will be more performance oriented and expensive, whereas, plastic or composite blades will be more durable and affordable. Less expensive blades will tend to wobble and flutter as you move through your stroke and does not feel very satisfying nor is it efficient.
The next step is to get your paddle cut to the proper length for your height. To fit yourself you will want the help of the shop employee. He will have you fully extend an arm straight up over your head. The handle will be placed at the point where your fingers fully wrap over the top of it. This is usually between 8-12 inches more than your height. This length will allow you to completely submerge the blade into the water while keeping your back straight and arms extended. Too short and you will be slumped over and exposing your back to injury. Too long and the paddle will force you to hold your arms up too high over your shoulders tiring your arms quickly and increasing the possibility of shoulder injuries.
When buying a paddle ask a knowledgeable shop employee about what will best fit your needs. Think about the types of paddling you to do as well as what kind of shape you are in. Remember stiffer paddles with larger blades will require more effort. There a lot of great paddle makers out there including Ke Nalu and Kialoawho make a paddle for everyone from weekend warriors to professionals. Check out their web sites to learn more about what they offer. Paddles are the other half of paddleboarding so make your first one a good one for you.