Traditional Paddles: Big Blades vs. Small Blades

What is a traditional paddle?

A traditional paddle typically has a long, narrow blade starting from a short loom or shaft. The blade will generally grow in width from the loom to the tip or shortly before the tip. The loom may be just a few hand widths in length to just outside the width of the user’s shoulders. Blade widths are often narrow enough to be comfortably gripped at any point.

While this is a reasonable general description, when you start researching various designs and styles of paddles considered to be “traditional” you’ll find a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some blades are rectangular while others are triangular in shape. There are some “traditional” styles that are no more than a few inches wide, while others reach widths very close to what you find in the more common “Euro” blades.

Typically, when someone asks me about a “traditional” paddle they are asking about what would be called a Greenland Paddle or possibly an Aleut/Aleutian Style paddle. These are the two different designs that come to mind for most people when the word “traditional” is applied to a kayak paddle.

A Greenland Paddle is symmetrical across the front power face and the back face of the blade. In other words, both sides of the blade are the same. They are usually slightly rounded. An Aleutian style paddle more commonly has a smooth or flat back face and the power face often has a pronounced ridge or dihedral on the power face. This ridge exists to reduce flutter or the subtle feeling of the paddle wanting to twist as the water runs over the face of the blade. The dihedral or ridge directs the flow of water over the blade surface making it feel more stable as it is pulled through the water. A well-crafted Greenland paddle, although it will lack a dihedral, should have little flutter.

Why are traditional paddles shaped the way they are?

There are numerous explanations for why traditional paddles are shaped as they are. You often hear, “Greenland paddles had to be narrow because they were made of driftwood.” That may be true, but the Inuit and other indigenous people made umiak oars with big blades. They were already using the mortice and tenon joint by the 11th century when the Vikings discovered Greenland.

Another great source is Harvey Golden’s book, Kayaks of Greenland. He writes, “It is interesting to note that some of the earliest preserved Greenland kayak paddles (1600s) are in fact much wider than examples dating from periods (e.g., today) where wide boards are plentiful and reasonably priced.”

Other explanations for the narrow blades are “indigenous peoples used their kayaks for hunting and fishing rather than recreation so their paddles were designed to provide stealth and optimum performance on the sea.” I’m not sure that a narrow blade is necessarily stealthier than a wide blade. The low angle paddling style certainly would be less visible above the water and might create less shadow or movement to anything under the kayak. I may have to pretend I’m a fish sometime and see if one blade style or paddling style alarms me more than the other when I’m under water.

I’m afraid we’ll never truly know why native people made paddles the way they did until we invent a time machine and can go back to see for ourselves. Until then it’s all speculation.

Sizing A Traditional Kayak Paddle

Traditional paddles aren’t so much sized as they are built to fit the user. There is a series of measurements that a builder will use to achieve the “right” length. If you start looking online at what these measurements are, or speak with someone who builds their own, you will likely find more than one “best” way to determine the proper length. The most common method uses a combination of arm span plus the distance from fingertips to elbow (cubit) to find the appropriate length. One builder states that the length “depends on your height, arm length, hand size, the width of your kayak, and personal taste.” Using those guidelines two paddles would likely end up being two very different lengths.

So, what size should you use, purchase, or have built for yourself? Just like sizing a more common “euro” style paddle you will most likely be okay within a length range. For instance, I feel perfectly fine using a kayak paddle between 200 and about 215 cm. I can and still do use a 220 cm from time to time. A longer paddle feels slow to me and alters my entry or catch. I start pushing the length beyond 220 and paddling feels awkward and my technique becomes sloppy. I have used kayak paddles up to 240 cm long in my narrow 21 ½ inch wide sea kayak and I know sea kayakers who use extremely long paddles, but they are a rare exception.

My advice is, if your new to paddling start with a paddle that allows you to reach up and curl your fingers over the top blade when the bottom blade is touching the floor. This will get you started with a comfortable paddle length. This would be my advice for either a “euro” or traditional paddle. As you spend time paddling be sure to try paddles of different lengths and blades of various widths so you can decide if you should add or subtract to what you are using.