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.

Is A Skinny Blade Better?

Is it better to use a narrow, longer blade or a shorter, wider blade? This question or a close variant, is one I get asked frequently. And just like overall paddle length there is no simple answer. What is better depends on many factors such as your paddling style, your goals, your body type, and your physical abilities. You should also factor in the type of kayak you paddle and where you paddle it. Different blade shapes and paddle styles will be “better” for different people at different times and in different situations.

So why do kayakers use traditional paddles? In a nutshell, a traditional paddle is often used to reduce fatigue and stress on joints. This reduction in energy and stress occurs because a narrower blade creates less resistance when it is being pulled through the water. For many paddlers a traditional paddle or a narrow bladed paddle is simply easier to use than a wide bladed paddle. The paddling style requires the hands to remain low, maintaining a low shaft angle and a faster cadence. For many this reduces stress on the shoulders and fatigue in the arms and forearms.

Many people also find rolling and bracing easier to do with a traditional paddle. A traditional paddle typically has more buoyancy and will create natural lift when swept or pulled through the water. This added buoyancy and lift often provides excellent feedback about blade orientation helping individuals roll and brace.

Being narrow along the full length of the paddle allows the grip to be shifted. A traditional paddle can be gripped anywhere, which is a great advantage. Sliding your hands to one end of the paddle will provide additional length or reach on the opposite side of the kayak. That extra reach produces a great deal of leverage making them well suited for powerful sweep strokes, a variety of rolls and solid braces.

A traditional paddle is not generally considered to be ideal for generating maximum power and acceleration. While some may argue that a traditional paddle can maintain equivalent speed once a kayak is brought up to maximum speed, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone claim that it will produce equivalent power or acceleration. Accelerating and generating power in a kayak comes from setting a solid anchor point with the paddle blade and a narrow blade isn’t likely to be the best for this.

Summary & Observations

I believe no paddle style can simply be called the “best.” There are better paddle styles for different situations and for different abilities and body types. Often, what you’ll find to be “best” will be what you are used too.

I have no interest in trying to prove that a “euro” blade is better than a narrow Greenland style blade or convince anyone that a kayak can be paddled just as fast with a small blade as it can be paddled with a big blade. What I will do is conclude with a few observations and statements I’ve heard over the years and let you draw your own conclusions.

Wing blades are only better at doing a forward stroke and only if the forward stroke is done correctly. They are best when used with a kayak that is built for speed and going forward in a straight line.

A narrow blade will only reduce fatigue and feel easier to use if the paddling style and technique being used is correct for that blade style.

While Wing blades were originally used primarily by sprinters, they are now the blade of choice for most adventure racing teams. Adventure races aren’t sprints. So trained athletes have the physical capacity to use big blades and a solidly anchored paddle over long distances.

Olympic caliber or world class racing kayakers are superior athletes, trained to maximize efficiency and power. They will be able to do things most people can’t. Look up the Finlandia Clean Water Challenge as an example.

There’s nothing wrong with carrying and using two types of paddles. Use a Greenland if you like and carry a “euro” on your back deck as a spare or vice versa. Just be sure to get comfortable with both styles.

What you believe is often true for you. If you believe it’s easier to paddle with a specific blade width or style, then it probably is. You don’t have to justify your paddle choice to anyone.

Paddling at a specific speed is a choice not a requirement. It’s sometimes important to have an extra burst of power or speed but there is no minimum speed limit on the water. If you like to float, float. If you like to try to create a wake everywhere you go, by all means do so.

To wrap this all up I’d like to include an analogy of a forward stroke provided by Greg Barton. Greg Barton is an Olympic Gold medalist, winner of the Finlandia Clean Water Challenge, among many other things. After reading it maybe it will help you decide what style paddle blade you want to use.

pretend that you’ve got this big old rowboat that’s out in front of you and you’re actually suspended just above the water behind it pushing it forward with your feet. So, you’re grabbing this pole and trying to push the boat forward with your feet. And there’s another pole on the other side and you do the same thing with that. If you think of it that way it really helps to get the forward force on the legs. 

- Greg Barton

Happy paddling!

Jeff Holmes

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