How to Hold a Kayak Paddle

Determining a Kayak Paddle's Top, Feather, and Power Face

A Kayak Instructor Teaches His Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

Learning how to hold a kayak paddle one of the first and most important steps in learning how to kayak. Kayaking is a great way to get outside and experience the outdoors, and learning how to kayak can introduce you to a truly exhilarating experience. A big newbie mistake easily avoided is holding your paddle wrong, upside down, or even backward. The following steps will help you to understand how to properly grasp and hold a kayak paddle. 

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Know the Anatomy of a Kayak Paddle

A Kayak Instructor Teaches His Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

The main difference between canoeing and kayaking is the paddle, and so understanding the anatomy is critical. A kayak paddle, unlike a canoe paddle, has a long shaft with the rowing blade attached on either end. At rest, the paddle lays across the kayak; as you paddle your kayak, you balance and rock your grip along the shaft to dip each blade in the water and pull it through the current in turn. A full understanding of these parts and the design features that go into making a kayak paddle is important for both performance and ergonomic reasons. 

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Make Sure the Paddle Blades Face the Right Direction

A Kayak Instructor Teaches a Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

The faces of kayak paddle blades come in a variety of shapes and designs: Some are flat, others are curved, some are ribbed, others completely smooth. The concave side of a curved blade and the smooth side of a ribbed blade are known as the power face. Although it may not immediately seem to make a difference which side of the blade you use to pull your kayak through the water during the forward stroke, it does have a significant impact on the amount of power you can generate with your stroke. Keep the power faces of the paddle blades facing you.

The best way to visualize this is to picture the palm of your hand as a paddle. Keep your fingers and thumb together and ever so slightly curve your fingers inward. The palm of your hand represents the face of the paddle and the back of your hand represents back of the paddle. The curved face of the paddle works with the current of the water and that is the part you want to ​​pull through the water.

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Make Sure the Paddle Is Right Side Up

A Kayak Instructor Teaches a Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

Paddle blades also come in a variety of outlines: some are symmetrical​ so that both edges of the blade are shaped the same, while others are asymmetrical. The symmetry or lack of it affects how the water flows across the blade—symmtrical blades work best with vertical strokes, while asymmetrical blades work best with lower-angled strokes. There isn't a "right side" on a symmetrical paddle, so either side can be on the top, but if you have an asymmetrical paddle it is important that you hold the paddle as it was designed to be used.​

Although asymmetrical blades come in a wide variety of shapes, the top edge of an asymmetrical kayak paddle blade is always slightly longer than the bottom. Many manufacturers have placed their logos on the blade, so just remember to keep the logo facing in the upright direction, and you will be holding your paddle correctly.

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Feathering: Determine Your Control Grip

A Kayak Instructor Teaches His Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

Some kayak paddles are feathered, which means one blade is connected to the shaft at a different angle to the other, a bit like an airplane propeller. To check for feathering, lay your paddle on the ground, and look to see if one of the blades lies flat on the ground while the other is slightly angled upward. Feathered paddles can range between 15 and 60 degrees difference from right to left. Kayak paddles are said to be feathered for two reasons. The first is that feathering the upstroke blade makes it easier to paddle into the wind; the second is that feathering is easier on your wrist because you don't have to turn it as steeply while you are paddling.

Most paddles are right-handed, meaning that the right paddle is angled to be used as the upstroke. If the upstroke paddle is the right one, your control grip will be with your right hand, which doesn't change positions. When taking a kayaking stroke, allow the paddle to rotate and reposition in your "loose hand" the left one, to make sure that each paddle always enters the water smoothly.

Once you have become more familiar with what works for you, you can look for high-end paddles that you can take apart and adjust the angle of each blade to adapt the paddle balance as you like.

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Grasp and Hold the Paddle

A Kayak Instructor Teaches His Class
© 2008 by George E. Sayour

Go ahead and grab the paddle. Place your control grip on the shaft first. Then place your other hand on the paddle. Make sure that your hands are centered on the paddle shaft, and just over shoulder-width apart. If you were to put your paddle on top of your head while still holding on with both hands, your elbows should have a slightly smaller than a 45-degree angle. Your grip on the kayak paddle should not be too tight. If you can see the whites of your knuckles, you are holding the paddle too tight.

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