Saturday, November 28, 2015

Amateurish Thoughts on Picking a Race SUP Paddle

The Internet is full of good, scientific, professional-type guides on how to pick a SUP paddle. This is not one of those. Rather, it’s my personal, subjective thoughts on how I've picked my paddles, because Serghei Koval asked me if I would make a blog post about that topic.

The first time I ever stood erect on a windsurf board, sans sail, holding a paddle, was in 2007 in the outer banks, NC. It was a jiggered up canoe paddle. Even though it was longer than a normal canoe paddle it was too short to be effective for SUP. Plus, it was awkward and wiggly. As soon as the wind started to blow I put a sail back on the board and didn't touch a paddle for another year or so.

Later, confronted with a lot of windless conditions, I made some paddles of my own from cheap plastic kayak paddles and aluminum tubes from various sources, e.g., old pool dipnets. For the handles I used chunks of wood sawed into T shapes and duct taped on. Those got the job done but were a little heavy and wobbly and lacked the bent-back blade angle that I now know is important for efficient paddling. I also think I erred on the side of making the paddles too long.

I got my first real paddle when I got my first real paddleboard, an Angulo Surfa 10’4”, in Massachusetts in 2011. I was going to buy a cheap adjustable aluminum and plastic paddle, but Josh Angulo sold me on a fixed-length carbon fiber paddle and I was glad for that. It was a lot lighter than anything I’d used before. The shape and angle of the paddle blade were good for efficiently grabbing water, in what I later learned was called the “catch” phase of the paddle stroke. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Angulo paddle blade had elements that made it very forgiving: 1) A rounded outline and a moderate “aspect ratio” (not too short and wide, nor too long and narrow) made it easy to get in and out of the water. 2) A pronounced “dihedral” in the face of the blade prevented wobble during the “power” phase of the stroke. 3) An ample but not excessive blade surface area (97 in^2) helped get a solid catch. 4) An oval shaft facilitated a stable grip.

I was content with the Angulo paddle until I started racing in summer 2014. The first thing I thought about changing was the length of the shaft, which I had realized was a lot longer than most people my height were using. So I cut it down and and re-glued the handle such that I could reach up and grip the handle with a slightly bent elbow while standing the paddle on the ground. The shorter shaft helped me go faster by encouraging me to do more work with my body and legs instead of just whipping the long paddle around with my arms and shoulders.

Another thing that made me question whether my Angulo paddle was set up right for me was comparing my speeds with it to my speeds with a heavy “Epic” brand aluminum and plastic adjustable paddle that I'd bought so my wife could sup with me. (I'd give her the good paddle and take the bad one because I'm nice like that.) I found that even though the Epic paddle was heavier and felt slower, my speeds with it were indistinguishable from my speeds with the Angulo. I figured that might have been because the Epic had a really big, flat blade that helped me get a solid catch and stronger, more heavily-weighted stroke. I thought that if I could combine the light weight of the Angulo paddle with whatever aspects of shape made the heavy Epic paddle work well for me, I’d have a worthy upgrade. Towards that end I started trying out the demo paddles at CGT kayaks and paddleboards.

I tried a HippoStick AL 8.0, a HippoStick AL 8.5, and a Riviera Vantage 8.0. To be honest, my speeds with all three of those paddles were statistically indistinguishable from my speeds with the Angulo and the Epic. I.e., the amount that my speed varies just depending on how I’m feeling, the weather, and other random factors is more than my speed varied from the different paddles. (It’s a common problem with testing SUP equipment- unless the benefits of the new equipment are huge, they’re really hard to detect.) Even though I didn’t have strong quantitative data to justify one paddle over the others, I had some “qualitative” data- my thoughts about how the paddles felt.

Hippostick 8.0: This one had a low aspect ratio and relatively small, flat blade. It was really easy to get in and out of the water, which would be good if you had a “fast cadence” paddling style. But it didn’t seem to “catch” in the water very solidly, which was my complaint about the Angulo, so I ruled it out.

Hippostick 8.5: This paddle had a similar shape to the other Hippostick, but with LOTS more surface area. It had a great “catch” and also a pretty good “release” at the end of the stroke. I felt like I had great acceleration with this paddle. On my test run with it I went really fast for the first half of the course, then got wicked tired on the second part. Tired both aerobically and in my muscles. It might have just been from not pacing myself well, but I thought it might also be a symptom of the blade being too big for me to handle.

Riviera Vantage 8.0: This wasn’t a miracle paddle or anything, but it suited me. I liked that it had a very solid catch, like the Hippostick 8.5, but had a somewhat smaller surface area and didn’t seem to give me the muscle tiredness quite as bad. The only disadvantage was that it was a bit harder to withdraw cleanly from the water, maybe due to the squarish tip and other shape features that helped it get such a good catch. I bought this paddle and started using it all the time. Did it make me faster? Maybe. Sort-of. After a while. Perhaps by helping me get a good catch it encouraged me to develop a stronger pull, making better use of all my available strength, weight, and leverage. And perhaps by being lightweight it allowed me to whisk the paddle around quickly between strokes and get more strokes per minute.

Eh, I really don’t know, though. Looking back over my data now it’s very hard to see any consistent sign of one paddle being faster than another, even including the old heavy aluminum paddle that felt like crap. I think as long as the shaft isn’t way too long or way too short, the handle is on straight, and you’re able to get a good catch and a smooth stroke, your paddle is OK. Then again, maybe it’s that I still haven’t found the really perfect paddle match for me, and if I did find it I’d see an obvious speed benefit.


While the search for an obviously faster paddle has so far been inconclusive, I’ve tried a couple of things recently that I liked a lot even though I have no data on whether or not they actually made me faster. One was the Riviera “bump” paddle, which has a raised texture on the shaft so your hands don’t slip as much when they get sweaty. Another grippy paddle I tried was a KeNalu paddle that has a “snakeskin” grip formed by partially exposed carbon cloth weave. Any kind of grip on the paddle is better than the totally smooth glossy finish on most of them.

Another thing I have NOT tried that might also help is a more flexible paddle shaft. According to some people the more flexible shaft is less fatiguing on your joints and muscles and can make you faster over the long run- Perhaps even over the short run.

If any of you readers have had big breakthroughs in your own paddle choices, I’d be curious to know, especially if you know for sure you found something that makes you faster.

1 comment:

chris said...

I am a quickblade guy. I found the Trifecta 97in a great fit for most conditions. I'm 200lbs. And pretty strong and fit. its great for surf as well as race. It's designed to have a light catch and solid through the power phase. Something that has saved my joints. I've toyed with bigger blades and v-drives. Too much grip on the water for me. The better the grip on the water the more anaerobic your stroke becomes. I've found I can recover from aerobic fatigue with a few deep breaths. But anaerobic fatigue leads to a bonk.
So strength is certainly crucial, but your aerobic fitness is key. Also, more strokes per minute almost always translates to faster times. So keep that in mind. As for my own breakthrough, I often suffer from sweaty hands and grip fatigue. At the half way point of a race I always lose grip strength and often went over the handlebars when my bottom hand suddenly slips. My hand slides up the paddle shaft and my body goes in the drink! When I discovered using surf wax on my paddle shaft to add a soft but solid grip my racing and traing improved immediately. If you suffer from grip fatigue give it a shot. It was a game changer for me.
I'm sure any surf wax will due, but Onit Pro markets a formula made for paddle shafts.

Hope that helps! Have fun!