Kayak paddles were initially feathered to provide less wind resistance for the blade that is moving forward through the air. With a feathered paddle, this blade is slicing forward through the air, while an unfeathered paddle will be pushing air with the full blade surface. This is especially noticeable when paddling into a headwind. When feathered paddles first began showing up at races, those using these paddles performed better, especially in headwind races. Therefore, nearly all racers switched to feathered paddles for greater efficiency.
On the first feathered paddles, the blades were offset at 90 degrees. This provides the most efficiency for the returning blade. However, using a full 90-degree feather requires a large amount of wrist action, and many paddlers were unable to twist the paddle enough to give a square pull on the water on both sides of the stroke. Therefore, paddlers began feathering their paddles at angles less than 90 degrees. Today virtually nobody uses a full 90-degree feather — most use 80 degrees or less.
Left or Right
Paddle blades can be feathered either right control or left control. The paddle is gripped solidly with the control hand and allowed to rotate in the non-control hand. There is no advantage to one side or the other for control. Many years ago, the common thought was that if you are right-handed, you should use a left control paddle, and if you are left- handed, you should use a right control paddle. There is no solid basis for this theory; instead, you should use whichever feels more comfortable to you. In fact, for most people, there is no difference. They will adapt to whatever paddle they are given when they are learning. In the U.S., most people use right control paddles. Therefore, you will find it much easier to find paddles, or to share paddles with your friends, if you use a right control paddle. If you find that you are having difficulty feathering a right control paddle, then you may consider trying left control or an unfeathered paddle.
To feather or not to feather? There are many people with strong feelings on both sides of this subject. The following are reasons why you may want to consider using an unfeathered paddle.
- For beginners, it is easier to learn with an unfeathered paddle.
- Unfeathered paddles do not require wrist rotation and put less strain on the wrist.
- Unfeathered paddles do not "dive" or "fly up" in the wind.
- While an unfeathered paddle is initially easier to use, most people can quickly adapt to a feathered paddle.
- Therefore, reason number 1 is only valid for novices or those who do not plan to do much paddling.
There is considerable debate over reason number 2. My experience has shown wrist strain to be a concern for infrequent paddlers or those who suddenly increase their mileage significantly. This would be the case for someone who paddles once a week (or less) for 30–40 minutes then goes on a week-long kayaking trip where they are paddling several hours per day. Paddlers who go out regularly in their kayaks, and who gradually build up their mileage, usually do not have wrist problems with a feathered paddle. Top racers paddle thousands of miles per year with feathered paddles and rarely suffer wrist problems. The bottom line is that you should use what feels best to you. If you are experiencing tendonitis in your control wrist and notice it goes away with an unfeathered paddle, then that may be a good choice for you.
Which way is the wind blowing?
When paddles are feathered at angles less than 90 degrees, the blade on the control side will tend to dive or get blown downward in a head wind. The blade on the opposite side will tend to get blown upward. This effect is the most pronounced at a 45-degree feather angle.
In side-wind conditions, the blade on the windward side of a feathered paddle will tend to get blown upward. This is more pronounced at higher feather angles and with vertical paddling styles. Therefore, it is a benefit to lower your arms and use a lower push in a side wind. This technique modification will also help in a headwind.
How much feather?
The final decision is how much feather angle to use? A higher feather angle will be more efficient because the returning blade pushes less air. A lower feather angle requires less wrist action. 60 degrees is a common setting, but you may find you'll be comfortable with something else. Experiment both higher and lower, and use the setting that best suits your paddling style and personal feel.
So what settings do most people use?
In our 2010 Surfski.info Readers Survey we asked a couple of questions about paddle set. Here they are, with the answers:
Do you have a left or right-hand twist to your paddle?
What angle do you set the feather?
Finally, we also asked what length do you set your paddle?
This article was first published on www.epickayaks.com. Our thanks to Epic and Greg Barton for giving us permission to reproduce it.