A kayak paddle generally has a blade at both ends of a shaft. The different variations of paddles differ primarily in the length and width of their blade and the length of their shaft. The “standard” paddle that purchased by most kayakers is often referred to as a Euro paddle. This is to differentiate from traditional paddles such as the Greenland paddle.
1. Wing paddle
The wing paddle has a blade which is airfoil shaped. The forward stroke is very vertical with the lower hand moving out to the side. These paddles are designed for very efficient racing and are optimized for going straight and fast. They are not that good for bracing.
Wing paddles occupy the extreme high-end of Euro paddles. They were created by flatwater racers for racing. Today, all serious flatwater racers use wing paddles.
Like any other Euro paddle, there is a shaft with distinct blades. The blades, however, are bizarre.
The wing paddle blades have large areas to maximize the forces they exert on the water. They are spoon-shaped and have an airfoil profile. During the stroke, the paddle moves away from the boat and hydrodynamic lift builds in the forward direction to increase the efficiency of the stroke.
If you look more closely at a wing paddle, you’ll see that the blades usually have a slight twist and are bent up away from the shaft. The twist gives the paddle a tendency to push out away from the boat during the stroke. It may also contribute to a better angle of attack as the twist accomodates the increase in blade velocity relative to the water outboard. The bend gives the stroke a more powerful catch.
For high speed cruising and awesome power on a forward stroke, the wing paddle is without peer. They are not general-purpose paddles, however, since you can’t do all strokes with a wing paddle. They are great for forward strokes, rolling, reverse strokes, low braces, sweep strokes and rudder strokes. Sculling strokes range from difficult to impossible and you can forget about most high braces or any form of draw stroke.
Wing paddles are not for everyone. If you are a fit paddler who likes high speed cruising, you might want to give one a try. In a fast boat, you’ll leave everyone else far behind when you use a wing paddle. Once you get used to a wing paddle, other paddles feel mush and sloppy.
There are significant downsides to the wing paddle.
The wing paddle is unforgiving. If you are sloppy with your strokes, the paddle will act very strangely. Its not unusual for novice wing paddlers to have the paddle rip out of their hands during a sloppy forward stroke. This may not be considered a downside though, as it teaches novice paddlers the proper technique.
Rolling is great, but if you have the angle wrong on the setup, the roll will fail miserably. Also, wing paddle strokes are aggressive and may be tiring for a long day of paddling. Finally, wing paddles are not used by many people, so they tend to be very expensive, specialty paddles.
Even with all these downsides, I know many paddlers (myself included) who obtained wing paddles for racing but over time made the wing their paddle of choice general sea kayaking as well. Its hard to go back to “wimpy” normal paddles once you get used to the power from a wing.
2. Aleut Paddle
The Aleut double bladed kayak paddle is similar in shape to a Greenland paddle, except that the front and back faces are asymmetrical. The back face is nearly flat, while the front, or power face often had a pronounced ridge the length of the blade. Sometimes this ridge had a groove cut into it, and also running the length of the blade. Aleut paddles are as varied (or more varied) than Greenlandic paddles.
3. Greenland Paddle
A traditional kayak paddle developed by the Inuit peoples of Greenland. Typically made out of one piece of wood, this style of paddle has a relatively long and narrow paddle blade that smoothly grows out of a short loom (term used for these paddles instead of shaft). The loom ranges from several hand-width’s wide (a storm paddle) to over a shoulder-width wide. The blades are gently and continuously tapered either to the tip or to several inches below the tip. The width of the paddle is sized so that you can grip them at any point.
Many modern users of the Greenland Paddle build their own paddles. Plans can be found for building a Greenland Paddle several places on the internet. Techniques vary from laminated blanks to simple carving of a pine 2×4. Many Greenland-style paddlers in the U.S. prefer to use quarter-sawn western red cedar. Finishes on the GPs tend toward the natural, with tung, linseed and other oils being the main finish used.
A GP generates impressive lift when the paddle is swept through the water or used in a sculling motion (leading edge held slightly high). Combined with the generous buoyancy of the paddles, direct feedback about paddle blade orientation, the ability to grip them anywhere, and their symmetry, this makes them a very effective tool for rolling and bracing.
Many users of the paddle find they can move their kayak just as quickly with a GP as a Euro paddle over any distance. While the Euro paddle may give some advantage to parts of the whitewater skill set where intense effort must be applied over a few seconds, the same benefit does not occur in traveling several miles. Once lactic acid begins to build up in the muscles, the paddler is limited to their aerobic capacity. The GP is found by most to give enough resistance to allow reaching the aerobic capacity and also displacement hull speed.
4. Euro paddle
The Euro paddle has a shaft and distinct blades. A Euro paddle is great for rapid acceleration and is universally favored for whitewater and surf paddling. Whitewater and surf kayakers will wonder why anyone is saying euro paddle instead of just paddle. The term “Euro paddle” has been arbitrarily coined to distinguish this style of paddle from Greenland paddles.
Beyond these comments, there are too many variations to list here. Blades may be symmetrical, or assymetrical, spooned or flat and may have a pronounced dihedral angle. Shafts may be bent or straight.
The bottom line is that different paddlers have different preferences and any generalizations are difficult to defend.
Many people prefer long narrow blades with low surface areas for touring. The idea is that if you are going to make thousands of strokes throughout the day, you want the stress with each stroke to be lessened. For whitewater, high speed cruising and surf, wide blades with high surface area seem to be prefered. These blades provide much greater resistance.
The blades are frequently offset with respect to each other (i.e. feathered) or in a single plane (unfeathered). Over time, the offset angle most paddlers use has decreased from 90 degrees to 60 degrees and in some cases even 30 degrees. Using a feather angle of less than 50 or 60 degrees eliminates the advantage of reducing wind resistance (one of the original reasons given for feathering). Most users of this kind of paddle use feathered blades.
You should play around with different feather angles and use whatever offset feels most natural for you. Whether you choose feathered or unfeathered, stick with it. Bracing and rolling skills are highly instinctive, and switching feather angles constantly may weaken those instincts. If you change, commit to changing for a whole season.