Whitewater SUP Paddles
Let's talk whitewater SUP paddles. In particular, let's discuss blade shapes, paddle length, and adjustability.
As SUP has moved inland from the coast, paddle designs are adapting to the change of environment. In this Blog post I look to three paddle brands I believe have been instrumental in bringing paddle boarding to the river. Kialoa began on the Hawaiian islands making outrigger paddles but is now based in Central Oregon where some of the best whitewater in the country can be found. Sawyer, also from Oregon, and Werner are brands who have been making terrific kayaking paddles for years and know whitewater.
(Note: I am an ambassador for Kialoa. My loyalty towards them shouldn't skew the focus of this conversation, however.)
Traditional SUP blades are a teardrop shape with a forward angle. This allows for consistent reach and pull, propelling the paddler forward similar to a swimming stroke. With this shape you can surf and brace fine, but it's mostly about forward momentum. In swift water, there is more to paddling than simply moving forward. Steering, ruddering, prying, feathering, dynamic bracing, and stroking are all part of the paddling experience. As such, the traditional tear drop has been modified, becoming longer and more squared off. The forward angle tends to be less dramatic, and in some cases is gone completely resembling the "guide stick" of paddle rafting.
The Werner Legend 99 is seen by some as the "gold standard" for swiftwater SUP. Many top river surfers and whitewater paddlers use this model. Its long rectangular blade shape allows for bracing, digging deep in an eddy line, and skimming the surface in shallow water. Though narrow, the blade keeps its shape from tip to throat. This gives variability in the paddle stroke. The blade is spooned, reducing the angle resembling a straight blade while still allowing for a good reach. (Follow the links for information on materials used and the brand's selling points. I'm simply focused on the shape here.)
Also by Werner, the Stinger is a novel shape and is completely straight. Its tapered tip is intended for precise placement in technical whitewater. Having no angle to the blade, it is best for fast moving water where there is more emphasis on directional paddling than maintaining forward momentum. Given how unique it is, people either love it or hate it. Those who love it paddle it in the conditions it was intended for, steering, prying, etc, like a paddle raft guide.
Sawyer's whitewater paddle is the Venom. Like the Werner Stinger, the Venom is straight for the same reasons. Raft guides who are familiar with leverage will appreciate a straight SUP paddle. And like the Stinger, it's wider closer to the throat than the tip. This should allow for high RPMs with a shallow stroke, and more power when paddling deeper. Though I have yet to paddle the Venom, I know very skilled paddlers who swear by it. The Venom is unique in it's aesthetics, using wood as well as fiberglass and carbon. (Again, follow the links for more information on materials and selling points.)
Kialoa is embracing whitewater while sticking to their roots. The Insanity Swift remains a teardrop shape. Hey, why reinvent the wheel, ah? As such, a paddler transitioning into whitewater will be comfortable with a familiar feel. With most of the volume in the lower third of the blade, the "sweet spot" is easily found. Power, cadence, and bracing are all reliable with this traditional shape. It is the material of the blade that is making it a sought after paddle. The Insanity Swift "features a Fiberglass Fibrlite™ blade. The durability and impact resistance of these blades is unmatched while offering light weight, stiff and high performance feel." (Quoted from the Kialoa site.) I have not been gentle with my paddles. I don't have to be.
You will see the Kialoa Fibrlite™ technology in the paddles of SUP board companies like Hala which brands it the Hala Grafik.
I am happy to be testing prototype designs for new Kialoa blades. Pictured below with the green shaft is one such blade that is influenced by kayaking and rafting. It is an experiment in length and tapering. Keeping the durability of Fibrlite™ it does away with the traditional teardrop shape. The hours I have spent with this paddle have made me realize the value of a longer length blade. The length is really appreciated when peeling in and out of eddies and making ferry crossings. Simply bury the blade, hold tight, and the board is moved by the current. Will we see this blade or something similar in the Kialoa catalog? Perhaps. I hope so.
As far as paddle length goes, whitewater athletes are opting for shorter and shorter. In turbulent water making technical moves, the paddler tends to be squatting with a wide stance. Maneuvering is often more critical than momentum, where steering is performed low and close to the feet. A longer, more traditional length SUP paddle will require the grip to be high above the head potentially leading to shoulder injuries.
As river paddlers become more advanced they adopt the athletic stance. Power from the legs and core give greater leverage than paddling upright. Unlike SUP flatwater racers who are hunched over for most of their events, river runners will be in a squat position in rapids with an upright spine. A shorter paddle helps keep that position.
I prefer fixed length paddles because they are lighter with less stuff to break. This means my whitewater paddles are relatively short, 68"s. I'm 5'7, so my 68" paddle is just above my own height. However, if I were to use a paddle that is tapered at the tip like the Stinger or Venom or the Kialoa prototype, the overall length will be taller to offset deeper paddling.
River touring doesn't need such a short paddle. That's where it's nice to have an adjustable paddle. The Kialoa Utili-T™ T-Grip Leverlock adjustable paddle is a locking mechanism built into the grip. This does away with the more common way to make adjustable paddles with the ugly clamps around the shaft, or the buttons and holes which whistle in the wind and always seem wiggly. Other brands have begun licensing this technology into their own paddles.
Paul Clark is “the duffel bag paddle boarder” and adventure SUP correspondent based in Bend, Oregon. Visit www.suppaul.com for media, photography, and adventure paddle boarding resources.