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Native Paddle Dynamics
Native Paddle Dynamics

This little treatise is meant to apply to both Greenland and Aleut paddles. On this page, I mean to dispell some misconceptions about native paddles and also to sing their praises.

The comment I most often hear when people see a native paddle is that the paddle blades look too skinny to do much good. I usually tell them that they're wide enough to do the job. This is true of course but doesn't explain anything.

A little more longwinded retort to doubters would be that native paddles have the same blade surface area as the commercial paddles that they're used to seeing, but spread out over a greater length along the axis of the paddle. Perhaps this is true. The surface area of paddle blades varies from one to the next, but it is certainly possible to make long skinny blades with the same surface area as short wide ones.

When you pull a paddle straight back through the water, the resistance you feel is called drag. The bigger the surface area of your paddle, the greater the drag. This is what we would expect based on experience. But another factor affecting drag is the shape of the blade.

A long skinny blade with the same surface area as a short wide one has greater drag. The difference between the two paddles is that the long skinny one has a longer blade edge than short wide one. For a given surface area, a circular blade would have the shortest edge. So what does edge have to do with drag? If you think about it, water has to move past the paddle when you pull it trough the water, but it can't make a 90 degree turn when it comes to the edge of the paddle blade. Instead it has to take a wide turn around the edge. This wide turn in effect makes the paddle act as if it had more surface than it does. So more edge gives a paddle a greater effective surface area. I don't know that you would want to go into a lengthy discussion of this phenomenon with a casual critic at the beach, but now you know.

Paddle Speed

Getting the right paddle speed is comparable to selecting the right gear in which to paddle your bicycle. But there are some differences. The amount of thrust you can generate with a paddle depends in part on how fast you pull it through the water. And it isn't a linear relationship either. Thrust increases with the square of the speed. What this means for you as a paddler is that even if you have a fairly small paddle, you can get more speed out of it by moving it faster. There are limits to this, however.

The harder you pull your paddle through the water the greater the pressure in back of it and the lower the pressure in front. If the pressure in front of the paddle is low enough, air will get sucked down along the face of the blade and that will prevent you from getting any more thrust. The harder you pull, the more air you suck. This problem is worse with native paddles than with Euro paddles. You can plant a Euro paddle so the blade is completely in the water before applying any force on it. The deeper the blade is in the water before you start pulling, the less the chances of air getting pulled down the face of the paddle.

In general, the only time that air becomes a problem is when you are pulling harder on the paddle than normal, such as when accelerating from a start or when sprinting. And it is a problem only if your paddle is undersized for what you are trying to do.

More often, the problem is the opposite. People frequently paddle with paddles that are too big for them. Symptoms of this phenomenon are slow cadence and hands spaced unnaturally far apart on the loom. Hand spacing should not have to exceed the width of your boat.

Native Paddle Ergonomics

In my opinion, native paddles have superior ergonomics to most commercial plastic paddles. There are a number of reasons for this.

Native paddles are kinder to the paddler's joints, muscles and tendons. The reason is that they apply stress more gradually.

Native wooden paddles are more flexible than commercial plastic paddles. I don't think that commercial paddle makers arbitrarily set out to make stiff paddles. They simply have to overengineer them so that they can hold up to careless and abusive treatment that they are likely to get from a certain portion of their customers. Nobody wants people coming to the store asking for their money back because their paddle broke.

The greater flex of the native paddle helps to dampen sudden stresses on the paddler's joints, muscles and tendons.

The longer skinnier native paddles also apply load to the paddler's frame more gradually because the paddler is farther into the stroke before all of the blade is fully immersed. The shorter wider commercial paddles apply load much more suddenly since the short blade loads the paddler's frame almost right from the start of the paddle stroke.

Native paddles are invariably unfeathered, that is, the faces of both paddle blades are in the same plane. While feathered blades supposedly make the paddle less susceptible to wind, they also force the paddler to twist his/her wrists with every stroke. Many people have no problem with this at all, but some develop sore wrists. Switching to an unfeathered paddle often makes this problem go away.

I haven't done an extensive study of blade widths of native paddles vs. commercial recreational paddles, but simply from watching people paddling with commercial paddles, I get the impression that most of them are underpowered for the size of their paddles. Paddling with an oversized paddle is the equivalent of riding up a steep hill on a one speed bicycle which only has one high gear. Native paddles seem to be more reasonably sized. Paddlers with native paddles typically paddle with a higher cadence that applies less power with each stroke, but applies it more often.



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